Friday, August 22, 2008

The Conclusions Were Overwealming: Robert Hirsh on Peak Oil

Dr. Robert Hirsh is an energy economist who was commissioned by the United States Department of Energy to examine the problem of peak oil. His 2005 report, "Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management" paints a dark picture of our energy future. You can listen David Room of Global Public Media interviewed Robert Hirsch on his report in November 2008. Here is a transcript.

An Executive Summery of the Hirsh Report can be found here
.

From the Executive Summery:

Important observations and conclusions from this study are as follows:

1. When world oil peaking will occur is not known with certainty. A fundamental problem in predicting oil peaking is the poor quality of and possible political biases in world oil reserves data. Some experts believe peaking may occur soon. This study indicates that “soon” is within 20 years.

2. The problems associated with world oil production peaking will not be temporary, and past “energy crisis” experience will provide relatively little guidance. The challenge of oil peaking deserves immediate, serious attention, if risks are to be fully understood and mitigation begun on a timely basis.

3. Oil peaking will create a severe liquid fuels problem for the transportation sector, not an “energy crisis” in the usual sense that term has been used.

4. Peaking will result in dramatically higher oil prices, which will cause protracted economic hardship in the United States and the world. However, the problems are not insoluble. Timely, aggressive mitigation initiatives addressing both the supply and the demand sides of the issue will be required.

5. In the developed nations, the problems will be especially serious. In the developing nations peaking problems have the potential to be much worse.

6. Mitigation will require a minimum of a decade of intense, expensive effort, because the scale of liquid fuels mitigation is inherently extremely large.

7. While greater end-use efficiency is essential, increased efficiency alone will be neither sufficient nor timely enough to solve the problem. Production of large amounts of substitute liquid fuels will be required. A number of commercial or near-commercial substitute fuel production technologies are currently available for deployment, so the production of vast amounts of substitute liquid fuels is feasible with existing technology.

8. Intervention by governments will be required, because the economic and social implications of oil peaking would otherwise be chaotic. The experiences of the 1970s and 1980s offer important guides as to government actions that are desirable and those that are undesirable, but the process will not be easy.

Mitigating the peaking of world conventional oil production presents a classic risk management problem:

• Mitigation initiated earlier than required may turn out to be premature, if peaking is long delayed.

• If peaking is imminent, failure to initiate timely mitigation could be extremely damaging.

From the Interview with David Room.

"There is no question in my mind that peaking is going to occur within the next 10 or 15 years, so if depletion is as high as some people think it is, we are in a very very serious serious problem, much worse than the worst that we considered in the past. This problem is truly frightening; this problem is like nothing I have ever seen in my lifetime, and the more you think about it, and the more you look at the numbers, the more uneasy any observer gets, its so easy to sound alarmist - and I fear that part of what I am saying may sound alarmist - but there simply is no question that the risks here are beyond anything that any of us have ever dealt with, and the risks to our economies and our civilization are enormous and people dont want to hear that, I don't want to think about that...thats a very uncomfortable thing to think about. And I tell you that it took some time, after the realization had set in to be able to emerge and try to be positive and constructive about this problem; this is really an incredibly difficult and incredibly severe problem."- Robert Hirsh

10 comments:

Warren Heath said...

Charles, this is my take on the impending Peak Oil Crisis, and what I firmly believe are a series of well thought out scams, to prevent any real solutions to the Crisis from being realized.

There is a lot of gullible people in this world. Tell me you guys, just what does wind turbines have to do with the coming Peak Oil crisis, and reliance on Oil Imports from unstable regions? Can’t you see that Electric Power is almost entirely domestic energy supply, whether Coal, NG or Nuclear? Oil only supplies 1.3% of US electricity supply. And what NG is imported, is from Canada and Mexico, part of the North American free trade zone.

And Pickens NG plan is also just plain stupid. The US has only enough NG reserves to fuel the Transportation sector for 7.1 years, and that would cut off 22% of US electricity fuel and about half of the US home/commercial/industrial heat energy. Curious how Gore & Pickens don’t mention electric vehicles. Curious how Shell Oil, Chevron, Pickens, and British Petroleum have swamped magazines and websites with expensive advertisements touting Biofuels, Hydrogen, Wind Energy and Solar Energy – nothing on the only REAL SOLUTIONS, namely Nuclear Power, Electricification of Transport and Methanol/DME burned in extreme efficiency engines. Can’t you guys see that this is just another scam, a red herring, to misdirect resources and funding from REAL SOLUTIONS? Haven’t you learned anything from how the Oil Interests managed to kill the California Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, by claiming H2 Fool Cell vehicles – were just around the corner – 8 yrs ago and they’re still saying the same thing today? So after informed bloggers have blown the H2 scam out of the water, as utter nonsense, Fossil Fuel Interests turned to the Biofuels Scam – predominately Corn Ethanol, and we’re all paying dearly for that monstrous child-killing scheme. Now that the Hideous Effects of that Evil Scheme have become apparent, they have tried the Clean Coal scam – which is also getting exposed – after the dismal failure of the billion dollar FutureGen fantasy Clean Coal Power Plant. And now they are turning to their best scam of all, Mega-Wind, Mega-Solar. Has nothing whatsoever to do with our dependence on Oil from unstable regions or the Peak Oil problem, or the loss of jobs and foreign exchange issue – but the gullible public are lining up behind that wacky plan.

First you have Pickens with his Wind/NG NON-SOLUTION, then within a week Gore with his even stupider version of the Wind Scam, and then European Governments touting the absolutely nutty North African Desert Mega-Solar scheme. Don’t you folks realize that the desert is like the Sea, the sand moves constantly, there are dust storms that cover the entirety of North Africa? The entire region is close to embracing Taliban like Islamic Dictatorships. Haven’t you seen the news on bombings and riots in Algeria, which almost went Taliban until the Military cancelled elections. Bad enough European countries, especially Germany, sold their soul for Russian Energy, now they are finding out just what a deal-with-the-devil entails. Germany can have the Taliban flip the light switch in Algeria to shut off most of their Electricity and the newly aggressive Russians, flush with success from their invasion of the Democratic Country of Georgia, will turn the taps off on their NG and Oil anytime they want to make them squirm. Europe is financing Russia’s military expansion, while Russia could care less about Wind and Solar, but instead is building Nuclear Power Plants by the hundreds, while keeping its Oil and NG for sale to the Patsies in Europe ( not including the sensible French).

Charles Barton said...

Warren we are pretty much in agreements. Right not thinking about energy is amazingly bad.

Soylent said...

I'm far more sanguine about peak oil than Warren.

The worst case being bandied about by the doomers(those who want society to collapse so they can have their new-agrarian utopia), is a production peaks before 2010 and production falling to about half in 2030.

That's very worrysome for the developing world but I think the developed world will pull through quite easily for three reasons.

A lot of oil can easily be substituted for; trains instead of trucks, electric locomotives instead of diesel, heat pumps instead of heating oil or gas, solar heat collectors for hot water, 10-100 MW massproduced reactors instead of diesel engines for large container ships, small high-temperature reactors for process heat and district heating instead of oil and gas, electricity instead of diesel for mining equipment(draglines, pumps, crushers and other large, stationary equipment can easily be grid connected and powered by electricity), cardboard and other natural materials instead of thick plastic or styrofoam as packing material etc. I think businesses will explore and adopt such options when or if they make financial sense, but I expect private citizens to make much fuzzier cost/benefit analysis and be more susceptible to bandwagoning onto daft ideas like wind power backed up by simple cycle gas turbines and hoping for the best.

A lot of oil consumption is simply wasted on lifestyle bullshit; commuting in SUVs and trucks, long distance single-occupant commuting from distant commuter towns that provide no local jobs, grain-fed beef production(as an added bonus grass-fed is leaner and has a higher proportion of essential fatty acids), synchronized work hours(makes public transport horrible and wastes a lot of fuel in traffic jams), 5x8 hours work weeks(you could reduce commuting overhead, in both time and oil, by compressing work weeks down to 4x10 hours or having 10.6 hour work days and having every 4th week off), aggressive driving habbits(high speeds, lots of starting and stopping), not keeping tires properly inflated, no accomodation for people who want to ride their bikes(it can be very pleasant and a nice way to get some exercise; unless of course you have to ride on the free way next to tonnes of steel and glass wooshing by at 40 MPH). I would expect people to gradually start making adjustments if and when it becomes unaffordable(it's a very real possibility that electric vehicles can step in and substitute, but not in the short term if oil peaks in 2010).

If it's still not enough I'd expect to see emergency bus lines, people making accomodations to sleep over at work during the work week, the expansion of commuter towns to real suburbs(with schools, stores, retirement homes, district heating, maybe even some local production of bulky fruits and vegetables like cabbages, water melons, apples and potatoes).

Keep in mind that half the oil consumption is still more than they had in the fifties and they had far worse technology; yet the 50's are hardly thought of as doom and gloom.

Charles Barton said...

Soylent, I find terms like "doomers" to not be helpful. Concern about the adverse consequences of peak oil has been expressed by many very intelligent people, who have done far more research than either you or I. An enormous amount of money has been spent world wide, exploring for new reserves. New finds do not promise to replace the resources that are being used. Oil recovery is also requiring ever greater amounts of energy. While it is true that oil consumption today is higher that in the 1950's, it is also true that during the 50's geologist M. King Hubbert accurately predicted the peaking of the American oil production, and its eventual decline. Geologist who know a great deal more about the geology of oil than King did are predicting a world wide peak of oil production soon. We already face a situation where oil demand outstrips the supply.

Oil demand is extremely inflexible. Mitigation is required as the amount of oild available is less than demand. We can talk about mitigations that will respond to decreasing oil supply, If we wait until oil production startsto drop before we start mitigation efforts, it will be too late to prevent sevire economic displacements.

Soylent said...

"Soylent, I find terms like "doomers" to not be helpful."

When I say doomers, I'm not refering to just anyone talking about peak oil, I really mean the malcontents who are salivating for the end of civilisation as we know it.

There is no other word for people who desperately long for the collapse of modern society, the death of 90% of mankind and a return to some kind of agrarian sustainable utopia where everyone is a subsistense farmer.

Many of these people were hailing the Y2K problem as the end of modern civilisation. It's too late to fix they said; power down and lets return to a simpler time they said. Y2K swishes by and nothing happens. We took the COBOL programmers out of retirement and fixed the problem; a bit costly, but we were never in any real danger of society collapsing.

What did the doomers do? They just jumped straight to peak-oil, hailing it as the new destroyer of civilisation. Oh it's too late now, peak oil will destroy modern civilisation any year now they say. They've been predicting that oil will peak in a few years and immediately start a precipitous decline, every year for the last 8 years.

"While it is true that oil consumption today is higher that in the 1950's..."

That's not what I said. Less than _half_ of todays oil consumption is more oil than what
was available in the 50's. If that's what the most pessimistic predictions of the people who are hoping society will collapse show for 20 years into the future I'm not particularly worried for myself; I'm worried for the developing nations.

"Oil demand is extremely inflexible."

Only in the short term. See the 1970's and 80's.

"Mitigation is required as the amount of oild available is less than demand."

Demand is the entire curve, how much oil people would like to buy at any given price. Likewise, supply is the entire curve, how much oil producers would like to sell at any given price. Individual values are refered to as quantity demanded and quantity supplied.

In a free market the supply and demand will have some intersection where quantity supplied and quantity demand are roughly equal. Thus quantity demanded cannot be higher than quantity supplied for long; the price will slide until the two amounts match.

We live in a world of scarcity; name almost any good you can think of, the above mechanisms is what keeps it seemingly plentiful. If it were free people would always like to use more of it and they'll go so far as to invent new uses(see corn stoves for a ridiculous example. At a dollar or two per bushel, which is ~9.3 US gallons, there were people in the corn-belt buying corn to burn it for warmth).

When companies and people start to feel the pinch and start to worry about a comming supply crunch they start to make arrangements to curb their use. See for instance what has been happening with car vs light truck sales and vehicle miles travelled in the US: http://www.greencarcongress.com/2008/06/light-truck-sal.html .

We use half your oil consumption per capita here in Sweden. The reason is simple; we tax the hell out of it and people gradually make the proper adjustments(gasoline costs the equivalent of ~$350/barrel; when crude oil was $20/barrel we payed the equivalent of ~$250/barrel).

No one would accuse Sweden of being a miserable place to live because of it. In fact, if you believe the Human Development Index is a fair metric of how attractive it is to live in a place, we have you beat. But we can do much better than that; in fact, Japan does do much better than that.

David Walters said...

I tend to by somewhat skeptical of peak oilers.

Just on "doom and gloom". The oildrum.com folks are, for this kind of crowd, very level headed. The Energy Bulletin folks are doomers, plain and simple. The constantly put ever oil discover as the 'class is half full'. So it depends on who you talk to, which group, what their perspective is. They are not all doomers as Charles notes.

Secondly, what works in Sweden may not work in the US. But the peak oilers are at least on to something in terms of "this can't go on forever, we need alternative solutions to liquid fuel...".

I think there is enough oil to keep society going as is (increased usage/increased production) for a few decades. But we can't act like American capitalists who simply NEVER see beyond the next fiscal quarter. We need to calmly start developing alternatives.

David

Soylent said...

"I think there is enough oil to keep society going as is (increased usage/increased production) for a few decades. But we can't act like American capitalists who simply NEVER see beyond the next fiscal quarter. We need to calmly start developing alternatives."

How come I see "american capitalists that never see beyond the next fiscal quarter" who are hard at work trying to make electric vehicles an every-day reality or trying to build small nuclear plants for process heat and district heating?

Warren Heath said...

I believe there is an impending crisis – energy being a fundamental part of it. There actually several crisis’ that are all closely related:

1) Peak Oil
2) Peak NG
3) Dependence on Sources of Energy from Unstable or Politically Hostile regions – Russia just added to the list
4) Global Warming & a strong possibility of Runaway Global Warming
5) Agricultural Difficulties due to Unsustainable Agricultural Practices:
a) this includes depletion of water table
b) pollution of water table by excessive fertilizer and pesticide / fungicide use
c) increased resistance of agricultural pests and diseases
d) pollution of Ocean Areas due to Agricultural Chemicals – the Ocean Dead Zones
e) fresh water shortages
f) depletion of topsoil & soil erosion
6) Fresh Water Shortages
7) Fossil Fuel Wealth in the hands of Aggressive, De-stabilizing Governments and Terrorist organizations, like Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, some of which will likely become Nuclear Armed
8) Likelihood of Major Volcanic Eruptions (don’t count on Solar Power for a year) – there were two in the 1800’s, we’ve been major lucky since then
9) High Energy costs that will result in a positive feedback loop – making our Economic Systems Unsustainable
10) Major Population turmoil due to economic and social unrest causing Mass Migrations of hungry people with nothing to lose
11) Deteriorating Infrastructure – bridges, roads, public transit, rails, dams, fresh water & sewage services, waste disposal etc.
12) Aging populations in Developed World requiring high Social Benefits

These Major issues are all interrelated, for instance #1 & #4 leading to Biofuels that greatly aggravate #5 and #6. #9 severely limits what can be done about #6, #8 and #10.

Sweden may be in a better position than most countries but it still has an energy intensity of $0.40 of GDP per kwh (thermal energy). The Swedish economy, like the U.S. economy is built upon cheap fossil fuel energy. Energy costs that have traditionally been in the range of 1 to 3 cents a kwh. Now Crude is running 8 cents a kwh and NG 4 cents a kwh and they are rising rapidly. You cannot sustain a modern economy with energy prices upwards of 12 cents a kwh or 30% of GDP per kwh – the present marginal cost of Wind Turbines – the cheapest of the much hyped up Renewables. The average American consumes 97,000 kwh per year of total energy – that is not sustainable at an energy price of 12 cents per kwh or $45,000 per year for a family of four. A positive feedback loop will occur in trying to replace fossil fuels with renewables. Wind Turbines need 460 tonnes steel per MWe avg and you can double that including the quadruple oversized long distance Power Transmission required. Using that much steel will create shortages, which mean Mines and Steel Mills have to be built, these will demand more high energy input materials and more energy, more transportation of goods, driving Renewable Energy Prices up higher – and so on. There are huge supply chain issues with expanding production of renewables sufficiently to address some of the above problems. As a matter-of-fact I consider it an impossibility for all current renewables.

What will Sweden, which is heavily reliant on imports, do when it can’t sell it’s exports because former customers can’t afford them? What will it do when the cheap imports, largely dependent on cheap fossil fuels, are not available or Sweden will not have the foreign exchange to buy them. What will Sweden do when it has millions of economic refugees on its borders or when a billion people will starve to death in poorer countries – can it ignore that? Yes people can burn corncobs but that will aggravate #5 and that needs fuel for transport.

Cheap Energy is absolutely critical in our need to address the above 12 major problems. I don’t think modern economies or third world countries will be able to survive without energy prices less than 5 cents a kwh. In the end we will be forced to burn coal (no clean coal here) and turn to coal-to-liquids technology, but that will mean hope like hell that #4 ain’t going to happen, and put-up with China like Killer Smog and Acid Rain – about everywhere. That will decimate the environment and greatly aggravate #5, #6 and #10, but will likely resolve #12 – the smog kills the Old and the Young first.

Mind you, there is a saviour to the impending cataclysm, that is Nuclear Power, both fusion & fission. But it has to be made cheap, and it has to be made fast and it should incorporate CHP. And that means our governments better get their Ass in gear – or WE’RE GOIN’ DOWN!

Ted Patzek uses heavy Thermodynamics to Prove the Unsustainability of our Economic system, mostly Agriculture

Alice Friedemann: Why Cellulosic ethanol and other Biofuels are Not Sustainable and a Threat to America's National Security - Part I

Warren Heath said...

I should have added:

13) Bio-Weapons and Bio-Terrorism
14) Disease pandemics

to the list.

Soylent said...

"2) Peak NG"

Quite a ways off.

"3) Dependence on Sources of Energy from Unstable or Politically Hostile regions – Russia just added to the list"

Pardon, you don't get to add Russia to my list. I don't begrudge Russia for very deservingly giving Georgia a black eye(if you declare a cease-fire and then go on the offensive you deserve everything you get) and I'm not a big fan of NATO and their constant chafing with Russia. I'm not going to assume that this is USSR V2.0 as of yet.

And they don't have much choice in the matter. Most oil rich countries are heavily dependent on imports; they have to keep exporting if they want to import food, cars, nuclear plants...

"4) Global Warming & a strong possibility of Runaway Global Warming"

Use nuclear instead of coal for electricity; use nuclear for process heat, district heating instead of NG and oil. Use solar panels for hot water heating instead of gas or oil. Hardier GMOs. Adapt. High altitude sulfate particulates if run-away. Put out enormous, smoldering underground coal-fires that seem politically inconvenient to mention.

"5) Agricultural Difficulties due to Unsustainable Agricultural Practices:
a) this includes depletion of water table"

Less meat, less silly biofuels nonsense. GMOs. More no-till agriculture. Pipeline water that would otherwise just run out into the sea when applicable.

"b) pollution of water table by excessive fertilizer and pesticide / fungicide use"

More timely application of fertilizer; no-till. Run-off control.

I don't see why detectable quantities of insecticide/fungicide/herbicide is a problem. These things decay with time and if you keep adding them that sets up an equilibrium concentration. As the half-life typically is a few years in the water table, many of these chemicals are already at their equilibrium concentration. Evidence of harm?

"c) increased resistance of agricultural pests and diseases"

New pesticides; GMOs. Smarter, timlier application. Multiple pesticides to decrease resistance.

"d) pollution of Ocean Areas due to Agricultural Chemicals – the Ocean Dead Zones"

Run-off control.

"e) fresh water shortages"

Less meat and biofuels nonsense. More no-till agriculture. Pipeline water that would otherwise just run out into the sea when applicable.

"f) depletion of topsoil & soil erosion"

More no-till agriculture. Plant soil builders such as prairie grasses occassionally(there's lots of farmland to use in the mean time). Less meat and biofuels sillyness.

"6) Fresh Water Shortages"

Less meat and biofuels sillyness. More no-till agriculture. Less fresh-water just running out into the ocean. Pipeline freshwater that would otherwise just run out to the sea if theres a suitable user in range.

"7) Fossil Fuel Wealth in the hands of Aggressive, De-stabilizing Governments and Terrorist organizations, like Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, some of which will likely become Nuclear Armed"

Peak oil->substitution->less demand->less wealth.

MAD. Russia already has nukes. Iran is not currently developing nuclear weapons although they appear to have tried in the past. Mutual interdependency and non-zero sumness -> more valuable alive than dead -> less conflict. If Iran hurts the EU and the US they inherently hurt themselves; since they don't like food shortages, they'll have to think twice about it(e.g. just recently Iran imported ~1 million tonnes of wheat from the US). I'm more worried about Pakistan having nukes than Iran.

"8) Likelihood of Major Volcanic Eruptions (don’t count on Solar Power for a year) – there were two in the 1800’s, we’ve been major lucky since then"

Crops are more efficient when illuminated by diffuse light; high atmospheric particulates may well lead to an increase in net primary production, at least sulfate particulates do. I wouldn't want to count on solar power for anything of importance any way for the simple reason that there are clouds.

"9) High Energy costs that will result in a positive feedback loop – making our Economic Systems Unsustainable"

How would you propose that would happen? High oil prices hurt the truckers, but it benefits the railways; hurts the SUV manufacturers but benefits the frugal and EV vehicles; hurts the people who make oil furnaces but benefits the people making heat pumps; hurts the people who make nylon, benefits the people who grow cotton...

There's no shortage of energy and I don't see any shortage of ways to substitute for one particularly popular form of energy. Peak oil is a slow, wide peak; not a cliff.

"10) Major Population turmoil due to economic and social unrest causing Mass Migrations of hungry people with nothing to lose"

We've has some pretty rotten times(e.g. the great depression, the dust bowl, irish potato famine); history tells us that's not a likely outcome.

"12) Aging populations in Developed World requiring high Social Benefits"

There's no great shortage of people; import them. Better health-care sounds like another growth area for the economy. Better health-care can be supplied at lower costs with better technology.

"13) Bio-Weapons and Bio-Terrorism"

Terrorism is not more of a threat now than in the past.

"14) Disease pandemics"

Such is life. Not particularly more likely now than in the past; better equipped to deal with them than ever.

"The Swedish economy, like the U.S. economy is built upon cheap fossil fuel energy."

And yet nuclear power provides more primary energy than oil and hydropower about as much primary energy as oil. Gas use is almost non-existent(2% of primary energy) and coal is only used for some district heating. Build a new nuclear plant or recomission Barseb├Ąck(there was never anything wrong with the plant other than a a corrupt referendum on nuclear power which distinctly lacked any option other than decomissioning nuclear power; the most lenient option won.) and much of that coal and a lot of heating oil becomes unnecessary over night(our district heating plants have large heat pumps but they aren't as much in use today as they would be with another nuclear plant online). Transportation is the big remaining cause of oil consumption; especially personal transportation.

"Energy costs that have traditionally been in the range of 1 to 3 cents a kwh."

Are we still talking about Sweden?

No. Gasoline used to cost 15 cents per kWh(heat, not useful power) and now costs about 20 cents per kWh. Electric power costs about 10 cents per kWh.

"What will Sweden, which is heavily reliant on imports, do when it can’t sell it’s exports because former customers can’t afford them?"

Oh don't get me wrong. I don't think Sweden is somehow uniquely awesome. I don't believe the rest of the EU, Japan or the US will have much of a problem either. The US is wasteful, but they have fair bit of oil and gas and a lot of coal; more than I'm comfortable with them having for fear of what they might do with it. Peak oil will happen over decades; that gives "short-sighted", profit maximizing capitalists plenty of opportunity to cash in on heat pumps, solar water heaters, bicycles, anaerobic waste digesting technology and all that good stuff. If you expect oil to become more expensive, that's an offer you can't afford to refuse.

"Cheap Energy is absolutely critical in our need to address the above 12 major problems."

Apart from the problems which explicitly mention sources of energy, I don't see how.

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