Saturday, 3 August 2013

Peak Oil, EROEI and the Muffled Drum

An interesting thing happened last month.  The Oil Drum, a well-regarded website + blog, announced it was ceasing operations and archiving itself for posterity.  Well, everything has its day - we can all list blogs that were thriving a few years back but are no longer with us.

Some have suggested it was the extraordinary shale-based renaissance of US gas and oil production that did for the Drum.  Probably not.  But, fairly or unfairly, the Drum was associated with 'peak oil', which at its simplest is a view (or theory or doctrine or whatever) that global oil production - as a function of oil-in-the-ground - is doomed to peak, after which we start 'running out of oil'.  

At its simplest, it is Malthusian hogwash.  Of course, there are more nuanced versions than that, and the Drum shouldn't be tarred with the brush one would use for countering hogwash.  Much more important is the concept of EROEI - energy return on energy invested, which has been another Drum favourite.  And this concept really does bear careful consideration.  Declining EROEI could be the end of civilisation as we know it for, in the immortal words of James Lovelock - "civilisation is energy-intensive".  Better believe it. 

So - no more drum-beat.  But you'll not stop hearing about EROEI.



dearieme said...

I agree. Of all the resource-exhaustion scares since the sixties, "peak oil" was probably the only one worth pondering. My interpretation of it was that it said that the production rate of conventional oil would peak and decline. As far as I know that's still entirely plausible - indeed, for all I know the decline has started. It's only an idiot, though, who would summarise it as "the oil is going to run out", or who would neglect the possibility of unconventional petroleum sources becoming a bigger deal.

You're also right that EROEI is well worth keeping an eye on.

andrew said...

how hard is it to get energy to the right place and time

vv cheap and easy to get solar in the Sahara over 5 years.
not so cheap to get hydrazine in orbit next Tuesday.

Budgie said...

Well, empty drums do make the most noise.

I have noticed that when environmentalists potty simplistic ideas get exposed as potty they don't recant, they make their theory more complex and abstruse. Hence CAGW becomes "Climate Change"!!!!

EROEI is just such a theory. We have no need to worship it. When religious/Malthusian/conspiracy-theory overtones are avoided any sense in it is pretty obvious: in the (recent) past oil has got progressively more expensive to extract. And that this is predicted to continue.

Blow me down wiv a barge pole, Guv, innit??!?!!

Elby the Beserk said...

On the matter of peak oil, Monbiot's distress when he realised it was, as with so much that the poor fool espouses, a load of bollocks, was a delight to witness.

Elby the Beserk said...

Budgie - "Climate Change" is so so passée - it's "Extreme weather" now. Next? Who knows?

Blue Eyes said...

Well, oil may run out eventually. And society will collapse entirely overnight. Have you not seen Mad Max?

I think it's unlikely to run out before we have started to think about more advanced energy sources. Dilithium crystals and matter-anti-matter systems. Fusion will be with us in the next twenty years. "lol"

But seriously, we are never going to run out suddenly, and I am confident that the evil free market with its capitalists wanting to invest in high returns will manage to invent something before the wells run dry.

The blue robots might come and help us out.

Anonymous said...

Apparently there was a 'peak wood' scare in the Elizabethan era. Spiked did something on it a while back.

Anonymous said...

Elby "Extreme weather". No, no its 'climate chaos' or perhaps 'Global weirding'

Budgie said...

Elby and Anon, what fun - you are right. But the BBC and the LibLabCon is still stuck at the Climate Change stage.

Bill Quango MP said...

There was indeed a peak wood scare in the elizabethan era. Forest holdings were highly sought after. Charcol was required for iron smelting.
As well as all domestic fuel being wood.

Wood was the principal energy source building material, tool manufacture and military arms resource for bows, crossbows,cannon and of course ship building.
Wood never did run out. But in certain areas it became scarce, and so prices rose.
And timber was not really transportable on a large scale in Elizabethan times.

So the coalfields of Tyneside near the rivers came into being. Transporting coal around the kingdom. Not effectively though, until the canals and steam engine, but effectively enough to end PEAK WOOD.

Anonymous said...

What part of "finite" don't you people understand?

Nick Drew said...

Anon - I don't understand why anyone considers human ingenuity to be finite

to believe in 'finite' is to go short human ingenuity, never a smart thing to do

if God had wanted us to fly, he'd have given us ... brains

hear endeth the lesson: thanks be to God

andrew said...

I look forwards to reading articles on peak brains

after all, we are only so clever and it is well known that the Internet makes us more stupid

dearieme said...

"I look forwards to reading articles on peak brains": here you are.

Anonymous said...

"Anon - I don't understand why anyone considers human ingenuity to be finite"

And I dont understand why anyone thinks they can power a house or a car on ingenuity.

"to believe in 'finite' is to go short human ingenuity, never a smart thing to do"
.....dear God... not another 'positive thinker'. When will we be rid of them.
Your belief in infinity is touching. Could you let us know more of your opinions and I'll send them off to Celine Dion to use in her lyrics.

On peak oil, Canterrel (sp?) in Mexico has peaked, as have various other south american fields. Russia and north sea too. EROEI was _always_ what peak oil was about. Easy Oil has peaked. We may be able to generate more energy from other sources but the chemical derivatives from oil will also continue to rise in price - in particular fertilizer and thus food prices.
good luck getting that from shale, wind or solar.

Anonymous said...

In the history of human civilisation not a single resource that has been discovered has ever run out.
Not tin, copper, lead, iron, bronze, coal, oil, zinc, gold, diamonds, silver or uranium,

Ask yourself how something as precious as gold, sought out for 5000 years by mankind, is still being mined.
It's rare. It exists only in limited locations. It makes the finder rich., And it has been a precious metal for 1000 s of years.

Yet still it is still found and mined.
You are right about price and supply link. Gold proves it as its not only a scarce metal but a financial product.

Wrong about thinking "something else" wont replace fossil fuels. The whole history of man proves it will.
There are Elizabethan tracts that say the tree supply is finite and the kingdom will perish.

A law that granted licence to some forests for felling but not others was introduced and coal use increased. The wood crisis passed.

You may argue that trees are renewable. But the crisis was that tree chopping was proceeding faster than tree growing. The kingdom needed X trees a day to flourish , but had enough only for Y which would lead to contraction, famine, rebellion and anarchy.

Timber today has a similar issue. The rain forests cool the planet but are chopped down faster than they grow.
If it got serious enough, elizabethan serious say, the rather lame and tame laws that the Eu has on banned wood would actually be enforced.

Sackerson said...

The Oil Drum people say they didn't have enough contributors to keep going, plus internet reading is changing - more writers, fewer readers per piece.

One of the authors says he could get more hits by being sensational but didn't want to go that way, and I think we can all see what tends to generate more interest.

I do get the sense that attention span is declining and there's more emphasis on flashy ephemera. Don't we see politics playing to this trend?

So as far as TOD is concerned, ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

Nick Drew said...

anon @ 12:48

I am a true conservative and thus by nature a pessimist / realist

I have also a keen historical and empirical bent and I know what the evidence tells us

to repeat myself, if God had wanted us to fly ... We could also add: the stone age didn't end for want of stone

the wood crisis in England reappeared at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and nearly killed it stone dead in infancy: but ...

there is a tin mine in Cornwall: when they introduced their first beam-engine for pumping out the water, their operating costs fell by 90, that's ninety, percent

that's how the world moves forward - in leaps that are so big as to beggar the imagination: except they happen all the time

I have told the story of the aftermath of the Piper Alpha catastrophe here before: summary - just when you think the costs of something are going to become terminally prohibitive, a vastly cheaper way of achieving the same end comes along

you never know quite what it will be - but it always happens

something it's important to know

old Enron traders' motto: if in doubt, go short - because there is always more of everything than anyone imagines

this is not 'Positive Thinking', it's pure empiricism

Ian Brett Cooper said...

"that global oil production - as a function of oil-in-the-ground - is doomed to peak, after which we start 'running out of oil'.

At its simplest, it is Malthusian hogwash."

Yeah, because everyone knows that on a finite planet, oil is infinite, right?

TDR said...

ND is only saying an alternative comes along. It really does.

Why is shale gas on the menu now?
100 years of new gas supply. Yet 30 years ago it wasn't?
That is what Nick is explaining

As anon pointed out, maybe you could tell us which of the finite elements of the earth have run out in the last million years?
Just saying 'oil is finite' isn't what the article is saying. Guano is finite. Rare and finite. Yet it never ran out because an alternative came along.

You can make oil from coal if you want to. Been able to do that since the 1900s. Nazi Germany had 1/3 of its oil from synthetic fuels. Ran a war effort on it. The article is explaining just that sort of concept.
Nazi Germany, running an industrialised, militarised economy without access to vast oil reserves 'found a way'.'

No one else much bothered because they had access to cheaper oil coming out of the ground. Better quality oil.

But if the oil begins to run out, then synthetic oil begins to look attractive. And with modern production methods, future refining know how, it surely would be possible to do on a large scale. Its already being lobbied. Give the same subsidy as green energy and you could do it now.

Not to hard to understand, surely.

Come back in 2045 and tell us all about the looming 'peak hybrid-coal' crisis?

Nick Drew said...

thank you, TDR

you can come here again !

Anonymous said...

In this context This might be a worthwhile video.

Anonymous said...

TDR: "As anon pointed out, maybe you could tell us which of the finite elements of the earth have run out in the last million years?"

Most of the industrial metals are recyclable, so that probably be none.

Now, the problem is, oil isn't recyclable, but it is the foundation of our agrigucultural fertilizers that help feed the population of technicians that keep the technological society ticking over. And running the machines that are the technological society - even if you want to re cycle the materials that have been used once, it is an energy intensive process to convert a car back into it's usable constituents.

So we ought to put some energy rich source in place pretty damn quick - my favorite is nuclear fission, since we don't seem to have managed fusion yet.

Windmills, an utter non starter and complete waste of resources.

Oh, gas phracking for a hundred years, Wow! The Saudi oil fields are already in decline after only seventy years.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the "peak oil" zeitgeist is not the concept that oil will one day peak, but how it happens.

The zeitgeist goes that one day oil will peak and costs will spiral and civilisation will collapse in five years or whatever. It's all very exciting and sure to get people to talk about your documentaries.

In reality it's much more likely that costs will begin to rise before the peak and will make alternatives economical. Also switching to more expensive alternatives before the peak would be silly (as shown by wind and solar).

Now you could say that we should be researching alternative methods for when the time comes but we already are, hence the rather sudden shale revolution. Even current fusion tech might work if we mined He-3 from the moon but it's just not economical.

Long term fission isn't that great. After decades of looking we've only found about 100 years worth of uranium worldwide. We will find more when we need it but that's an argument for anything.

Then there's things like the currently untapped methane hydrates that will make environmentalists shit a brick, though Japan generally doesn't give a fuck about Western hippies.

This is all "EROEI" but the zeitgeist brings along fellow travellers who are still obsessed with the oil, hence why it is ridiculed. If we're going to be talking about finite resources and exponential growth then we're really in Kardashev territory and oil will be long irrelevant when it happens. But shouting about "the oil" is just so much more provocative and fits many modern narratives.

Now some problems with oil even after it does peak would be plastics and transport. However even in these areas bioplastics are moving along and I wouldn't be surprised if we see a major battery breakthrough in a decade or two as new materials like graphene are harnessed and companies pursue better batteries for their mobile electronics.

Sackerson said...

Anon - most interesting comments. Would you consider writing a piece for Broad Oak's Energy Page?

Please contact at

Best wishes


Sebastian Weetabix said...

I wager thruppence that Ian Brett Cooper is an arts graduate. No engineer would write anything that daft.

Anonymous said...

How is Tim Morgan wrong when he says that the key features of EROEI are

a) the economy is a surplus energy equation

b) energy will become more expensive (absent something like thorium)

c) the amount of energy available to the economy will drop because so much more of it will be used up in energy production. Didn't need much energy to put up a derrick in Titusville, but it costs a lot to put an ocean platform in place.

It's not "just" oil - ALL forms of energy are getting more expensive.

One other factor - just suppose thorium or fusion comes to the rescue, we still can't produce infinite amounts - we don't want our atmosphere to leg it one day like that of Mars.

"The trees do not grow up to the sky" - yet there seems to be an almost religious conviction that they will.

dearieme said...

Oliver Rackham, the woodland historian, is of the view that tales of wood crises in English history are bollocks, or "factoids" as he more politely puts it. He doesn't doubt that people told each other that there was a crisis, but says there's ample evidence that there was no such crisis in fact.

He also admits that he can cite as much evidence as he likes, but people will go on telling each other about these crises that never were.

Nick Drew said...

one of the things about 'shortages' is, they tend to nudge prices upwards ...

remember stories about how champagne was going to run out at the millenium ? or how there was a world shortage of chianti ? or how bananas would soon be extinct ?

cui bono: now I wonder who put those stories out ...

Anonymous said...

The theoretical oil rig at sea in 2013 benefits much more from the economy of scale (including improved tech) than the derrick in 1953, and especially the one in 1858. So as a percentage of expenses it might be about the same or less. Even if not, a bigger global economy can afford bigger expenses anyway (though obviously not forever). Comparing very mature old techs and new techs is apples and oranges.

In the very long run we also need to be mining space and getting power direct from the sun. That doesn't mean mining gold or solar panels, but more like scraping kilograms of rare particles from Jupiter's atmosphere or building some kind of Dyson sphere near the sun.

But we still have centuries of more conventional fuels left on Earth and most likely many more new ones to be discovered so it's not worth going for radical solutions yet, and when we need to we'd presumably have much more advanced tech that makes it cheaper to do.

Basically, it seems to me that:

1) Growth in energy consumption is not out of hand and only grows (or shrinks) a couple of percentage points a year. It will probably grow even slower once Asia is more developed (and then presumably we will see a repeat in Africa). It is not exponential.

2) We have enough known energy supplies to still last us a couple of centuries even with current technology. We also have huge space for improvements in efficiency of energy use (even just transporting energy still has about 33% loss but some areas such as electronics have seen huge improvements).

3) Worrying where humans will harvest their energy in 300 years isn't worth our time as we have no idea what tech will be available. They might find even more new resources on Earth or maybe they'll have to go to space. What will they do when they deplete the solar system or the cold universe strikes? Who cares?

Overall you just never know. Even virtual presence might become a thing and nobody will travel anymore.

Sackerson said...

ND: "remember stories about how champagne was going to run out at the millenium ? or how there was a world shortage of chianti ? or how bananas would soon be extinct ?

"cui bono: now I wonder who put those stories out ..."

Remember the "salt shortage" of 1974, that came shortly after the sugar rationing that year?,3351268&dq=salt+shortage&hl=en

Weekend Yachtsman said...

I remember hearing, when I was at school in the early 60's, that there was only 35 years' supply of oil left in the world.

There still is.

Nick Drew said...

WY - there's another well-known phenomenon in play: the more straightforward it is to recover a raw material, the lower the recoverable reserves are assessed to be in terms of year's supply

this is because, if it's easier to get at, producers don't bother to prove up so much in advance - they are confident it will be there when the need some more

this was seen most clearly when the US natural gas industry was liberalised: producers became more confident of the market, and left their discoveries in the 'discovered but not fully proven reserves' state for longer

so the number of years' proven reserves in the USA fell - and opponents of liberalisation got very excited: but as you say, with every passing year, the number of years supply stayed the same

the amount of known oil in the ground is vast (and gas, even vaster) - it's just not in places being exploited right now, for a range of reasons - technical, geographical and political

Anonymous said...

"Growth in energy consumption is not out of hand and only grows (or shrinks) a couple of percentage points a year. It will probably grow even slower once Asia is more developed (and then presumably we will see a repeat in Africa). It is not exponential."

If it grows by a percentage point, two percentage points or even .001 of a percentage point each year it IS exponential. That's the definition thereof.

Look at Tim Morgan's graphs of world GDP, world population and world energy use 1750-2000. The question he asks - "when will the exponential increase stop, and how ?" is a reasonable one.

His answer - "it stopped ten years ago" is arguable, but worth arguing.

"the amount of known oil in the ground is vast (and gas, even vaster"

Isn't the increasing cost of extracting it that's the problem?

Anonymous said...

The definition of exponential is a constant proportional change. Energy consumption can grow by 2% one year, 4% the next, and -1% the next. That is not exponential growth. It may look exponential but it's a fallacy to run it to infinity as if it was.

It's much more likely that energy consumption fits a logistic curve like population does, especially since energy consumption is tightly tied to population.

Global population is predicted to peak and fall (how far?) this century. Energy consumption will probably continue to grow as there are still so many undeveloped parts of the world but energy consumption per capita has been flat or dropping in developed countries since the 70s (surely partly due to outsourcing).

The last ten years are a strange time, not least because 6 of them have been in a recession. Green policies have probably prevented growth but also encouraged more efficient energy use (especially cars and electronics).

Increasing costs of attaining energy is really the only question that matters but it's hard to say if it will really be more expensive. Would it even matter if it costs twice as much to attain energy if everything is ten times more efficient so that energy lasts much longer?

Oil is kind of special in that it's easy to acquire and can be used by everyone and put in their cars but we're definitely moving towards electric cars and hopefully everything except the power stations themselves will be electrical in the future (hence why I think that new battery developments could be much more exciting than most people expect).

In terms of actual physical extraction it could go in any number of ways. What if in a hundred years every country is into drone warfare so drones are dirt cheap and applied to other tasks such as deep mining? We just don't know and trying to predict the future only based on current knowledge leads to ridiculous Malthusian style predictions such as world famine by 1980.

Anonymous said...

Also a mirror to "peak oil/energy" would be "the singularity", which also seems to have become widespread and popular in the last ten years.

The singularity idea is based on Moore's Law which states that computing power about doubles every 18 months, mostly down to better tech and increased efficiency. It's then also illogically run to infinity to prove that humans will soon become all knowing.

Both ideas are silly but they cancel each other out into something more likely to be reality.

Interestingly, Moore's Law also seems to have peaked. We haven't really been getting much more out of raw CPUs for close to a decade and have instead been using parallelisation to increase performance while improving efficiency to keep temperatures down and thus energy use stable. These types of CPUs can also be slowed down to become even more efficient, hence the smartphone and tablet revolution.

So we hit "peak silicon" almost ten years ago yet computers are much faster now. Weird things happen in the future.

Anonymous said...

"Moore's Law also seems to have peaked. We haven't really been getting much more out of raw CPUs for close to a decade"

Laws of physics. At a clock speed of 3GHz, electric current (or the impulse to be exact) can only travel a maximum of 10 cm per cycle.