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Peak Oil: “Malthusian Requirements”

General Ideas

Recently, in challenging contentions I had raised, “RGR”—an otherwise unnamed commenter (a petroleum engineer, if I understood correctly)—offered this:

Richard, are you aware of the history of peak oil claims, and the similarity of those claims with those started during the ‘modern’ peak oil era (starting with Colin Campbells 1989 claim)? If so (and you should be if you wish to be taken seriously on the topic) then what might your explanation be for the requirement of playing kick the can with these types of Malthusian proclamations?

I’m not certain what the “requirement” was or who is expected to abide by it. I suppose that kicking the can is one way of viewing current concerns about peak oil, but it should be noted that neither my observations nor the quotes used referenced any “Malthusian proclamations.” Anyone raising the issue of meeting increasing demand with finite, depleting resources might be considered as following in the footsteps of concerns raised by Thomas Malthus in the late 1700s: limited agricultural resources would be unable to supply enough food for an increasing population.

That talking point is raised nowadays more by those challenging the concept of peak oil than those urging greater awareness—attributing a perspective few of us actually offer. “Running out of oil” is likewise a convenient straw man argument attributed to us far more often by deniers than is actually stated by advocates.

We’re not running out of oil. Period. Ample resources exist worldwide, and if that pronouncement was the beginning and the end of the peak oil issue, then deniers would “win.” But using whatever impressive numbers one desires as the basis of an argument carrying the potential for so much disruption as peak oil promises is an empty one.

Despite their gymnastic skills in twisting concerns about maintaining adequate production totals of quality fossil fuel supplies to meet the demands of our 21st Century planet into assertions that peak oil advocates promote a sky-is-falling-we’re running-out-of-oil-tomorrow message, that’s simply not true. Making things up and/or lying about what is being urged suggests a hole or two in the integrity of the deniers’ assessments.

Yes, technology and our ability to finance our efforts to elevate our standards of living by debt were no doubt factors Malthus failed to fully appreciate. But is the premise Malthus urged itself faulty?

“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” [From “An Essay on the Principle of Population”]

The supply of conventional crude oil which powered our society from an agrarian one to the marvels displayed almost everywhere in this early part of the 21st Century is a finite resource, and its rates of production are now on the downslope. World population is heading toward an astounding 10 billion later this century. Safe to assume that all 10 billion are at least hoping for lifestyles well beyond bare subsistence. I don’t see any lines forming to make bare subsistence a long-term objective for those currently enjoying modern society’s benefits.

Discoveries have been outstripped by demand for a couple of decades now. Conventional crude oil production totals have been on a plateau for a decade. The great shale boom of recent years is the product of a resource whose decline rates far exceed those of the conventional crude oil field warhorses.

More generous and expansive definitions of what constitutes “production totals” doesn’t mask any of that. It’s also a wee bit difficult to hide the increasing costs, energy expenditures, inferior quality, and assorted other inconveniences associated with shale formations supplying us with needed increases in recent years.

Sustained high prices are a necessary element in sustaining shale formation production levels. Not everyone is thrilled with high prices. Investors have been scaling back their check-writing as the realities and limitations of fracking become more obvious.

The prime locations for tight oil extraction via fracking have been tapped, and hopes for world-wide expansion of the prowess demonstrated in the U.S. are so far just that: hopes. The ongoing and frivolous proclamations about the oil shale in the western United States are still frivolous today and for the foreseeable future. Decades of failed commercially-viable production attempts tend to put a damper on fact-free enthusiasm.

Environmental and health concerns as well as infrastructure damage and related burdens imposed on local communities are taking their toll. None of these realities shout “Abundance Forever!” Facts are inconvenient, and at times damned annoying when the promotion of a happy narrative is the main objective.

So deniers can continue to avoid recognizing that all is not quite the panacea they hope for, which of course would then necessitate some changes in their attitudes, ideologies, and efforts. Duly noted, but we all pay a price for inaction when misleading and/or disingenuous talking points serve as one side’s contribution to problem-solving (or at least preparation). Nit- and cherry-picking are tactics with limited value.

While taking shots at those who’ve made predictions in the past is easy, it’s also worth noting that some of the deniers’ very own superstars haven’t exactly bathed themselves in the glory of accuracy either. A few years ago, Glenn Morton (here) along with Chris Nelder and Gregor Macdonald (here and here) were kind enough to enlighten us that that argument is a two-way street. Predictions aren’t always accurate, especially about matters yet to occur.

Buy why is this issue an either-or one? We’re either 100% correct or entirely wrong? Who decided that the standard for planning and preparation should be: Unless it is absolutely clear in every conceivable manner that energy supply is no longer sufficient to meet demand under conditions needed so that even the most ardent of us deniers have to concede a bit, we won’t do anything different? Nice approach to an important issue, if solving it or contributing expertise to actually be of value aren’t objectives.

Another commenter offered this:

RGR, the fact that people gave gotten the time window wrong before hardly negates the underlying truth that oil is becoming increasingly more expensive and harder to extract.
As more and more data is compiled and analyzed and models are getting more sophisticated I’d expect projections about the actual arrival of peak oil to become more accurate. Conversely, as you go back in time (where we did not have quite as much data) it seems not hard to grasp that predictions become more uncertain.

In response, RGR stated in part:

Can you explain how your life has been diminished, having spent most of it in this age of ever more expensive oil, and ever more increasing amounts available because of that increasing price, in perhaps the 4th and 5th cycles of “harder to extract”? Did it stop you from having a career? You still drive and use hydrocarbon based fuels and items derived from it as a chemical feedstock, do you not? You know plenty of other people, all still doing the same things? While proclaiming fear of a thing is common, this one has been pimpled in 3 centuries and been discredited at least 4 times in the first decade of the 21st century alone (2000, Ruppert and Savinar, 2005, Simmons, 2006, Fatih Birol, IEA, 2008 TOD).

Who’s arguing that our lives have suffered already because of peak oil concerns? That’s not and never has been the point. As I have made clear in several posts—notably the very first one—I’m not the poster child for peak oil. My family enjoys a very nice, very upper-middle class lifestyle, and I’m first in line for those who want nothing to do with any concerns about future curtailment of energy supplies.

I just happen to think that informing the uninformed that there are a number of considerations beyond the current fracking boom or 18th-Century pronouncements or what might still be buried underground or beneath the sea.

Resource totals are impressive. But as I and others have noted regularly, until the resources  become realities above ground for our benefit at affordable prices, they remain impressive big numbers—period. From my perspective, that argument is not much different than attempting to assure those struggling financially that they needn’t worry because the banks within a twenty-mile radius of their home have tens of millions of dollars on deposit. Big numbers, but until some of the dollars find their way into the bank accounts of those in need, that talking point’s utility is rather limited.

Possible, potential amounts which might possibly be extracted at some undefined point in time requiring unknown (but certainly higher) prices, energy expenditures, and effort while conventional crude oil fields continue to deplete and shale formations fail to keep pace is not “winning” anything. The nicest thing that can be said about such efforts is that they are distractions from what should be the main objective: engaging in planning and preparation now for an energy supply future which will not have as much as we’ve come to depend on or will need.

Those distractions will prove to be costly ones.

peak oil matters

3 Comments on "Peak Oil: “Malthusian Requirements”"

  1. Sugar Seam on Tue, 26th Aug 2014 7:09 am 

    “RGR” is a troll of the worst kind at USmessageboards dot com, and likely a paid shrill for the industry… At best, he’s over extended on tight oil technology shares and pathological in his denial. He runs from uncomfortable data on the fracking ” revolution,” especially decline rates, shows zero acknowledgement of the affects prices are already having on the world economy, and admires Daniel Yergin… Thats all you really need to know. Pay him little mind.

  2. rockman on Tue, 26th Aug 2014 7:32 am 

    “Can you explain how your life has been diminished…” Very easy answer: if “you” is the global population then “you” have increased your wealth transfer for oil from $1 trillion/yr to $3 trillion/yr. Or if “you” is the US population “you” have increased your wealth transfer for oi from $225 billion/yr to $625 billion/yr.

    Now if “you” is the Rockman: then hell no life hasn’t diminished! It’s improved greatly. I assume it has also done so for RGR if he is indeed a pet. engineer. The POD has been a very positive event…as long as you’re not one of the “little people” footing the bill. LOL.

  3. westexas on Tue, 26th Aug 2014 7:36 am 

    In my opinion it is very likely that actual global crude oil production (45 or lower API gravity crude oil) peaked in 2005, while global natural gas production and associated liquids (condensates & natural gas liquids) have so far continued to increase.

    The following chart shows normalized global gas, NGL and C+C production from 2002 to 2012 (2005 values = 100%).

    The following chart shows estimated normalized global condensate and crude oil production from 2002 to 2012 (2005 values = 100%). I’m assuming that the global Condensate/(C+C) Ratio was about 10% for 2002 to 2005 (versus 11% for Texas in 2005), and then I (conservatively) assume that condensate increased at the same rate as global gas production from 2005 to 2012, which is a much lower rate of increase in condensate (relative to the increase in gas production) than what we saw in Texas from 2005 to 2012.

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