Oil Will Fall to Disastrous Levels in 30 Years
With the arrival of peak oil production, the oil coming out of the oilfields is of lesser quality and costs more energy to obtain, says Pedro Prieto.
Interview with Pedro Prieto by Alex Fernandez Muerza
Since 2006, Spain's membership in ASPO has been represented by AEREN, the Association for the Study of Energy Resources. ASPO (Association for the Study of Peak Oil) is a network of organizations in more than 20 countries dedicated to the study of peak oil - the moment at which maximum oil production is reached and afterwards begins its decline. Its Vice President, Pedro Prieto (Madrid, 1950), doesn't mince words: he stresses that no more than three decades worth of oil remain, insists that the energy situation in Spain is dire, that the days of gas and nuclear power are numbered as well, and insists that the defenders of renewable energy are well removed from reality. In his opinion, without a reduction in the consumption of energy and a radical change in the present development model, it's impossible to tackle the approaching energy and social crisis. In October, ASPO will hold its 7th annual conference in Barcelona.
Is the strike by the truckers and fishing fleets over higher fuel costs a symptom of the end of oil?
It's one more episode that will happen more often as it's confirmed that worldwide oil production has reached its peak, without a predictable substitute on the horizon for oil (and no time to think of one), which is being consumed at the rate of 85 million barrels a day and on which 95% of transportation is based, worldwide.
What is Spain's energy situation?
Dire, since Spain's dependence on foreign produced energy and fuel is overwhelming. In 2007, according to British Petroleum (BP), we consumed some 150 million tons of oil's equivalent (MTEP). The government says that we are "dependent" on foreign sources for 87% of that, but that's because it considers nuclear energy "independent." However, a hundred percent of the fuel for nuclear plants is imported; Spain does not control the enrichment process, nor is it the owner of important parts of the basic technology. For me then, nuclear energy is energy which is "dependent" on others.
Renewables don't help somewhat?
If we look at wind, in 2007, according to the Spanish Electrical Network, it produced 27 million megawatt hours (MWh), and that was for hydroelectric generation. Therefore, hydraulics plus wind reached approximately 10% of the total of primary energy and something more than 20% of total production. So we "only" depend on foreign sources for 90% of the rest of our primary energy needs.
When will oil be unacceptably expensive for consumers?
The vital cost is already unacceptable for hundreds of millions, who were very marginalized beforehand, and now cannot even manage to cook the meager food they have. In the West, it's difficult to predict when the costs will wreck the system. As is logical, the problems will begin in the weakest links of the chain.
When will peak oil be reached?
It's not easy to guess. It will probably be seen, to our disgrace, when it's clearly reflected in history's rearview mirror. Oil production has fallen 0.2% in 2007 in respect to the previous year, and although it's still not a sure sign, the peak doesn't appear to be very far away. From that vantage, in historical terms, we're at the top of the curve.
Can you give any kind of predictable date?
From the International Energy Agency (IEA), to the large privately held oil companies, to the industrial ministers and state oil entities for the oil producing and consuming countries, all agree that there are some 40 years remaining, at current rates of consumption.
However, if the tendency in the coming years is an increasing consumption of energy, couldn't this 40 year figure be less?
Obviously. There are two paradoxes against which this data must be considered: on the one hand, this society's unsustainable form demands annual cumulative growth that would shorten the duration of the reserves. On the other, much more serious, the oilfields are not gasoline deposits that can be consumed at whatever rate one wishes, but rather, their exploitation and production follow a bell curve. And the manner of today's consumption means that the curve will fall to disastrous levels for society in some 30 years or less (a fall of 30% from the present level is considered disastrous). That, and facts such as wars, embargoes, or social collapses cause the bell curve to be not absolutely symmetrical.
In other words, if there are 40 years of oil remaining, according to these gentlemen, in reality there is oil for many more, but at a diminishing rate. And therefore, for far fewer, so that society as we know it today, collapses.
Furthermore, there are two key aspects that are being intentionally ignored. The first is that the important thing is not that oil is running out, because that moment will never arrive, but when the peak is reached and the decline begins. Humanity will not have geographic alternatives for new fields to which it can resort, as it has up until now. The second is that with the arrival of peak oil production, the oil coming out of the oilfields is of lesser quality and costs more energy to obtain.
What should be done to avoid this problem?
Containment, a voluntary reduction of consumption and a global awareness, not just individual awareness, that "the party's over," as the Californian professor Richard Heinberg put it, is the guideline that must be followed. And of course this must begin in the West: in North America consumption is at 20 barrels per person annually, and in Europe it's around 10, while the Chinese struggle to get to three and the Indians are at one and a half. And on top of everything, the West accuses them of provoking the crisis for wanting to be how we told them they ought to be. Ignoring it or denying it will bring on fratricidal world wars that no-one will win and only accelerate the consumption of resources in the confrontation, instead of looking for alternatives.
Aren't these kinds of messages a bit apocalyptic? It sounds strange that our development should be the greatest in history and yet, it seems that we're on the point of returning to the caves...
It's exactly because we are at the summit of "development," which as it exists today, implies greater economic activity and greater consumption of energy. The planet has reached its limits, because without energy, no other goods and services are possible. If very conservative groups such as the IEA, which are reluctant to accept harsh realities, are already admitting that we're touching the ceiling, we'd better prepare ourselves.
With regard to natural gas, it would seem to go against the grain.
According to BP, gas production has increased to 2.4% in 2007 in respect to the prior year. Gas, practically unnoticed, has gone about replacing oil in recent years, through liquefied natural gas. In fact, of the 85 million barrels consumed daily, 66 million come from "conventional" or more easily extracted oil, and 7.7 million from transformed gas; a titanic effort that grows every year so that oil doesn't slip. The rest comes from other unconventional oil sources: 6.7% from oil in deep water (from a seabed more than 500 meters below the ocean's surface); 3.9% from oil extracted from tar sands and oil shale; and 1.2% from polar oil. The less conventional the oil, the less net (useful) energy remains after extraction.
The gas producers are even selling it now as an ecological energy for multiple uses, including as vehicle fuel...
Gas is less contaminating than oil, and much less so than coal, because of the energy unit it offers, but that's no cause for rejoicing. Gas only accounts for 24% of primary energy, against 36% provided by oil (until recently, the relationship was more or less 20 - 40). Furthermore, gas cannot always substitute for oil, and in it's transportable form it's much more fragile and expensive. Although the expensive ships and port terminals for liquefaction and re-gasification have grown considerably in recent years, only 28% of gas is being exported this way.
Finally, gas has proven reserves for 60 years at current rates of consumption, but if it has to substitute for oil and continue making society grow, for far fewer: its peak is expected a decade after that of oil. Given the times and costs, it will be a question of very careful accounting. Moreover, the declines in the gas fields happen even more quickly and less predictably than those of oil. Therefore, yes, it's growing, but it can't be a complete substitute for oil.
In your article "A Ghost Stalks Europe: The Ghost of Ecology", you criticize the advertising campaigns of the large multinational corporations with an ecological bent. Do you really think they're risking exposing themselves?
Yes, although he who controls the media can work wonders. However, soon they'll have to surrender to the evidence. However, I don't see many messages coming from the European and North American left and the ecologists (with honorable and few exceptions) that simply ask them to stop their activities or to take responsibility for the costs of their activities, when it is the responsibility of the entire industrial society, and without proposing a drastic change in the model.
Then what should be criticized is the present model...
The model is unsustainable, and the multinationals, the financial powers and the communications media are spearheading a society where all (non-marginalized) Western citizens are profiting at the expense of razing the planet's resources.
What can be done to solve this problem?
The solution escapes reason and scientific logic. We're trapped in an alley with a very difficult exit. Knowing this, it's enough to try to change the model, something that on the other hand is very difficult to achieve under present circumstances.
Are renewable energies the solution? In Spain, for example, some studies say that they could cover a hundred percent of our energy needs...
These studies are full of good intentions, but lacking in reality. They don't foresee, although they insist that they do, the real cost of energy and the cost of raw materials that goes into this effort. And the most worrisome is that they don't question the model of infinite growth of present society, nor the mobility models, although they may bet somewhat weakly on public transport. And they don't calculate that so-called renewable energies are in reality achieved through non-renewable systems (wind and sun are captured through manufactured wind turbines and solar panels) and their extreme dependency on a society based on fossil fuels that only works with oil and gas.
So renewables should not be promoted?
If anything can be done, it is with renewable energy. My main criticism is toward those who stubbornly continue to support a model of infinite growth at any cost. However, the best bet should be to change the model of growing consumption and reduce by several orders of magnitude our energy consumption, both personally, and as a whole. It's not easy, because it will imply the bankruptcy of a system that we believed to be eternal and unlimited.
Other news that has come to be known recently is that in 2007, renewables surpassed nuclear generated electricity generation in Spain.
It's true, now that nuclear energy, with its seven nuclear reactors provides 20% of the electricity consumed by Spaniards through traditional hydraulics, the new energies such as wind, and to a much lesser degree, others such as solar or the burning of biomass to produce electricity have surpassed nuclear. However, it should be pointed out that certain publications state this about wind, without distinguishing that when it generates energy, it does it at a very specific point in time, not on a steady annual basis. Considered annually, wind accounts for 10% of all electric consumption. These mentions show how the partisans of so-called renewables have learned the same fallacies and show the same lack of scientific seriousness that various large multinationals do in order to promote their policies. We should get away from these kinds of simplifications.
What do you think about nuclear energy?
Its days are numbered, despite the terrible insistence of its lobby, especially lately. It has four Achilles heels: lack of fuel (there are 60 years of uranium reserves for the 440 nuclear reactors presently in existence); its waste, extremely dangerous and of unsolveable latency, and without using the principle of precaution; it contributes to nuclear proliferation, as we've seen in the case of Iran; and finally, the growing risk of terrorist attacks on nuclear installations.
As if its supply were endless, France already uses 44% of its freshwater river flows to cool its 59 plants. Spain already uses 22% of its freshwater river flows for its seven plants. Where are those who are planning between 1,000 and 5,000 new plants planning to get water for these plants that only produce electricity in a society whose main energy consumption is not electricity, but liquid fuel?
Jeremy Rifkin claims the future is in hydrogen, which would allow for an economy where consumers could generate their own energy.
Rifkin's a good magic carpet salesman. Hydrogen is an "energy vector," an intermediary which takes electricity and combines it with liquid or gas fuel at very high pressure. Where is the energy to "fabricate" it or produce it going to come from? Rifkin says it'll come from renewables, but doesn't give details; he only sells faith in the future.
Isn't a future with hydrogen and renewables a possibility?
Let me give you some data that show the magnitude of the problem: in 2007 all the solar installations in the world combined, produced a hundred times less electricity than the increase in electricity consumption from the prior year. Spain, a world power in terms of renewables, barely reached 11% of its electric consumption (not of primary energy, that which it could be supposed that Rifkin wants to substitute and is six or seven times that) between wind and solar power. Augmenting Spanish solar power installations by 2 Gigawatts, through preferential tariffs, would take care of around 1% of national electricity needs, at the cost of a 4% increase in the present electric tariff. This production would be eaten up by any economic ministry in barely a trimester of normal economic growth. And if the tariff increases to more than 5% of an economic, productive or industrial system, the ship threatens to sink, as we've seen recently. It's a fish biting its own tail.
Is a consumer who fills their car with biocombustibles really "ecological"? The criticism they've received lately doesn't seem like it...
A large national Spanish business has invested a lot in advertising and reports in order to defend its production of biofuels, saying that by 2020, at the very modest level of 20% of European fuel, this will "only" cause the price of food to increase by between 3% and 6%. And what will happen when a substitute must be found for 100% of fossil fuel, in barely 2 or 3 generations across the world?
Who is behind this change in attitude toward biofuels?
Common sense, and its previous defenders have done some simple calculations. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica's Annual Statistics, there are 800 million private vehicles and 200 million motorized vehicles of any type throughout the world; very badly distributed, for sure, that total the energy needs required for between approximately 60 and 300 billion human beings. Are we going to give the food to machines or to people and animals? Its a perfect Matrix, human beings at the service of the machines that in theory were created to serve them.
Some experts also defend the future of "clean coal," especially in countries like China...
At ASPO's last meeting, the representatives of China's Oil University said that they were abandoning one of the largest "Coal to Liquid" (coal transformed into liquid fuel) plants in the world. At the same time, they announced that China, one of the countries with the largest proven coal reserves in the world, had begun to import coal for the first time in its history. The costs of production are enormous, above all from the point of view of energy: they leave less net energy available for society and a huge amount of very contaminated residue.
Pedro Prieto is the Vice President of the Association for the Study of Energy Resources (AEREN). Alex Fernandez Muerza is journalist specialized in Science and Technology. This interview originally appeared in consumer.es. It was translated from Spanish to English by Machetera, a member of Tlaxcala.