Fish calls out a clot of statists:
...Kunstler desperately hopes that the oil runs out tomorrow...for our own good! ...what scares me the most about any potential oil scare is that Kunstler and the clot of statists residing on that half of the continent will get their way! We will have our command economy.....and then the real decline will begin!I agree with Fish that possibly the biggest concern about Peak Oil is not the problem itself, but the potential solutions. Peak Oil, like global warming, has the potential to create far worse consequences once the government decides it's time for a solution. The choice is easy: either we decide that individuals have the ability (and the right) to deal with problems using their own solutions, or we believe that the wisdom of the government needs to be imposed to save us all. Many alarmists would like nothing better than to direct that imposition.
So I read with interest his link to David Deming's (of the University of Oklahoma’s School of Geology and Geophysics) article, "Are We Running Out of Oil?" Deming's answer is a hearty, "Yes, but..."
Deming knows the numbers far better than I, and so I will take them as read. I will also accept that the Peak Oilers have been wrong in a lot of specifics. Deming makes an excellent case that the Peak Oilers, because they don't know how much oil there is, cannot simply draw a bell curve, and a bell curve might not fit the data anyway, and that a bell curve fits coal usage very well though we are not remotely running out of coal. But I would like to take a look at his conclusions, because I think there's a bit of pollyanna there that might be unwarranted:
The primary problem with a Hubbert-type analysis is that it requires an accurate estimate of the total resource endowment. Yet estimates of the total endowment have grown systematically larger for at least 50 years as technology has made it possible to exploit petroleum resources previously not considered economical.The sneaky part here is "previously not considered economical." One of the main arguments of the Peak Oilers is not just that production will decline, but that the cheap oil has been found and pumped, and whatever comes next will be harder to find and will take more energy and money to exploit. Deming backhandedly agrees with them by illustrating that more oil has always been available, so long as higher prices are paid - though he relies on technology as the agent rather than the prices that fund and drive it. Even with modern technology we can't pump gas for what we did in the 60s, and tar sands can be exploited only if the price remains high enough to develop the technology to process it. Things cost money, Louie.
But whether higher prices result in necessary and better technology or future supplies are available only at higher prices, it seems like 6 of 1, half dozen of the other. Higher prices are our future no matter who's right because we continue to need more and more oil and we need high prices to fund the technology to extract what remains in new and better ways.
In the long run, an economy that utilizes petroleum as a primary energy source is not sustainable, because the amount of oil in the Earth’s crust is finite. However, sustainability is a misleading concept, a chimera. No technology since the birth of civilization has been sustainable. All have been replaced as people devised better and more efficient technologies. The history of energy use is largely one of substitution. In the 19th century, the world’s primary energy source was wood. Around 1890, wood was replaced by coal. Coal remained the world’s largest source of energy until the 1960s when it was replaced by oil.Rather than a substitution of energy, we have a bit of substitution of terms here. While agreeing with Peak Oilers that an oil-based economy is over the long-term unsustainable (meaning it cannot last relying primarily on that resource), he then applies "unsustainable" to past events where energy sources were voluntarily replaced by better sources. Was the coal age sustainable using the definition above? Yes, and for centuries at those population levels and usage rates. But it was replaced because there came available a better source of energy, and energy use and population exploded because energy in the form of oil was more convenient and useful than coal or wood or buffalo pies.
However, to say that "no technology since the birth of civilization has been sustainable" is simply untrue. Rural Chinese farmers, whose civilization goes back 5 millennia, rely on the same (low) technology that they have for many generations. Same with Africans, Amish, and Eskimos, and anyone else but the iPod-using developed world. What he means is that technology and population levels cannot advance unless new energy sources are constantly discovered. Renewable energy sources from solar to corn husks are sustainable, but they cannot sustain a population or standard of living that relies on cheap oil in increasing quantities as more uses for it are discovered - but that's another primary argument of the Peak Oilers.
But we didn't change from coal because we were running out of coal in the same way Peak Oilers say we must change from oil because we are running out of oil. In other words, we are really not talking about the same thing.
How long will (the oil age) last? No one can predict the future, but the world contains enough petroleum resources to last at least until the year 2100. This is so far in the future that it would be ludicrous for us to try to anticipate what energy sources our descendants will utilize. Over the next several decades the world likely will continue to see short-term spikes in the price of oil, but these will be caused by political instability and market interference — not by an irreversible decline in supply.Here's our hard date. If we ran completely all out on oil, it will be depleted by 2100. But I doubt even Deming thinks we will run all out on it until the last drop is squeezed out of ANWR and the taps shut off simultaneously - Peak Oilers sure don't, even though many they believe oil will last until 2100 as well - but that it will be replaced by something better in the meantime. But what is it? Obviously we don't know, and to presume such a resource exists is a faith position.
Perhaps it's a solid faith, but it is not science, it's simply a trust in Progress, capitalized. I happen to share it, though to a lesser extent because I see just as many occasions in history where there was not a suitable replacement for a necessary resource (e.g. land) and the result was mass migration, starvation, and societal collapse. The Irish didn't find a replacement for potatoes, they migrated or starved.
But what I don't share is his faith that we "will likely see short-term spikes in the price of oil." We have already concluded that more oil is available, but only at higher prices and necessitating better technology. Therefore his spikes are not really spikes, because spikes come back to the baseline. What I think we will see instead is an inexorable climb in the price of oil as we make use of oil that is more difficult to extract than current oil, punctuated by occasional and temporary drops in price as technology makes more and more previously unrecoverable oil available. However, as China and India come screaming into the 21st century, the demands on that oil are going to be intense, as are the demands for more profits to build more ships, more refineries, and more pipelines.
So there is an agreement on the major points, that oil is finite and that it will cost more to extract (and therefore use) in the future. Whether production follows a bell-shaped curve is arguable, because while Deming illustrates that prior proposed curves have been wrong, he does not show what the chart ought to look like. Deming shows Hubbert was wrong about the magnitude of decline in American oil fields, but Hubbert was not wrong that they would go into decline. They are still declining even as prices rise, modern technology notwithstanding (see the chart above: US production has declined 40% since 1970 even as demand has grown and price has risen - it's the reason that no matter what we seem to do, we are ever more reliant on imported oil).
But what probably is going to hit us first is that our economy built on cheap oil is going to have to make some severe adjustments to a new primary energy source because of price, and that will necessarily involve tough personal choices on an individual level. But no one told Americans to switch to propane from coal to cook their burgers, they did so voluntarily because the new source was better and cheaper than the last. I hope that tradition will continue.
Technology, Deming's great hope and mine, may come along and make the transition seamless, or it may come along and make the transition less than catastrophic to the developed world, or it may not come along at all. Deming appears to believe in the first, Kunstler apparently pines for the last. I don't know, so I guess I'll plan for the muddled middle.