Drilling Rigs in North Dakota

I used to be a a fan of George Monbiot. His writings in The Guardian about energy and climate change may be an alarmist, but he’s one of the few voices globally bringing any attention to these issues. That being said, his most recent article (especially given mine) just struck me as utterly ridiculous. In it, he renounces the idea of Peak Oil, about which he made so much noise, asserting that there’s “enough to fry us all” left in the ground, in places like Bakken ND. Both claims are more than a little optimistic…

Monbiot’s argument, of course, is not uncommon. It is, however, often discredited, as with another good recent post from The Automatic Earth, which follows up their look at gas in Bakken with some of the numbers involved in oil extraction.

The claim that Shale oil and other “unconventional” sources are plentiful enough to replace crude oil shows a deep lack of understanding of what “Peak Oil” means. Contrary to what alarmists like to claim, it doesn’t mean we suddenly “run out”. The peak is the half-way point, after which the decline begins. When this happens it becomes very hard to expand production the way it had been in the past, prices rise and production shifts toward resources which would never have been practical before, like tar sands, oil shales and deep-sea drilling.

In the past decade we’ve seen prices rise to about five times what they had been, a virtual “gold rush” toward towns like Bakken and Ft. McMurray and a global economic collapse. That’s exactly what was predicted by writers like Richard Heinberg and James Howard Kunstler – not an immediate Mad-Max apocalypse, but the beginning of a long, painful march in that direction.

It’s easy enough to repeat the claims of Peak Oil – many people did, Monbiot included. The substance of the “peak oil” argument, though, lies in math. The most important concept here is EROI (Energy Return on Investment). It always takes some energy to make use of resources like oil – pumping, refining, etc. “Light Sweet Crude” from large reserves (ie: Texas, Saudi Arabia) can return fifty or more barrels of oil worth of energy for each one it requires. Tar Sands projects have trouble returning five, with many projects returning far less than that. Once it takes more than one barrel’s energy to pump out one barrel, there’s not much point in drilling for it. Much of this energy comes from “higher quality” sources like natural gas, required for “upgrading” the bitumen (tar) into “synthetic crude”. There have been proposals for nuclear reactors, and even underground nuclear weapons* as a means of developing these fields. Oil Shale, where the oil is embedded deep in non-porous rock, takes a tremendous amount of energy and money to release it. Also worth noting is the fact that nothing else comes close to the EROI of crude oil – nuclear, solar and wind all fall far closer to the Tar Sands.

Monbiot’s main error is to mistake financial cost for EROI, something most capitalists have been doing for the last decade. Yes, skyrocketing oil prices and new technologies make “unconventional”, previously unprofitable resources suddenly look very attractive. This is exactly what “Peak Oil” predicts. If this wasn’t happening, oil prices would be sitting comfortably in the $20-30/barrel range and wouldn’t need “upgrading”. A more nuanced look at how this all works can’t forget about the realities of global markets, which is why most of the more clever doomsayers were predicting the financial collapse of 2007-8 in incredible detail years before it happened. Nobody doubted that prices would fall once they’d helped to trigger a financial meltdown, but the important point is that they never fell back to their old levels, and have started to skyrocket again whenever a “recovery” started to show its face. What we’re seeing now could easily be described as a “Long Emergency”, what else could describe warnings from the IMF and others of imminent “lost decades”?

The other main point in Monbiot’s article is that there’s enough oil left to “fry us all”. Nothing about peak oil denies this, though things would certainly be far worse if supplies oil supplies were actually unlimited. The main fear here is that because of the extremely low EROI of unconventional oil sources, they’re far worse for the climate than traditional petrochemicals. The Tar Sands are one of the world’s largest sources of carbon emissions, and that doesn’t count the effects of actually burning the oil they produce. This gets compounded with other risks, like massive spills (Gulf of Mexico), forcible dislocations and even oil wars. Also contributing is the way these economic shocks impact renewable energy projects, often some of the first to get cut when times get tough. One way or the other, we still don’t totally understand how any of this “climate change” stuff works, and it’s entirely possible that a cataclysmic “tipping point” in emissions could already have passed.

Last month saw over two thousand heat records shattered. We’ve just witnessed another series of severe storms in the US as well as some of the worst Colorado wildfires ever recorded. Locally, we’ve seen a drought, a strangely warm winter and are now experiencing a painful heat wave. How much more must we endure before we start seriously questioning this path?

We are running out of oil. We have been running out of oil since the first wells in Petrolia, Ontario, a century ago. Since then we’ve extracted more and more each year, until things began to struggle over the past decade. The amounts we use now are stunning, as The Automatic Earth points out, a billion barrels of oil in a new field may sound like a lot, but we now use that amount globally in about 11 days (America alone in 52). Bakken, ND, may have several billion “ultimately recoverable” barrels – hardly a new Saudi Arabia. That George Monbiot is repeating these tired arguments is sad, but perhaps not surprising. After his decision to support nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster (thoroughly discredited), I haven’t been paying him much attention. If anything, this is another sorry example of how shallow analysis can be in the mainstream press, even from “good papers” like The Guardian and liberal heroes like Monbiot.