Well Oiled

William Bowles • 13 December 2004
  

I had another piece ready for publication but I got a lot of feedback (50/50 in support and against) on the ‘Peak Oil’ piece that I thought needed to be addressed first. I’ll try and summarise the various views as briefly as possible.

1. The first, and major issue is I think the question of whether ‘Peak Oil’ has already or within the near future that is by 2010, peaked as the supporters of ‘Peak Oil’ contend, based upon the assumption that the really large deposits have all been discovered and that the rate of consumption is growing larger than the existing and new finds can keep pace with. That eventually, nation will fight nation over oil (not that this is anything new, it’s been happening for more than one hundred years already, hence one of the other arguments for the ‘Peak Oil’ hypothesis, namely that ownership/control of energy will lead to war is already a fact of life well before the question of its eventual depletion became an issue).

2. Loosely connected to this is the abiotic theory of the origins of oil that essentially boils down to the view that oil is being continually produced deep within the earth – as we speak, so-to-speak – so it can’t get used up, hence there’s no such thing as ‘Peak Oil’. Of course, even assuming that the abiotic view is correct, is replenishment happening faster than consumption?

My view is that I have no idea whether the abiotic theory is correct or not and in any case my objection to the notion of ‘Peak Oil’ doesn’t rest on the abiotic theory, for all I know both ideas about the origins of oil might be correct. But briefly, the theory of the abiotic generation of oil says that firstly, any oil found near the surface has leaked up from deep below the deepest layers where life is found and that’s why it’s ‘contaminated’ with biological organisms (hence the two hundred year-old idea that it has a biological origin). And it’s true that three of the former Soviet Union’s biggest oil deposits were found at great depths, well below where any biological formation could occur.

Be that as it may, whether true or false, it makes not a whit of difference to the essential question that seems to underlay the ‘Peak Oil’ thesis; will ‘running out of oil’ mean the end of civilisation as we know it? And the answer is no, simply because power generation is switching to gas of which there is at least two hundred years worth available.

Professsor Odell’s succinct essay addresses this issue extremely well, a piece that none of my critics referred to at all. Let me repeat a part of what Prof. Odell has to say on the subject

‘The Global Energy Market in the Long Term: The Continuing Dominance of Affordable Non-Renewable Resources’ by Professor Emeritus Peter Odell. Prof. Odell points out that the fuel of the 21st century is increasingly gas not oil
“Natural gas supplies are thus indicated to continue to expand to 2090, when global production is predicated output 5.5 times its year 2000 level. On the other hand, as oil’s output is anticipated to start slowly declining from the 2050s, its contribution to the total hydrocarbons supply ultimately falls from its year 2000 contribution of 65 per cent to 44 per cent by 2050 and to under 29 per cent by 2100".
In other words, for roughly the next one hundred years, energy supplies will actually increase and this is without other sources of energy being developed and it also assumes that energy consumption will increase at its current or at an even higher rate.

Frankly, I think the abiotic theory is being used as a red herring by the ‘Peak Oil’ enthusiasts (which is why I gave it only one short paragraph and I’m sorry I did even that now) and has no direct bearing on the issue.

3. I’ve also been accused of merely ‘rehashing’ Lynch’s ‘theories’ as they put it and claiming that although both are theories (Campbell’s and Lynch’s), Campbell’s is right and Lynch’s isn’t. In part they claim that’s because Lynch doesn’t accept that Saudi Arabia has ‘cooked the books’ when it comes to known/accessible reserves and have over-inflated the numbers.

Critics of Lynch also say that Campbell’s continued revision upwards (three times since 1987) of the date when ‘Peak Oil’ is reached doesn’t fundamentally alter his analysis, it just pushes forward the date and the numbers a few years. The real problem here is that as Lynch points out, Campbell and co have never made the numbers that their assertions are based on, public, so how are they to be accurately challenged? Lynch (and others) overcame this problem by doing their own research and relying on the research of others including the fact that most of the planet has not been surveyed for oil, another assertion that is contested by my (and Lynch’s) critics.

Lynch makes the point that although US domestic oil production peaked in 1970
“Certainly there is enough evidence of abundance to explode the myth of a geological constraint on oil production. By any geological measure, exploitations levels in the rest of the world are much lower than in the United States in 1970, the year that lower-48 production peaked and began its decline. For example, the average well in the United States produces 11 b/d, while the average well in S. America produces 80 b/d. In the Far East, the amount is 300, the South Pacific 500, Africa 780, and so forth. (All estimates exclude OPEC countries, where well productivity is much higher).
“Similarly, the total number of wells drilled historically in the United States as of 1970, the year that production peaked in the lower-48 states, was 33.4 per 100 square kilometers of sedimentary basin. Yet, in the rest of the world, the number is less than one. And at current drilling rates, it will be nearly 400 years before they reach the 1970 U.S. level; even if drilling grows by 5% per year, it will still take 120 years. And in the interim, oil production technology will have advanced even further.

“Only by arguing that there is some magical difference between the geology of the U.S. and all other oil-producing regions can one expect that they must peak any time in the next several decades, if then. Essentially, the only evidence of a production peak in the next two decades is a mathematical model which has repeatedly forecast false peaks.

“Oil production trends are determined by the level of drilling and investment, the primary indicators of change in production capacity. And the past few years clearly demonstrate that at $18/bbl, investment will be more than enough to ensure rapid growth in non-Middle East oil production. Whether that oil is labelled conventional or unconventional is a philosophical question; the origin of their gasoline matters not to motorists.” – ‘Farce this Time: Renewed Pessimism about Oil Supply’, Michael C. Lynch

4. I am it also appears, ‘contravening’ the latest fad in Armageddon theories, the so-called ‘Carrying Capacity’ limit of the planet’s biosphere, which is according to the theory anyway, around two billion people, although they don’t explain how we’re four billion already and clearly the ‘carrying capacity’ has gotten carried along somewhat (just like Campbell’s). (The two billion number comes from the amount of nitrogen fixed into various biological organisms and the amount needed to keep it all rocking along.)

In other words, it’s a variation on Malthus’ theory that population (first advanced in 1780 or thereabouts) would outstrip food production, something that didn’t (and hasn’t) happened because Malthus didn’t allow for advances in food production. At any rate, there is at any given time more than enough of almost everything for everybody to live a healthy and productive life being produced and there has been for several decades, so clearly the Malthusian view is rubbish. Perhaps a quote from Malthus himself highlights the ideological underpinnings of the ‘overpopulation’ argument
“All children who are born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to a desired level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the death of grown persons…. Therefore … we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavoring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. “Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlement in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and restrain those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they are doing a service to mankind by protecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.”” -Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population

5. The Global Warming issue and carbon emissions, on which there seems to be general agreement that it’s the bigger threat (and probably too late to stop given that it’s had two centuries to pump an awful lot of energy into the system, that once tipped is going to have an even greater amount taken out of circulation in order to put things back the way they were, surely an impossible task).

The problem here, as I stated originally, is that many issues are being conflated into one, not the least of which is the perennial issue of ‘over-population’ which has I contend been added to the debate about ‘Peak Oil’ for ideological reasons.

In the 1960s and 70s, the issue of over-population once more came to the fore, advanced by the leading proponents of US imperialism including Robert McNamara, former head of the World Bank and chief architect of the Vietnam War, members of the infamous ‘Club of Rome’ and so forth and one must ask the question why at that particular period of history, the issue of ‘over-population’ attracted so much attention?
“In searching for a new enemy to unite us, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like would fit the bill…. But in designating them as the enemy, we fall into the trap of mistaking symptoms for causes. All these dangers are caused by human intervention and it is only through changed attitudes and behavior that they can be overcome. The real enemy, then, is humanity itself.” — Club of Rome, The First Global Revolution, 1991
So it’s humanity itself that is the ‘enemy’? But which portion of humanity is up for the chop? Why it’s the poor of course!

“Overpopulation and rapid demographic growth of Mexico is already today one of the major threats to the national security of the United States.” Unless the U.S.-Mexico border is sealed, “we will be up to our necks in Mexicans for whom we cannot find jobs.” —Robert McNamara, then-World Bank president, March 19, 1982

“…There are only two possible ways in which a world of 10 billion people can be averted. Either the current birth rates must come down more quickly. Or the current death rates must go up. “There is no other way. “There are, of course, many ways in which the death rates can go up. In a thermonuclear age, war can accomplish it very quickly and decisively. Famine and disease are nature’s ancient checks on population growth, and neither one has disappeared from the scene…. “To put it simply: Excessive population growth is the greatest single obstacle to the economic and social advancement of most of the societies in the developing world.” —Robert McNamara, Oct. 2, 1979

Note when these quotes were made, twenty-five-plus years ago and obviously neither of McNamara’s predictions came to pass. It’s a fact that agrarian, subsistence economies require high birthrates due to the high death rate and the need to have plenty of hands due to the low efficiency of agricultural production. The intervention of colonialism changed all that but without raising the level of development to the point that reduced the rate of population increase through development, as very little actual development took place. Hence the issue is not the birthrate per se but development. Moreover, as I pointed out, there is a mathematical limit to population growth; simply put, as the world’s population ages, so the birthrate eventually starts to fall (just as it has already done in Europe and in other developed economies such as Japan's) peaking at 9 billion toward the end of this century.

Perhaps we need to look at some other numbers at this point as they help contextualize the issue. Although the population of the US is only about 5% of the world’s total, it consumes roughly 50% of the world’s energy sources. Greater Los Angeles for example, consumes more electricity than the entire Indian sub-continent! The US also produces roughly 25% of the total amount of carbon, hence without a radical rethink on the nature of its economy, it would seem that it has a vested interest in not only maintaining its present level of consumption but if push comes to shove, it will find scapegoats and what better than ‘Peak Oil’ and now ‘overpopulation’ that has been conveniently tagged on to the issue of oil.

The 1970s was also the time of the first ‘energy crisis’ – coincidence that it was also the time that the ‘crisis of over-population’ was again exhumed? I think not, for the crisis of capital and the use of discredited hypotheses that attempt to rationalise particular courses of action are intimately connected. We are once more (in case you haven’t noticed) in the middle of a crisis of capital and once more the same old arguments are being used to justify the actions of imperialism only this time it’s not OPEC but ‘overpopulation’ and ‘Peak Oil’ that are the alleged causes.

By conflating a number of entirely unrelated issues – energy supplies, population, climate change, ‘carrying capacity’ – the essential problem, that of capitalist over-production and insane consumerism is once more avoided, the burden of maintaining capitalism transferred once more to the poor of the planet.

As a final note I was also accused of being “absurd” for crediting another advocate of the ‘Peak Oil’ hypothesis, Matthew Simmons, the CEO of the world's largest energy investment bank, Simmons & Company International whose clients include Halliburton; Baker & Botts, LLP; Dynegy; Kerr-McGee and the World Bank with saying that prayer is the final resort
“I don't think there is [a solution to the energy shortage]. The solution is to pray. Pray for mild weather and a mild winter. Pray for no hurricanes and to stop the erosion of natural gas supplies. Under the best of circumstances, if all prayers are answered there will be no crisis for maybe two years. After that it's a certainty.”
‘Behind the Blackout’ Interview with Michael Ruppert, August 21, 2003.
Notes

See 'Crying Wolf: Warnings about oil supply' by Michael C. Lynch.

For a contrary view see ‘Oil Prophets: Looking at World Oil Studies Over Time’ by Steve Andrews
  
 
  
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