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Peak Oil: the elephant in the room

Peak Oil: the elephant in the room thumbnail
Elephant Country” a book on peak oil by Luca Pardi. The title refers to the fact that some politicians had defined Italy an “oil country” because it produces some oil, but that’s just as wrong as it would be to say that Italy is an “elephant country” because it has some elephants in zoos.

In 2003, I invited Colin Campbell, the founder of the association for the study of peak oil (ASPO), to give a talk in Florence. After the talk, a small group of conspirators (1) collected in my office. We drank together something curiously looking like petroleum in color (not in taste, fortunately); a strong liquor that came from Ukraine and was named “Balzam.” After a few glasses of that dark stuff, we decided to start the Italian chapter of ASPO; “ASPO-Italy”. One of the conspirators of that fateful day, Luca Pardi, now president of ASPO-Italy, recently published a book on oil and gas with a curious title “Elephant country.” It is a word play on some silly remarks on oil by one of our leading politicians, Mr. Renato Prodi, who said that Italy “floats on a sea of oil“. But you can take the title of the book also as hinting to the old say about “the elephant in the room”. Peak oil is the true elephant in the room of our times; it is there, it is large, you can’t miss it, and yet it goes unperceived, unseen, invisible.

The invisibility of peak oil is all the more impressive if compared to how much more we know about it today than we did at the beginning. You can see that, clearly, in Pardi’s book, which is an excellent summary of the work done up to now on the subject. Compare it with my first book on peak oil, published in 2003, and you’ll see that, surely, we came a long way from then. Today, we have better models, better data, and generally a much better understanding of the concepts we summarize under the name of “peak oil.” Yet, the problem of the elephant in the room remains.

Peak oil remains a fringe concept, almost never mentioned in the mainstream media and in the political debate. Politicians and their advisers seem to have never even heard of it, and when they do, they misunderstand it. This situation is all the more disappointing if we take into account the amount of intellectual power that was dedicated to the subject. Few fields of science have seen such a group of smart, dedicated, and competent people obtaining such impressive results; normally on a shoestring budget or no budget at all. I would add that this group also had all the appropriate credentials to be taken seriously: university researchers, top level scientists, high level professionals. You would not imagine that the advice of such a group could be ignored. And yet, it was.

Rethinking to the work of the past ten years, I almost can’t believe how naive we were. We really thought that good data and good models would, eventually, make their way into the consciousness of the decision makers. And, then, someone would have done something about the problem. Yes, we were so naive. We didn’t think that we are living in a time in which elephants populate people’s living rooms and go routinely unnoticed. We live in the time in which Karl Rove said that, because we are an empire, “we create our own reality.” A reality in which seas of oil exist because a politician said so. Just this year, I saw an impressive example of this process of reality creation based on wishful thinking and fake data at the European Parlament, in Brussels.

We seem to be geared to see the world through our ideological filters; which work very nicely in keeping reality out. The problem is that virtual reality, no matter how powerful is the empire that created it, tends to shatter to pieces when it gets in contact with real reality. Virtual seas of oil tend to be badly trampled by the virtual elephants populating the living room, but we still tend to stick to our filters as long as we can. Peak oil just can’t pass the filter.

So, the ongoing crash of the oil market goes not only unnoticed, but perceived as a good thing. It is likely that the closer we get to the global peak, the less we will perceive it. And when we pass it (and we may already have passed it) it will become a truly invisible elephant hiding behind the sofa in the living room. As we slide down the Seneca cliff, we’ll think it is just a bump in the road to everlasting prosperity.

Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi



21 Comments on "Peak Oil: the elephant in the room"

  1. J-Gav on Mon, 22nd Dec 2014 3:30 pm 

    I don’t agree with Bardi here. The ‘elephant’ has been sitting cross-legged on the sofa watching his favorite TV series whilst munching YOUR fucking Cheezos for some time already.

    As for how steep the way down the Seneca cliff might be, I’ll readily admit I don’t have the expertise to say …

  2. Nony on Mon, 22nd Dec 2014 3:49 pm 

    I get the impression more and more that “peak oil” is more of a a belief than an analysis. More about socializing, about seeming smart, about wanting to be an insider…thank about real insight. Look at how peakers fail to deal with wrong predictions. It’s like religion more than science.

  3. JuanP on Mon, 22nd Dec 2014 3:51 pm 

    “Peak oil is the true elephant in the room of our times; it is there, it is large, you can’t miss it, and yet it goes unperceived, unseen, invisible.”

    I beg to disagree. The elephant in the room is OVERPOPULATION, and it has always been the same since before we became human. Overpopulation used to be local and lead to wars, pests, and famine. Now it’s global, and it is leading to AGW, CC, and almost complete global environmental destruction and species extinctions.

    We are what we are: primitive animals.

  4. MrColdWaterOfRealityMan on Mon, 22nd Dec 2014 4:09 pm 

    Noni, if you “…get the impression more and more that “peak oil” is more of a a belief than an analysis,” why don’t you break out google and a hand calculator and do some actual research. “Impressions” are not reality, nor are they relevant.

    Start with the 30+ billion barrels the world uses a year.

    Figure out just how much time that much conventional oil that represents at current consumption rates.

    Then figure out just how much more time unconventional oil represents at current consumption rates.

    Add ’em up.

    Then go look for a scalable substitute. No hurry. We’ll wait.

    I won’t trouble you with little matters like oil price feedback, or minimal economic activity thresholds necessary to maintain hydrocarbon location, acquisition, refining or distribution, nor tedious little things like price as a proxy for net energy return. Don’t worry your head over that complicated stuff. Just get the basics for now. OK?

  5. J-Gav on Mon, 22nd Dec 2014 4:26 pm 

    Yes, JuanP, overpopulation plus resource drawdown spells the end of prosperity as we have known it since WWII. The question as to whether we, as sentient and supposedly ‘rational’ beings, will be able to come up with another formula before the world is entirely trashed, is, perhaps, still open. But for how long?

  6. Kenjamkov on Mon, 22nd Dec 2014 4:37 pm 

    MrColdWaterOfRealityMan if it wasn’t for you I would have had to get my sheers out for a sheeple named Nony. The problem with most sheeple, is they think all oil is the same no matter where it comes from.

  7. Northwest Resident on Mon, 22nd Dec 2014 4:49 pm 

    Nony isn’t stupid. He just enjoys stirring up controversy, playing devil’s advocate, poking a stick in the side of undeniable reality to try and make it squirm. Nony has a slightly goofy side too. Saying stupid stuff and provoking people’s reactions is just his idea of amusement, I’m sure.

  8. Nony on Mon, 22nd Dec 2014 4:52 pm 

    hush you. A girl’s gotta keep that air of mystery. 😉

  9. Apneaman on Mon, 22nd Dec 2014 6:04 pm 

    “Nony has a slightly goofy side too.”
    Very generous of you Northwest. Tis the season.

  10. toms2 on Mon, 22nd Dec 2014 8:27 pm 

    MrColdWaterOfRealityMan:

    “Start with the 30+ billion barrels the world uses a year. Figure out just how much time that much conventional oil that represents at current consumption rates.”

    Okay. I think we have about 2 trillion barrels remaining of conventional oil which is about 67 years at current consumption rates of 30 billion barrels.

    “Then figure out just how much more time unconventional oil represents at current consumption rates.”

    Perhaps another 50 years if we extract 1.5 trillion barrels. Nobody really knows. It could be more or less than that. A few people are speculating that it will be far more than that.

    “Add ‘em up.”

    Okay: 67+50 is equal to 117 years at current consumption rates.

    Of course, we won’t just have flat consumption for 117 years until oil suddenly exhausts and drops to zero. Instead we’ll have growth for a number of years and then gradual decline for a long, long time after that, perhaps for centuries.

    “Then go look for a scalable substitute.”

    That’s easy. Electrified public transportation, EVs, plug-in hybrids, rail electrification, substitution of trucking with rail, re-urbanization, synthesis fuels, anhydrous ammonia as fuel, and about a million other things. Few of them are price-competitive now, but most of them would be only modestly more expensive. All of those things are scalable.

    Of course, it’s possible that additional alternatives will be developed over the next century such as artificial photosynthesis.

    Even simple things would compensate for decades of declines. For example, driving Priuses instead of SUVs as gasoline becomes expensive, and substituting rail for trucking, could compensate for 30 years of declines.

    The market will adjust automatically and will switch to those alternatives when they become relatively cheaper. That is a basic asset allocation problem. We have vastly more time than is required to transition to those substitutes.

    It’s possible that economic decision-makers will fail to anticipate when oil will start declining, and how rapidly. In which case, prices will increase by enough that some people will be forced to sacrifice discretionary travel. However, it poses no danger of collapse.

    “oil price feedback, or minimal economic activity thresholds … nor tedious little things like price as a proxy for net energy return.”

    That’s just throwing out technical-sounding jargon. I don’t think those terms you’re throwing around are commonly used in any legitimate discipline.

    Price is not a proxy for net energy return. Price is determined by the cost of extraction of the marginal barrel. All other owners of oilfields receive an economic rent. That is why price could triple so quickly; it became more expensive to _increase_ production outside of OPEC, not more expensive to extract oil from the fields of Saudi Arabia.

    The tripling of prices does not mean that the net energy returns in middle eastern oilfields has suddenly dropped by 2/3rds.

    Oil price is mostly an economic rent and is a proxy for how much you pay for Saudi, Russian, Iranian, and Canadian consumption. It has nothing to do with net energy, and is not a proxy for net energy.

    …I’m not meaning to be nasty by saying this. However, I don’t think you guys have anything right. That is why the predictions keep failing. This peak oil doom stuff is pure pseudoscience, in my opinion.

    -Tom S

  11. Perk Earl on Mon, 22nd Dec 2014 10:12 pm 

    “We seem to be geared to see the world through our ideological filters; which work very nicely in keeping reality out. The problem is that virtual reality, no matter how powerful is the empire that created it, tends to shatter to pieces when it gets in contact with real reality.”

    I actually think that is a good explanation of how ‘most people’ react to peak oil. They simply do not have the inner strength to look it in the face even though it is the elephant in the room. Sure, many of the posters here on this website (other than Nony and Marmico) get it, but the masses are different. We’ve all tried at one time or another to explain it to a friend, neighbor or relative, but they are incredibly good at deflecting the information in one manner or another if it doesn’t fit their future plans.

  12. forbin on Tue, 23rd Dec 2014 3:27 am 

    Hello Toms2

    A couple of points please

    “Add ‘em up.”

    ” Okay: 67+50 is equal to 117 years at current consumption rates.

    Of course, we won’t just have flat consumption for 117 years until oil suddenly exhausts and drops to zero. Instead we’ll have growth for a number of years and then gradual decline for a long, long time after that, perhaps for centuries. ”

    Quite possibly true and theres coal and gas and nuclear , oil /petrol/diesel are manily transport fuels.

    BUT 117 years at current comsumption rates I take it , sorry but thats not a long time

    10,000 year or recorded history , 2000 years since we nailed a man to a cross and 300 years since the industrial revolution .

    A 117 year is long for a person, short for a civilization, the English can said to be running since 1066!

    “Then go look for a scalable substitute.”

    That’s easy. Electrified public transportation, EVs, plug-in hybrids, rail electrification, substitution of trucking with rail, re-urbanization, synthesis fuels, anhydrous ammonia as fuel, and about a million other things. Few of them are price-competitive now, but most of them would be only modestly more expensive. All of those things are scalable.

    No substitute here , sorry all good reducers and extenders of oil , some mean more coal burnt , and you dumped in a few vectors of energy but no sources

    Not suprising really, theres only 2 biggies I know of, other than fossil fuels

    Nuclear and Solar

    ( geothermal and Hydro are not big providers here , good , just not that big and we have them anyways already)

    Still I’m open for optimism – if you have some for a source of energy

    Also Peak Oil is a mathematical point in time of peak extraction of oil

    I see no disproof here , just arguement about when , not if .

    take care and have fun !

    Forbin

  13. Dredd on Tue, 23rd Dec 2014 5:36 am 

    We seem to be geared to see the world through our ideological filters; which work very nicely in keeping reality out.”

    It is called cultural trance, a psychological description (Choose Your Trances Carefully).

    One of the cultural trances generates “the stairway to heaven” meme (The Technological Stairway To Heaven?).

    Google “Creeping normality and landscape amnesia” for additional cultural trance descriptions.

    The “finite means infinite because we are exceptional” meme floats around in some of those cultural trances too.

  14. rockman on Tue, 23rd Dec 2014 10:05 am 

    “The invisibility of peak oil is all the more impressive”. I truly don’t enjoy pissing down the leg of one of our cohorts and calling it rain. But “PO” ain’t fucking invisible. LOL. Once again this obscene obsession with rates and dates. I don’t care when PO has or will happen. I don’t care how much oil the world will or won’t be able to produce at any one point in time. What I do greatly care about is the effect of the POD (Peak Oil Dynamic) on the economies both local and global as well as on different industrial segments. And, of course, the effects measured on very personal levels by billions of people. High oil prices knocked the crap out of the US economy along with a few other factors. But gave a big boost to the oil patch. And now that boost has just significantly deflated but it will probably take much longer to see the positive effects on the rest of the economy. And then factor in the off book costs due to the POD: US expense in both $’s and blood spent overseas “exporting democracy” to oil producing regions.

    None of those expenses, sacrifices, gains, loses, etc. directly correlate to the timing of PO. But they are all intimately associated with the POD IMHO. And there ain’t nothing about the POD that ain’t as visible as a 600 gorilla siting on the couch in your living room. LOL

  15. Nony on Tue, 23rd Dec 2014 10:23 am 

    POD done taken a 40% haircut. Life is good for the cornies.

  16. Revi on Tue, 23rd Dec 2014 10:41 am 

    It looks like the Bakken is peaking next year, and Eagle Ford the year after that. If they are enough to offset the amount of oil that is produced everywhere else, then we peak next year or the one after that. We aren’t going to be able to afford to pump oil unless it’s the really good stuff after that, as we need to get around 100,000 BTU’s per gallon, or there’s no sense in it, according to Shortonoil. So while we argue how wonderful it’s going to be post peak we are actually going to get to experience it next year or the one after.

  17. Kenz300 on Tue, 23rd Dec 2014 11:32 am 

    Depletion continues…….

  18. Westexasfanclub on Tue, 23rd Dec 2014 3:50 pm 

    “It looks like the Bakken is peaking next year, and Eagle Ford the year after that.”

    That was in the good old days when the barrel was at 100$. At current prices I would expect them to peak both in 2015 or even to have peaked in 2014.

    “Depletion continues…….” and that’s why further down the timeline even a new price spike maybe won’t help to push production to an later and higher peak.

    Time will tell….

  19. Nony on Tue, 23rd Dec 2014 3:59 pm 

    Here’s the previous peaker prediction on the Bakken:

    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3868

    Looks like we done OBLITERATED that peaker prediction, no?

  20. GregT on Tue, 23rd Dec 2014 5:24 pm 

    A current peaker prediction;

    All of the oil in the Bakken will never run out before our economies and financial systems collapse.

    Here’s another one;

    The faster we exploit a finite resource, the sooner it will be consumed.

  21. Kenz300 on Wed, 24th Dec 2014 10:24 am 

    Buy a bicycle for Christmas……. It will provide a good transportation option for many years to come……. and it goes right by those gasoline stations without stopping

    ———————

    Bike Friendly Cities, The Journey to School – YouTube

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-XenU6UEp

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