The logic that anchors peak oil is beyond simple—there’s a finite amount of the black stuff, and we’ll eventually run out of it. The question of when, precisely, we’ll hit bottom is the matter of intense speculation, and for good reason. No substance is more uniquely integral to the current hardwiring of the global economy than oil, and if we’re going to run dry, we should probably make some preparations.
As in, implement alternative ways to make our plastic stuff, move our cars, fly our planes (if we’re to keep flying at all), and so on and so forth. Right now, it’s borderline conventional wisdom that we’ve more or less hit peak oil now. Oil execs have said so. Economic forecasters have said so. Scientists have said so. Saudi Arabians have said so.
There’s of course another factor in our perception of peak oil; and that’s the fact that it’d actually be pretty great news for the planet, and, by extension, for this little human civilization thing we’ve got going. Burning hydrocarbons is a lead contributor to climate change, and the fact that oil is drying up is an important tool for persuading governments and businesses to cut that shit out. But some of those businesses are oil companies, and they, obvs, have a vested interest in maintaining the current set of expectations for their industry. They’re also, obvs, among the richest and most powerful forces on earth.
All of the above is a lengthy lead-up to where we’re at today: A new report has been making headlines by proclaiming peak oil is bunk. Production will rise by 2020, by a pretty significant degree—like from about 90 million barrels produced today to 110 mbd by the end of the decade.
Production will boom in Iraq, the US, Canada, thanks largely to burgeoning political stability in the former (!) and better technology with which to extract shale oil in the latter. If true, it would be a pretty definitive rebuke to those who say we’re anywhere near to peak oil. The renowned British environmental writer George Monbiot despairs at the implications:
There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us, and no obvious means to prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground. Twenty years of efforts to prevent climate breakdown through moral persuasion have failed, with the collapse of the multilateral process at Rio de Janeiro last month. The world’s most powerful nation is again becoming an oil state, and if the political transformation of its northern neighbour is anything to go by, the results will not be pretty.
Humanity seems to be like the girl in Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth: she knows that if she eats the exquisite feast laid out in front of her, she too will be consumed, but she cannot help herself. I don’t like raising problems when I cannot see a solution. But right now I’m not sure how I can look my children in the eyes.
Sweet Moses, that’s grim. But let’s sit tight for a second, because that report, which was prepared with the input of BP by an ex-oil exec, is under heavy fire for being waaaaaaaay too optimistic. I won’t dig through all the details of the Oil Drum’s extremely skeptical and thorough takedown, but, essentially, this: Iraq likely won’t be stable enough to ramp up production anywhere near to what’s predicted, way too much confidence is piled on horizontal drilling technology, and the decline in oil wells isn’t properly accounted for.
And the International Energy Administration hasn’t changed its tune in warning that the age of cheap fuel is over, thanks to production peaking.
But the debate itself raises the must-ponders peak oil talk inevitably dredges up: Would an earlier-than-expected arrival of peak oil be welcome or disastrous? How best might we integrate expectations of peak oil with climate concerns, especially when the public perceives predictions of both as vague doom-saying?
Big questions. I, alas, have no big answers.