Saturday, April 15, 2006

Why "Peak Oil" Is Hooey

and other unorthodoxies.
Energy is complex, and I don't want to oversimplify, but I pretty much have to because I don't have the time to write and you don't have the patience to read the 200-page monograph that ought to answer claims "peak oil", energy shortages, and similar bugaboos.
First, some descriptions of reality.
Are petroleum reserves dwindling? Indubitably. Most likely Thomas Gold is wrong, and we're not laying down new oil beds constantly - so we will run out of oil someday if we pump it to the last drop. (We won't.)
Do we have 20, or 30, or 40 years of oil left, or whatever figure-of-the-day is being bandied about by doomsingers? Hardly.
The pace of oil discoveries is dwindling. This is because the low-hanging fruit has been found. Now it starts to get more expensive and more difficult to find each new field - but we are still finding new fields, albeit at a reduced rate.
Is China ramping up its oil consumption? Yes, tremendously so. This is actually probably a good thing in terms of the oil economy, as it means there is a new source of demand. The relatively flat level of consumption - we've all got cars, and how many miles can you drive in a year? - has meant stagnation in the development of new oil extraction technologies, because it looked like those technologies wouldn't be needed for a loooooong time. Now it looks like they'll be needed within the time frame that corporations can operate in, so I'd expect to see a big surge in oil shale tech research. (World oil shale and sand reserves are estimated at 14,000 billion barrels. The US has 2,000 billion. If the world uses 10 times the amount of oil it now uses, we run out of oil from shale around 2200 AD.)
So the sky is not falling.
But for fun, let's pretend that the sky is falling. Let's pretend that all the oil will be gone, not 34 years from now, but 10 years from now. Gas won't be $4 a gallon, it will be $12 a gallon. The moon will be red as blood, and dogs and cats will join in conjugal union. George Lucas will direct a movie that does not suck.
Big freaking deal. We find new fuels. Hydrogen vehicles are 5 years from commercially-feasible prototypes, maybe less. In 10 years - let alone 34 - they'll be economically competitive and then some. (In fact, the development of hydrogen technologies is likely to shut down oil production for fuel use long before any shortage.)
Hydrogen is an energy distribution technology, of course, not an energy source itself. So that means that development of energy production capacity will be a critical component to making a hydrogen economy work.
But energy production capacity is a solved problem. It's not a PERFECT situation, but we know perfectly well how to build the solar plants and the wind farms and the nuke plants and the coal plants and the orbital microwave stations. We just have to do it. We're not doing it now because there isn't a market for the power that those stations will produce - there won't be until we stop burning the oil and start burning the H2. Basically, whether we go hydrogen or develop oil shale is an economic question - which is cheaper, learning to extract oil shale efficiently or building a hydrogen economy. I'm betting H2, as are most oil companies, but we'll see.
The hysteria of the oily chicken littles is exactly the same as the hysteria of a teenage kid whose dad is about to retire. "The figures show your income dropping by 50 percent! We'll STARVE TO DEATH! The neighbors will take our furniture! We have no manufacturing base left!" Yeah, but there's a lot of stuff you don't know about, kid. 401(k)s, for starters.
We will adjust to changing economic circumstances as time goes on. Those adjustments may sometimes be painful, although there is literally nothing in the energy situation per se that would lead any rational observer to believe there will be pain in this transition. If anything, hydrogen cars are going to be way vrooooooooom cooler than boring gas vehicles.
Here's the sentence in oil-is-doomed propaganda that you have to watch for:
"...Within the coming few years, the era of cheap unlimited energy is expected to come to a close"
That's what this is really all about. The fact that individual people have access to cheap energy that is (practically) unlimited drives a certain species of control freak absolutely insane. People who have access to cheap energy can live out in the wilderness, far away from social control. People who have access to cheap energy aren't afraid of political change. People who have access to cheap energy aren't dependent upon a political class for the necessities of life.
Leftoid environmentalists, central planners, and other fans of undemocratic authority have been pounding the "no more cheap energy!" drum for the last fifty years, at least. It's not a prediction for them.
It's a policy platform.

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