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WSJ Op-Ed: peak oil is a valid question

by Jerome a Paris Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 08:34:07 AM EST


A Cartel and Its Snakeoil - The Saudis claim to have huge oil reserves. Do they really?

Across the oil industry, the uneasy feeling is growing that world production may be approaching its own "Hubbert's Peak." The last major field yielding more than a million barrels a day was found in Mexico in 1976. New discoveries peaked in 1960, and production outside the Middle East reached its high point in 1997. Meanwhile world demand continues to accelerate by 3% a year. Indonesia, once a major exporter, now imports its oil.

Before an uneasy feeling grows into full-blown pessimism, however, one must consider the supposedly vast oil resources lying beneath Saudi Arabia. The Saudis possess 25% of the world's proven reserves. They routinely proclaim that, for at least the next 50 years, they could easily double their current output of 10 million barrels a day.

But is this true?

Update [2005-6-28 12:12:11 by Jerome a Paris]: Story below the fold corrected. I copied the same part twice, sorry about that!


This is not just the WSJ - this is the wingnut territory Op-Ed pages, the same that just a few days ago published an editorial claiming that global warming was just political scaremongering (for a thorough debunking, see this rebuttal by Real Climate and my own take on it here).

Here's more:


Almost 90% of Saudi production comes from six giant fields, all of them discovered before 1967. The "king" of this grouping--the 2000-square-mile Ghawar field near the Persian Gulf--is the largest oil field in the world. But if Saudi geology follows the pattern found elsewhere, it is unlikely that any new fields lie nearby. Indeed, Aramco has prospected extensively outside the Ghawar region but found nothing of significance. In particular, the Arab D stratum--the source rock of the Ghawar field--has long since eroded in other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The six major fields, having all produced at or near capacity for almost 40 years, are showing signs of age. All require extensive water injection to maintain their current flow.

Based on these observations, Mr. Simmons doubts that Aramco can increase its output to anywhere near the level it claims. In fact, he believes that Saudi production may have already peaked. Is he right?

Mr. Simmons's critics say that, by relying on technical papers, he has biased his survey, since geologists like to concentrate on problem wells the way that doctors focus on sick patients. Still, the experience in America and the rest of the world shows that oil fields don't last forever. Prudhoe Bay, which was producing 1.2 million barrels a day five years after being brought on line in 1976, is now down to less than 400,000.

The mystery of Saudi oil capacity bears an eerie resemblance to Saddam Hussein's apparent belief that his scientists had developed weapons of mass destruction. Who are the deceivers and who is the deceived? No one yet knows the answers. But at least Matthew Simmons is asking the questions.

And this is published by a "legitimate" writer, a Mr Tucker, associate at the well-known American Enterprise Institute. Furthermore, the WSJ is actively promoting Matthew Simmons' book about Saudi oil, "Twilight in the Desert", on their website.

There has been a strain of the conservative movement that has wanted to pounce on Saudi Arabia ever since 9/11, but the argument is usually about the fact that the US depends on such an unstable and unreliable country for the supply of a strategic resources and should interefere more aggresively in its domestic politics to have a friendlier regime. This is quite different. This is highly critical of the Saudis (lumping them with Saddam Hussein is a pretty strong signal!), but it criticises the physical ability to provide the oil, not their political reliability which is, as far as I know, a first.

So, despite the efforts of the official establishment mouthpieces like the Economist and CERA (Cambridge Energy Research Associates) to deny the looming reality of peak oil, it is seeping through into the MSM with an increasingly high frequency.

Well, once in a while, the WSJ Op Ed pages publish interesting things (;-), and it's good to see them write on this topic, whatever their ulterior motives - but do note that this article does not call for ANWR or any other similar stuff, just for better information from Saudi Arabia and other oil producers.

Is it time for desperation if even the WSJ op-ed pages don't use peak oil for partisan posturing?!

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Without delving into the likely merits of the underlying proposition of Matthew Simmons' "Twilight in the Desert" thesis (his original presentation can be found here), I found it notable that he author of the WSJ piece is from the American Enterprise Institute, not exactly the sort of group one might expect to climb on board the "peak oil" bandwagon.  It also struck me as odd that the WSJ placed the article (review?) on its Leisure & Arts page.

To the extent that this hasn't already been done elsewhere, any thoughts on the presentation?

by The Maven on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 09:00:07 AM EST
Yes, lots of weird stuff with that article. Maybe it's some arcane compromise between various "stakeholders" in the op ed pages.

I'll have a look at the presentation.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 09:03:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, James Woolsey and Frank Gaffney have jumped on the energy independence bandwagon in a big way. So it's not all that surprising.

If Dems don't get really active on this, some neocons will be able to set the direction of our response to Peak.

by emptywheel (emptywheel at earthlink dot net) on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 09:47:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's so hard for average citizens and non-scientists to enter this policy argument. A recently had dinner with a scientist who was not concerned in the least by the lack of oil reserves. Why? Because he was convinced that global warming damage was coming on much, much faster than the predictions for the end of oil.

The article about water in Spain this morning makes you wonder. In 10 years, are we going to be thankful that we're running out of oil?

by Upstate NY on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 09:09:23 AM EST
Interesting that the WSJ persists in climate change denial -- see excellent diary by RedDan on the war on science -- but officially admits to peak oil.

One possible explanation is that this suits the BushCo agenda of promoting coal and nuclear:  getting the public scared about peak oil is a good way to make them accept dirty technologies (controlled by the cosy little energy-industry cabal clustered around Cheney) as "the only alternative".

However, the nuke industry is also jumping up and down with eagerness to promote itself as the "solution to global warming" and as "clean energy".  So you would think they would be pushing the climate change meme hard, in a similar attempt to panic the public into loving those Atoms for Peace.

Who can figure out the WSJ op/ed page?  It is a rationality-free zone, and should perhaps be posted off-limits to the reality-based community :-)

PS Why the double blockquote, J?

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 09:42:02 AM EST
Recall the Pentagon study into global warming: an almost orgasmic expectation of more wars to fight.

The neocons noticed Peak Oil some time ago (tough I'd be hard-pressed to remember where exactly I read of this a few months ago) - as another excellent fight-for-survival war cause. And much earlier: for them, the Iraq war was about securing control over dwindling reserves ahead of China (and Europe).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 10:05:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Who says Op-Ed pages have to make sense?  :-)

I suspect that the nuke industry, such as it is, is very shy about getting involved with the issue. They don't need to push anything because in the long run "atoms for peace" is the only option. People won't like it and it will be a huge struggle, but what choices are there?

  • Atoms for peace.
  • Freeze in the dark.
  • Reduce global population by factor of 1000.
  • Burn coal and let climate change come as it will.
  • Burn coal and put up a ring to shade the earth.
http://www.livescience.com/technology/050627_warming_solution.html
by asdf on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 10:08:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
(sigh) time for a new energy diary...

colour me a nuke skeptic.  I tend to agree with the guy who said no one has ever succeeded in making a nuke plant burn uranium as efficiently as it burns money (read:  other-sourced energy) :-)  without cheap fossil fuel to burn in the manufacturing of nuke plants and transport of the fuel etc, the economics can only get worse -- from an EROEI of only 2:1 presently [i.e. the typical nuke plant spends half its 30-40 yr operating lifetime just paying back the energy needed to construct it, and not one has ever repaid its decommissioning costs that I know of].

there is an enormous gap between "freezing in the dark" (the bogeyman used by the mega energy industries) and our current insanely wasteful standard of living.  there are factors of from 10 to 1000 to be realised in energy usage efficiency and demand reduction, without anyone freezing in the dark;  and there is a lot to be said for micropower and medium-power local and regional generation as opposed to Ozymandian megaprojects.

I think there are several other choices on that menu, and that it's the Cheney Gang and their mouthpieces in the corporate media who have narrowed the perceived choices to "Nuclear or Starve/Freeze"...  just as the GMO charlatans keep trying to claim that only they and their programme of intelprop Enclosure can "save us" from famine (cf the outrageous "golden rice" scam).  but this argument will require going back over my research, updating with more recent news, etc.  justice cannot be done to the topic in the brief Comments format...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 11:32:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
EROEI of only 2:1 presently [i.e. the typical nuke plant spends half its 30-40 yr operating lifetime just paying back the energy needed to construct it

Could you cite a source? I recall reading something similar years ago, but when I recently tried to Google for it, I failed.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 11:39:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'd like to find out about how you reduce energy consumption by a factor of 1000. The U.S. uses about twice as much energy per capita as Europe, which is bad but nothing like 10x or 1000x. If people want to live in "temperate" climates they need to have heat. If they want to move around they need energy for transportation. If they want material things they need raw materials like aluminum and steel and plastic. If they want food, they need energy to work the farms.

I have never heard of a proposal that reduces energy consumption by 1000x. From today's American starting point I could easily see a factor of 2, and possibly a factor of 5. 10x would be a big stretch. 1000x is beyond any concept of possibility.

Do you have some specific examples?

by asdf on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 01:52:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I can't source 1000X, but 10X is easily achievable.
by jam on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 02:19:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Tell me more about 10x energy savings. I assume we're talking about savings of fossil fuel, so windpower is allowed as a method, for example. But as far as I know the numbers don't work out...
by asdf on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 03:07:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Whole-system design has already proved its value in industrial engineering. More than half the world's electricity turns electric motors. The largest use of electric motors is pumping. In 1997, a major carpet manufacturer was building a factory in Shang-hai. One heat-transfer loop was designed to use fourteen pumps totaling 95 horsepower. Using whole-system design that RMI's Amory Lovins brought from Lee Eng Lock in Singapore, Dutch engineer Jan Schilham cut the power use by 92 percent to just 7 horsepower by using fat, short, straight pipes rather than skinny, long, crooked pipes. Thanks to smaller motors and pumps, total capital cost went down.
by jam on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 05:48:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, I admit 1000x reduction in fossil foolishness can only be achieved by demand reduction as well as serious efficiency improvements, i.e. 1) we make gizmos that draw far less power (a TransMeta CPU pulls 6w, the P4 pulls 55w, factor of 9 there) and 2) the power has to come from sources other than fossil fuel (the Transmeta cpu pulls low enough current that I might be able to power it off a battery plus solar panel, blah blah) and 3) I should turn the damn thing OFF when not using it :-)  1000x reduction in frivolous travel might well be a natural result of rising fossil fuel prices...  I will admit that 1000x reduction in demand is setting the bar very high, but I can dream can't I?

Anyway I can illustrate a 100x reduction that would be very easily achieved.  On my block is at least one Hummer H2.  I have seen this vehicle with my own eyes drive about 1 mile to the grocery store and 1 mile back to pick up some trivial item -- a bag of groceries, a couple of six packs.  I ride my bike to the grocery store and my cargo bike can carry four bags of groceries plus extras -- 5 full bags if need be.

So let's compare oranges and oranges.  The H2 is approximately a 10mpg vehicle, ignoring all other commodity consumption involved in running it.  We know from someplace or other where I looked it up, that a gallon of gas is 114000 BTUs of potential energy.  So 1 mile in the Hummer squanders 11,400 BTUs.

Now the presumably knowledgeable person who wrote this article says that if a cyclist rides 20 miles at 15mph, he/she burns 620 calories, at 31 calories per mile.  I ride a little slower than that to the grocery store, but let's say for argument's sake that I manage to burn 31 calories per mile even at my leisurely pace.  I bet it's less.

Now we hit any unit-conversion site on the web and discover that 11400 Btu = 2,872.7518057 Calorie [nutritional]

OK, not quite 100, but I make that a factor of 92 in energy-consumption difference between my making this non-demanding 2 mile round trip on flatland by bike, and my neighbour insisting on doing it in a 6500 lb H2 at 10 mpg.  So my neighbour could easily realise a factor of 92 energy savings by riding his bike to the grocery store for those sixpacks instead.

There is a lot of this type of wastefulness in everyday American life.  Americans are used to thinking of energy as damn-near free.  So there is plenty of profligate behaviour that could be corrected for enormous savings -- lots of fat to be trimmed as one might say.

Oh and btw, before anyone leaps with a cry of delight to remind me about the 10 calories of fossil fuel used to supply each of those 31 food calories per mile that I used up, I retort, "Bah Humbug!"  for I really do buy local produce from organic farmers, thus reducing that fossil component of my diet considerably (a good thing  too as I find those crunchy old dinosaur bones kinda hard on the teeth).


The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 10:52:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
was a cut and paste mistake, now corrected. Thanks for flagging it!
Sometimes the most obvious mistakes just stare at you in the face!

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 12:15:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hi DoDo

I did a little google-driftnetting and found conflicting numbers, but all of them higher than the 2:1 number which I, as well as you, read sometime back from some fairly reputable source (which is why it stuck in my mind).  I see numbers as high as 20:1 (obviously from industry sources) and others in the 12-16:1 ballpark, obviously far superior to the 2:1 ratio.  OTOH wind turbines were rated in one paper at 37:1 (!) which is food for thought indeed.

I had better stop citing that 2:1 number and do some more homework.  will try to rediscover where that number came from.  I wonder if it was the result of factoring in decommissioning costs, i.e. they are not decoupled from this number as I had thought.  

I did come across the interesting tidbit that "The wet storage at Yankee Rowe costs $5 million a year" -- a tidy annual payment on those hot spent rods... well I have a spare-time hobby for the next couple of days I guess, sourcing and attributing EROEI figures for various generations of nuke plant :-)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 12:04:24 PM EST
To be honest, during my Googling, I found one source stating a high ratio (I don't remember anymore, maybe just 1:2), but I discounted it. It was a rough indirect estimate of the total energy input, calculating backwards from GDP numbers and various energy sector statistics.

At any rate, I'm glad you saw that about wind turbines, for I am a big wind power advocate.

(A fond memory of mine is when an American wrote me that there is a wind farm near him that kills many birds, I could impress him by telling him where he lives: near the infamous Altamont Pass.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 12:13:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
can be found here: EROEI PR

(btw way, I googled 'jerome EROEI' and Google came back with the post, but alos asked "wouldn't you want to try "Jerome Heroes"?...)

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 12:17:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Heh, Jerôme, now I remember, seeing that post of yours at MoA triggered my Google search!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 12:29:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
you needn't even use "jerome", I rediscovered that thread using "nuclear plant eroei"...  :-)

am collecting some links (lunch break!)...  

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 12:32:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One point in regards to repaying decommisioning costs: If you set the environmental purity barriers high enough then nothing is possible. If there were a few permanent disposal sites and some reasonable rules about getting the waste to the sites, decommisioning would not be as expensive.

France seems to be running her atomic plants profitably...

by asdf on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 01:48:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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