Peak Oil is a controversial concept. Some people actually think that the production of oil in nature is continuous (which is a tiny bit, but hardly at all, true) so we can keep pumping oil out of the ground and it will just keep being produced by tiny microbes. But aside from that particular, and annoying, made-up controversy, “real” Peak Oil (or should I say Peak Real Oil) is still controversial. Peak Oil is defined as the moment when the maximum rate of petroleum extraction occurs, and thereafter production declines steadily, like on a bell curve. But that is, in my view, the wrong way to look at it. I would like to propose a different way, and to understand this approach we first must understand chocolate chip cookies. Which is not difficult.
If you make a batch of chocolate chip cookies, then everyone in the house starts to eat them, when does “Peak Chocolate Chip Cookies” occur? Obviously, this occurs the moment the chocolate chip cookies are pulled out of the oven. That is when the maximum number of cookies are available. Subsequent “extraction” rates are not a function of cookie availability, but rather, the social politics of the household, the number of hungry people, and other factors. The cookies will be “extracted” at any one of a number of rate functions. Often, the initial number of cookies extracted from the cooling rack, cookie plate, or cookie jar starts out very slow because they are too hot and have not achieved structural stability so they are hard to eat, especially for dunkers. But then the rate may go way up and then, because the cookies are being consumed rapidly, and/or people become sated, it may go down. Or, the baker of the cookies may bake them in secret and hide them in the cookie jar until after dinner, then reveal the existence of the cookies at which time peak extraction commences. Or there may be house rules as to how many cookies everyone can eat which will affect the rate of extraction. And so on. But no matter what, Peak Cookie happened the moment the cookies were pulled, baked, from the oven. (We will leave the consumption of cookie dough prior to baking for discussion at another time.) The point is, it is easy to see that “Peak Cookie” happens at the moment baking ends, and the variation in extraction rate thereafter is a function of many factors that will vary from household to household and from time to time. And all those factors are important events or processes. Peak Cookie, as a concept, is uninformative of the social dynamics, demographics, and collective individual proclivities of the household, which really are the things that matter.
This analogy reveals the fact that the “peak” (measured as production) is only part of a function of how much substance (cookies, oil) there is, and is, until the amount of substance is just about to run out, more a function of other things. For oil, this includes knowledge (of oil deposits), technology (to extract harder to get at oil), geopolitics (some oil is in countries that are currently in a snit, or that we don’t talk to), and of course, economics.
And, really, what I want to know about, and what you want to know about, is our own personal peak oil, or more manageably, our encompassing society’s peak oil. For instance, if a large deposit of oil is unavailable because we say so (for conservation reasons unrelated to petroleum) or political reasons (because it is buried beneath an enemy’s territory) then we can’t count that oil in our calculations of availability, and thus, extraction. Oil that is in our own country and not under a national park, on the other hand, is different.
In this way, perhaps a better way to think about Peak Oil is to look at the historical complexity of the process of bringing this fossil (oil is a fossil) to a place and refine it to a form that we can burn in our homes, cars or factories. Looked at it this way, from the perspective of the United States, we have had several “Peak Oil” moments.
Not counting whale oil, we experienced our first Peak Oil moment when the vast oil fields in Texas and Oklahoma and a few other places started to dry up. When that happened we started to buy more oil from countries that we really had very little respect or love for. Today, we get a fair amount of oil from a region of the world where we occasionally have to go to war to keep that oil supply open. And, we have to look the other way when the governments of those countries continue with highly objectionable policies. Imagine having a two grocery stores near your house. One of them is run by a really nice family, pillars of the community, your kids go to school with their kids, everything is fine. The other is run by a paroled sex offender who is also suspected of being a mass murderer. Plus he is a jerk. At first you always get your groceries at the store run by the nice family. But then they retire and move to Florida and you are now forced to do business with the child molesting, mass murdering jerk, because you really have no other option. That is a moment when the cost of grocery shopping, no matter what the cost of the actual groceries, becomes very high. That is a kind of peak groceries. It has little to do with the economics of the groceries. And yes, “Peak Oil” as traditionally defined is usually embedded in an economic model. This is why my suggestion of what “Peak Oil” means is different: When you (metaphorically) sell your soul to continue to obtain a resource, you’ve reached a moment in time that is very important.
The initiation of serious off shore drilling is another moment in the extraction of oil. Off shore drilling is expensive and dangerous at many levels. In the United States we shifted towards off shore drilling as our on-land deposits were worn out, and because it is somewhat cheaper (sometimes) to take nearby offshore oil than foreign near-the-surface on-land oil, and for geopolitical reasons. Those costs may not always be expressed in the “spot” prices of oil in dollars per barrel. But they are real costs.
Fracking is something that has been done for years. It is a nice trick to extract more from a deposit that has started to become tenacious. The technique is used for water, liquid petroleum, and gas. It is messy and expensive and usually results in a flow of product that soon diminishes, so whatever investment was made in the process initially does not have long term benefit. When you start fracking, that means you’ve reached one of those peaks. You are doing something you really didn’t want to do because availability or cost of the same product through other means is diminished.
The Canadian Oil Sands and other tar sands type oil has been known of for years, but it has been very little exploited. It is dirty, dangerous, expensive, and often inconveniently located. But we have been using more and more of this undesirable resource, and we are talking about using a LOT more of it in the near future. The costs of using this type of resource, aside from the continued pouring of fossil carbon (as carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere, are huge. But we are doing it. Another peak.
The alternative way of thinking about Peak Oil proposed here has the benefit of being more realistic and useful because it identifies not one peak but rather multiple peaks. Also, and this is important, one aspect of this definition of Peak Oil that is new is not to measure price or some overall measure of availability which might exclude significant costs (known as “external costs”), but rather, to identify the things we really do to continue to extract the resource. Over time we are doing more and more difficult and costly things, with many of these costs going well beyond price of the product. Such extra costs include deadly warfare and allowing governments and media to be taken over by the petroleum industry with all sorts of negative side effects that go well beyond the extraction, refining, and shipping of petroleum products.
Every major shift in strategy of access to ancient petroleum can be interrogated as a possible “Peak Oil” moment.
Yes, yes, I fully understand that I’ve strayed very far away from the usual definition of Peak Oil. But in so doing, I think I’ve pointed out a more important reality inherent in the business of extracting a non-renewable resource from the earth. A simple Peak Oil curve is the subject of a great deal of argument and speculation. The problem is, this argument and speculation tends to miss the point. We are like an addict with easy access to some drug that is highly addictive, gets you really high, is not too expensive, and can be easily obtained. Then the drug source runs dry so we seek out shadier sources and start to get in trouble. Then those sources start to dry up so we turn to different drugs with more severe health effects. But that starts to become less available, and paying for it gets more difficult so, eventually, we start rooting around under the sink for anything that looks consumable and might serve to get us high or at least, knock us unconscious. Eventually, we hit the drain cleaner. That kills us. There was not a smooth curve of availability of opium that went smoothly up and down. Rather, there was a series of shifts from a not so bad thing to a worse thing to an even worse thing to the horrid end and they find our body under the back porch where we were rooting through the recycling looking for spent cans of shaving cream.
Peak Oil is a gloss. The real story is a tragedy with several acts.
Peak Oil graph from Wikipedia