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Page added on June 28, 2009

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Dmitry Orlov: The slope of dysfunction

Perhaps you have heard of the Peak Oil theory? Most people have by now, even the people whose job used to involve denying the possibility that global crude oil production would peak any time soon. Now that everybody seems a bit more comfortable with the idea, perhaps it is time to reexamine it. Is the scenario Peak Oil theoreticians paint indeed realistic, or is it firmly grounded in wishful thinking?

Here is a typical, slightly outdated Peak Oil chart. I chose it because it looks pretty and conveys the typical Peak Oil message, which is that global crude oil (and natural gas condensate) production will rise to a lofty peak sometime soon, and then drift down gently, over several decades, until, by the year 2050 or some other distant date, less than half as much oil will be produced globally. Since this would still be a very impressive number, and since we have decades to adjust to living with half as much oil, this would not necessarily pose a major problem. Some combination of new energy from wind, solar, biomass and nuclear sources, coupled with efficiency improvements such as light rail and electric cars, better-insulated buildings and so on, would allow us to plug up the gap.

Peak Oil theorists base their calculations on data from the many oil-producing provinces that have already peaked, such as the United States, which peaked in 1970. The majority of oil-producing provinces and countries are past peak now, providing the theorists with a wealth of precise data. But they seem to have overlooked one little detail, which, I believe, is rather important. What do countries do when they reach their peak and can no longer supply themselves with sufficient quantities of oil from their depleting domestic sources? They turn to imports, of course. They can do so if their local peak comes before the global peak; they cannot do so if it comes after. This makes local peaks poor analogies for the global peak.

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