Every once in while, I read something on the internet that boils my blood. Last year it was the utter nonsense coming from the beauty industry about the benefits of deep-sea water (Which won me a Fuzzy). Now it is ramblings from Nick Szabo. Who is Szabo?
Nicholas Szabo holds a Juris Doctor degree from The George Washington University and a Bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Washington. He has substantial experience in the areas of Internet security, e-commerce, and software engineering, and is widely read in history, economics, and science.
Apparently, all this education has convinced Nick that peak oil is nonsense and deep-sea deposits will sustain us for years.
Peak oil is based on the Hubbert peak theory. Basically it states that single oil field is finite and thus production from that field will follow a normal curve, with production peaking and eventually dwindling due to resource depletion. Oil companies to predict future yields use this theory routinely.
This theory has been extended to predict a global peak for all oil reserves. Hubbert himself accurately predicted the peak for U.S. oil (late 1970’s) in 1956. He predicted a global peak sometime around now. There are alternative models that largely make the same predictions. Have we already hit peak? Several advocates and members of industry think so. Of course, all this generates controversy and criticism. Most of the criticism centers on pointing to inability of the model to predict a definite year (e.g., we have passed many of the previous prediction dates). Irregardless of whether the peak is 1999, 2003, 2006, 2010, 2021, there seems to be little evidence that there will not be a depletion of oil in our lifetime.
So what does Szabo say?
There are any number of reasons why peak oil is nonsense, such as tar sands and coal gasification.
Szabo’s links direct you to the Wikipedia entry for the Athabasca Oil Sands, large deposit of oil-rich bitumen located in northern Alberta, Canada. What is bitumen you ask? It’s a petroleum relative that is heavily degraded. The World Energy Council has this to say…
The result of [bitumen’s] chemistry is an array of problems beyond those encountered with conventional petroleum with respect to exploitation, transportation, storage, and refining. This, of course, is reflected in the increased cost of extraction and processing and the physical limitations on production capacity…Because of the chemical nature of the crude, it may be assumed that enhanced recovery methods are required for production.
So how many barrels of crude does the Athabasca Deposit hold? 174 billion barrels. In 2003 the U.S. alone consumed ~16 billion barrels. Assuming our consumption has not gone up (it has), no one else needs oil (they do), and we will be to extract 100% for actual usage (we won’) this will last all of about 11 years. Based on another estimate of global consumption this is enough to last 5.6 years.
So what about coal gasification? Converting coal to gas. Of course the process itself, yields a C02 emissions and it takes nearly 1000lbs of coal to run a computer for one year. Current estimates place the total reserves of the globe enough to sustain our current energy budget for 600 years assuming energy usage does not rise (it has and will) and we can access all these deposits (we cannot).
So what else is there?
Perhaps the most overlooked, however, is that up until now oil companies have focused on land and shallow seas, which are relatively easy to explore. But there is no reason to expect that oil, which was largely produced by oceans in the first place (especially by the precipitation of dead plankton), is any more scarce underneath our eon’s oceans as it is under our lands. Oceans cover over two-thirds of our planet’s surface, and most of that is deep water (defined in this series as ocean floor 1,000 meters or more below the surface). A very large fraction of the oil on our planet remains to be discovered in deep water. Given a reasonable property rights regime enforced by major developed world powers, this (along with the vast tar sands in Canada) means not only copious future oil, but that this oil can mostly come from politically stable areas.
So what of these massive offshore deposits? There is Lease Sale 181 in the Gulf of Mexico, large enough to support 2/3 of the annual need for mobile homes in the U.S. for 15 years. The North Sea oil field hit peak production in 2004 and fell 18.5% in 2005. The USGS estimates that the total unexplored, offshore reserve is 300 billion barrels. So the amount we have not accessed as of yet would last the world 9.5 years (at 84,000,000 barrels a day).
Szabo is right, oil will sustains us for years to come, almost 20 or even 30. That means I can drive my Hummer around until I well into my 50’s. Those are going to be some very sweet times indeed. I can take my three-armed children down to the beach, its surely going to be a warm day, and play in the acidic ocean. And as I am driving home in my wonderfully large SUV, we can enjoy the beautiful sunset because of increased particulates in the air. What a glorious time!
Joking aside, clearly offshore deposits, tar fields, or coal are not going to solve the problem despite what Szabo says.