So, can we stop worrying about “peak oil” now?

posted at 5:31 pm on February 23, 2013 by Erika Johnsen

For decades, eco-radicals and Malthusians have been crying wolf at the calamitous and ever-imminent phenomenon of “peak oil,” when extraction reaches its highest possible rate and the wells will start running dry — leading to famine- and war-inducing energy price shocks that will send humanity into an economic and environmental tailspin, so everybody start running for the hills!

Obviously, oil and gas’s critics have an interest in perpetuating the time-bomb fear of peak oil (all the better that we forcibly commit to their preferred ‘green’ energies, on the double), but we have amazingly managed to bypass all of these forecasted benchmarks without incident. Meanwhile, thanks largely to hydraulic fracturing in just the past few years, the world’s proven reserves have only continued to expand.

Here are just some of the latest numbers on why “peak oil” is still just an environmentalist boogeyman, from Vaclav Smil at AEI (emphasis mine):

When the final figures for the fourth quarter of 2012 are in, the world will have a new crude oil production record: the total for the first three quarters was about 1 percent ahead of the 2011 total. This is a remarkable achievement for a commodity with annual output that now surpasses, for the first time ever, 4 billion metric tons and which has been, for decades, the largest source of fossil energy and the most valuable item of international commerce. …

But the IEA also says that the world has already reached the peak of conventional oil extraction and that the continuing rise in output is now due only to rising recovery of unconventional sources including extra heavy oil, oil sands, and gas converted to liquids. But that conclusion rests on accepting an arbitrary divide between the two categories. The oil industry has always pushed the boundaries of extraction: going first deeper as rotary drills displaced old percussion drilling, then offshore but within the sight of land in shallow waters, then far offshore in deeper water, then deploying directional and horizontal drilling and recovery of heavy oils, and (starting in 1967) extraction of oil from tar sands.

As technological progress has continued to march along, so has our ability to more fully tap into our own resources and push the boundaries of what “conventional” oil extraction even means. And while the United States has managed to largely lead the recent oil-and-gas revolution even with a federal government that’s been only lackluster with permitting on federal lands and waters, there are mega reserves throughout the rest of the world that have yet to be fully explored and tapped because of government policies.

The dramatic rise in shale-gas extraction and the tight-oil revolution (mostly crude oil that is found in shale deposits) happened in the United States and Canada because open access, sound government policy, stable property rights and the incentive offered by market pricing unleashed the skills of good engineers. …

Policy, not geology, is driving the extraordinary turn of events that is boosting America’s oil industry. East Asia boasts shale and tight-oil resources greater than those of the United States. Latin America and Africa too have very substantial endowments. However, the competitive environment, government policy and available infrastructure mean that North America will dominate the production of shale gas and tight oil for some time to come. …

Today, market-led innovation has brought us to a crossroads again, and the time has come to make critical decisions about energy. Nations with abundant resources must decide whether to follow the path of open markets, including foreign access and competitive pricing. Alternatively, they can opt for restrictive investment regimes that risk becoming less rewarding.

Whatever else the complexities of the global economy and national policies may mean, it is at least abundantly clear that we are not running up against a wall of fuel supplies anytime soon; and even better, that human beings are endlessly adaptable, resourceful, innovative, and efficient.

Global oil and gas supplies are certainly finite in some sense of the word, but there’s no need to induce mass panic about it in a bass-ackwards attempt to convince the world that we absolutely must switch to those holy grails of green, wind and solar — which continue to fail the test of the free market, by the way. Everybody can just calm down.


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