Is world's gas gauge on empty?
By ALEX ROSE
First of a three-part series
Those complaining of exorbitant prices at gas pumps might never get relief, according to a new book hitting the shelves this month by James Howard Kunstler.
Worse yet, those pumps may soon become grim relics of humanity’s "golden age," empty husks in a world devoid of oil and all it drives.
This is the future Kunstler tries to prepare his readers for in "The Long Emergency," a guide to "Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century."
The "converging catastrophes" are wide-ranging -- global warming, war, famine and disease all make cameos -- but they all revolve around, and are exacerbated by, a somewhat newer player on the doomsday stage: The phenomenon known as global peak oil.
"Above all, and most immediately, we face the end of the cheap fossil-fuel era," says Kunstler in his book.
"The world oil production peak represents an unprecedented economic crisis that will wreak havoc on national economies, topple governments, alter national boundaries, provoke military strife, and challenge the continuation of civilized life."
Some might dismiss Kunstler out of hand as a doomsaying kook in a world rife with the like. The book is, after all, mostly speculation predicated on a single event: The downturn in extraction from a finite world supply of fossil fuels.
It could either be the latest in a string of energy crisis scares since the mid-1970s, or, as Kunstler sees it, the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.
"It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as a benefit of modern life," he writes.
"All the necessities, comforts, luxuries, and miracles of our time ..owe their origins or continual existence in one way or another to cheap fossil fuel."
The "peak oil" crisis is based on the presumption that the crude refined to run our society is in essence a biological byproduct of ancient plants and animals having been transformed into fossil fuels through millennia of geological pressure.
That idea has been supported by the fact that these "fossil fuels" contain trace organic signatures of their former selves.
It follows that because there were only so many dinosaurs on Earth, there can only be so much oil within. Unless, of course, oil and natural gases are abiotic in nature, meaning they are not "fossil fuels," but are instead constantly regenerated by magma interactions within the Earth.
The abiotic, or abiogenic, argument contends that because current drilling and exploration techniques are based on a fossil theory, there could be far more oil lying in places we would never think to look.
This is also known as the "Russian-Ukrainian" theory, as most of the research on and evidence for the abiotic argument comes from this region.
But David Morehouse, senior petroleum geologist with the Energy Information Administration, is aligned with many Western scientists who are unconvinced abiotic sources, even if they exist, could ever live up to what crude has brought us to thus far.
"I’m sure there’s some gas that’s produced abiotically," said Morehouse. "But I’m sure there’s very damn little of it."
Critics also say that even if the abiotic theory were true, it would not do us any good as the geological processes involved in manufacturing these fuels take millennia to come to any fruition.
The American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) will discuss both arguments at its annual meeting this June in Calgary, Alberta.
Morehouse helped pen an EIA report issued last August indicating that "all or very nearly all of Earth’s prolific petroleum basins are believed identified and partially to near-fully explored."
Since humans began extracting this crude, Kunstler says the race has enjoyed a "comfortable bubble" of abundant cheap oil that is about to pop.
His prediction for global peak oil production is 2005.
Oil production is generally represented as a bell curve, known as a "Hubbert Curve," after the late M. King Hubbert, who estimated -- correctly, between 9.5 and 11 million barrels daily, depending on who you ask -- that peak oil production in the U.S. would occur about 1970.
The Hubbert Curve has classically looked more or less like a bell, though a more recent representation has the right-hand side of that bell swooping steeply down, like a wave.
"What happens is once you hit the point with no new resources coming in and no replacement for the oil, then things drop off very rapidly," said Morehouse.
The report containing the reworked curve used a 2000 United States Geological Survey report predicting world crude oil and natural gas resource recovery, coupled with a 0- to 3-percent demand growth rate, to get a handle on when peak oil might occur.
It also hypothesized an original total 6,000 billion barrels of crude oil available worldwide, and estimated a likely recovery of about half that before extraction costs prove too prohibitive.
The 12-scenario EIA report shows earliest plausible peak oil production would be in 2021, at 48.5 billion barrels per year. The other end of the spectrum (factored with a 0-percent demand growth rate from 2000) indicates a peak in 2112, at 24.6 billion barrels per year.
The most likely scenario for peak world conventional crude oil production, according to the report, would occur around 2037, at a volume of 53.2 billion barrels per year.
Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to burn roughly 20 million barrels of oil per day, about 11 million of which are imported. The lower 48 states produced only about 5.4 million barrels per day through 2004, the lowest extraction rate in 50 years.
Usage is expected to increase, while extraction and production rates are expected to continue to decline. The International Energy Agency said earlier this month that it expects global oil consumption to grow 2.2 percent in 2005 to 84.3 million barrels a day.
Morehouse said a revised edition of the EIA report would be out soon to include non-conventional oil reserves like the Athabasca tar sands in Canada and heavy oil deposits in Orinoco, Venezuela.
But these non-conventional sources - both of which require heavy refining to be of any use - would only bump the peak forward by a couple of decades anyway, said Morehouse.
Likewise, China and India hitting their industrial strides do not affect demand very much; maybe one or two tenths of a percent.
"The point is that we’re not going to be running out next year," said Morehouse. "On the other hand, we don’t have a lot of time."