“There’s no such thing as gas shortage man, its all set up by the government, everything’s controlled by the oil companies like I heard about this guy who invented a car that runs on water man, its fiber glass, air cooled and it runs on water!” – That 70’s Show
That twisty line is the road to the North Slope. The straight line is the Alaska Pipeline, see all the dead wildlife? No? Good times.
There are a lot of new readers to the site, so I thought I’d throw out some general notes:
New posts every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. My time, so if you get up early in London, might not be there yet. You know who I’m talking about.
Mondays are Big Ideas (Wilder Weekly Wisdom). Wednesday is Wealthy Wilder. And Friday is focused on health, mostly.
Energy from oil allows us to move at great speed through space, hurl our ideas to one another at nearly the speed of light, and grow and move food to feed billions that would otherwise have no chance at life. It heats us, cools us, and, most importantly, cools our beer.
Energy from oil is the most critical question of our lifetimes. Unless you count fashion. And I have NO IDEA what I’m wearing tomorrow!!!
There’s always some fuddy-duddy in the background during the party on Saturday night saying, “Hey, dudes, you are going to have SUCH a hangover tomorrow.” In the 1950s, that party was oil and the person was M. King Hubbert. And everyone smoked and drank martinis, and listened to Sinatra on their gramophones.
In a really short version, Hubbert said that there’s really only so much oil in the ground. I know that you’re saying, “Duh, John Wilder, we know that, since the Earth is essentially a finite bounded sphere.”
Well, Mr. Internet-Smart-Pants, Hubbert made his claim on a much more immediate basis. We were going to hit peak production in the whole world in 2000. Here’s his original graph:
(Source, M. King Hubbert, 1956)
Amazingly, Shell Oil paid him to do stuff like this. At work! Sounds like a job John Wilder needs.
From this, you’d take it that we currently live in a Mad Max® style Road Warrior© land populated by ex-football players chasing Mel Gibson.
But no, I have it on good advice that Australia is currently engaged in a long term war against New Zealand, where the primary combat mode consists of Australia discussing the quality of wool produced by New Zealand sheep (shameful, what!) and New Zealand continues to pummel Australia in rugby. (Note to Australia – I’ll get off your back when you get above 1% of my monthly visitor count, and I’ll start drinking Fosters® again.)
So what happened?
Well, Hubbert was really kinda exactly right.
Here’s the graph of what Hubbert predicted for United States oil production. There’s a lovely peak in 1973. Hubbert drew this out almost 20 years before then, so he nailed it, within months of actual United States oil production. This prediction was almost spot on and pointed to the first time that OPEC (Oil Producing and Eating Communists) could use oil as a weapon, which they did with the Oil Embargo of 1973. Thankfully, the federal government controlled oil prices so that they could ensure that we had very long lines at the gas stations.
(Source, M. King Hubbert, 1956)
But then we get to something interesting – here’s the graph of oil production since then. There was a secondary peak in the late 1980’s.
That secondary peak was from production coming from Alaska’s North Slope shooting down the pipeline and buying freedom and crushing the Soviet Union. Part of Reagan’s strategy to bring down USSR was to deprive it of cash. The Saudi government opened the spigots, the United States drilled away, and, the Soviet export of crude oil no longer brought it the cash it needed for Pez® and nuclear bomb parts to build more missiles to get through the missile defense screen we were pretending to build.
Reagan destroyed the Soviet Union . . . using cheap oil.
But, like I said, Hubbert was still pretty much on the nose with his US prediction, since he excluded new technology and unconventional (Arctic, Deep Sea) oil. The Arctic was really the first of the extreme locations that we looked for oil in the United States. We followed it up with locations mind-numbingly deep in the Gulf of Mexico. And that’s how we extended Hubbert’s curve. But then oil hit $120 a barrel. People freaked out! The end of cheap oil was everywhere!
First we extended Hubbert’s curve. Then we blew it out of the water (in BP’s case, they took that a little too literally in the Gulf of Mexico).
That last little spike upward? That’s oil from fracking. Yes, whereas “frack” used to just be a made-up cussword (you know, like “felgercarb”) on Battlestar Galactica, “frack” now stands for money.
Fracking is the process of drilling horizontally into an oil-bearing layer of rock and jacking the pressure up higher than a Colorado bed and breakfast. Bits of sand and chemicals are introduced to hold open cracks in the rocks to allow oil to flow out. And how does it work?
The oil and gas produced from fracking allowed the US to reach near all-time production in a relative eye-blink of a time. It’s distorted the entire economic picture of the world again, since the US can effectively produce a significant amount of its required production in a fairly quick period of just a few years.
This new technology allowed the world to find new reserves that were unthinkable in the 1950’s.
But are they good reserves? Fracked oil and gas produces about 85 units for each unit of energy invested.
Let’s compare them to the rest of the crowd:
By Mrfebruary – Own work Data from Table 2, Murphy, D. J. and Hall, C. A. S. (2010), Year in review—EROI or energy return on (energy) invested. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1185: 102–118. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05282.x http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05282.x/pdf, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16238068
Wow. Fracked oil produces MUCH more energy than most everything we currently produce. And while we’re right now fracking only the best spots, and the return on energy will drop, it’s still really, really high. Oil sands up in Canada have about a 4:1 return, so I expect, based on their relatively poor energy production (plus huge unpopularity) that they’ll not be an investment hub in the near future.
And, I’ll admit – I didn’t see this coming. My original take on fracking was that it was a side-show – that the energy produced would actually be an energy drag on us – taking almost as much energy to produce as it took to drill the wells. Nope. Totally wrong. Fracking will be with us for decades.
Why do I predict this?
- People like driving.
- People like plastic things.
- People don’t like living cold and in the dark.
- Given the current return on energy invested? Fracked oil is huge.
I would guess we have at least 10 years’ worth of high quality fracked oil, if not 20 or 30. I don’t have the data (and couldn’t find it easily) but this may be the most important question of your life – how does fracked oil impact the Hubbert curve?
I know that many folks are of the hope that we will get rid of oil, natural gas, and especially coal. I’m sorry for you, really, because as the graph of United States energy consumption shows (below):
- Renewables are pitifully small and, if they keep growing at this rate, might be 20% of the energy in the country by 2435.
- Oil use dropped when it was a $120 a barrel. Headed back up now.
- Natural gas is now much cheaper than a decade ago since they’re finding it everywhere (fracking). Huge growth.
- Coal has dropped, primarily due to making it tough on coal electricity providers. Still a huge player in electricity production.
- Nuclear is level. The things are horribly hard to build and hard to get rid of, too.
- Biomass is steady-ish.
- Hydroelectric (our best ROI!) is flat and at the bottom. Nobody wants a new dam, but you have to have dams to have the cleanest energy source possible.
But let’s see how that compares to the rest of the world:
By Martinburo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53803246Oil
- Oil, increasing.
- Coal, increasing. A bit of a drop off (probably mainly the US).
- Natural gas. Steady.
- Meh. Mainly replacing nuclear.
- Nuclear – dropping off.
I’m pretty much at the point where, although I see that forests of wind farms have been built, and California has this Death Star® array where they fry birds with a million mirrors focused on a big Rubik’s Cube® filled with molten salt, I’m not impressed. Okay, I really am impressed that they talked someone into building this Dr. Evil-style structure out in the desert, and I’m expecting it to show up in the 2028 movie, Kingsmen: Diamonds Sunlight are is Forever.
Just like you, I’d love to live in a world powered by clean, renewable energy, where everyone loved one another, and Disney® wasn’t in the process of destroying Star Wars©, but that’s not where we live, and if we tried to go there?
Billions would die. (not from the Star Wars™ thing, but from the lack of energy thing)
Fortunately, not many would die where I live, but mainly in the rest of the world. I’d be fine, and, probably you too since you’re a reader of this blog and thus smarter than 99.999% of humanity and everyone in Australia (again, Australia, I know you speak English, so start visiting and I’ll activate a truce).
Unless we get a breakthrough in physics or oil suddenly disappears from the Earth due to a virus cunningly devised by an evil scientist named Mike, oil will be the primary power source for decades. After that?
It’s the most crucial question that we’ll ever face as a species.
Except for fashion.
Oh, I do know what I’ll wear tomorrow! That was easy!