Great transition beyond carbon

Dr Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Tuesday, September 28, 2010 - If there is one thing that defines the 21st century, it is the end of oil. But not just oil. Over the coming decades, we face the prospect of terminal depletion of the world’s major mineral energy reserves, with major ramifications for the future of industrial civilization. A survey of about a hundred of the world’s most respected petroleum geologists by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil found that the vast majority expected world oil production to peak between 2010 and 2020, and that “the ‘peak’ is more likely to look like a bump on a long ridge than the classic bell-shaped curve.” But the data suggests we may have already peaked. Until 2004, world oil production had risen continuously but thereafter underwent a plateau all the way through to 2008. Then from July to August 2008, world oil production fell by almost one million barrels per day. It is still falling. According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2010, in 2009 world oil production was 2.6 percent below that in 2008 (falling 2 million barrels per day), and is now below 2004 levels – indicative of a gradually accelerating decline rate.

This plateau in world production over half a decade is unprecedented, and suggests we have already started on the “long ridge” whose overall trajectory despite fluctuation will be inexorably downwards. The outlook is likely to be worse, given that according to a new peer-reviewed study by the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser Sir David King in the journal Energy Policy (38, 8, 08/10), official estimates of world total oil reserves (including conventional, deepwater and unconventional resources) should be downgraded from 1,150-1,350bn barrels to between 850-900bn barrels. Reserve size by itself matters only insofar as it practically translates into actual annual oil flows and rates of production. The problem, as noted by former BP oil analyst and Petroleum Review editor Chris Skrebowski, is that “almost half of the current global oil production (45%) comes from a very narrow reserve base of just 190 Gb or around 1/5th of the remaining reserves. It is depleting rapidly at a rate of around 7 % pa., with annual production declining consistently since 2002.” Remaining reserves contribute to “little over half the global annual flows” and “at much lower production rates”, most likely because they “are not able to increase production.”

Another study commissioned by the investor coalition Ceres warns that production costs, market instability, and low energy return on investment (EROI) of less than a third of conventional oil’s EROI, are endangering the viability of investments in unconventional oil. Of course, the Gulf oil spill has put to rest previously widespread (but misplaced) optimism about the potential of deepwater reserves, due to the moratorium on future deepwater exploration. In any case, even before the disaster, the data points to a “sharply slowing and then flattening deepwater growth profile” by 2011, amidst acceleration in “the pace of deepwater decline.” As Bob MacKnight, analyst at the Washington-based PFC Energy, thus concludes, “We are really approaching a peak production in deep water” and new discoveries will only “shallow the decline rather than move the peak.”

The situation looks similar for the future of natural gas production. The interplay between prices and technological breakthroughs may permit deeper drilling of unconventional gas reserves for a longer period – 118 years at “current demand” according to one optimistic projection. But estimates of world demand project a massive 49 percent increase up to 2035 – fueled particularly by China and India.

According to former Total geologist Jean Laherrere, who has conducted one of the most comprehensive surveys of the available conventional and unconventional gas reserve and production data, global natural gas production will peak around 2025 – cohering with Canadian geologist David Hughes’ projection of peak gas arriving in 2027. As for coal supplies, an extensive study by the Energy Watch Group (EGW) warns that global coal production is likely to peak around 2025, at 30 percent above 2007 levels of production. US coal production in terms of energy will only remain at current levels for another 10–15 years. However, just this year the journal Science published a study predicting that world coal production from existing reserves could peak as early as 2011, and that it is “unlikely” future discoveries would ameliorate the decline.

The imperative, then, is to work toward facilitating a comprehensive transition to cleaner, renewable sources of energy; while doing our best to downsize our current levels of consumption and increase resilience. While we may be unable therefore to avoid catastrophic short-falls, these could be ameliorated by focusing efforts to radically reduce fossil fuel consumption through conservation and energy efficiency.

The economic model of an ‘ideal-world’ 100 per cent, post-carbon renewable energy system is still only theoretical, but it is clear that it cannot be based on exponential growth for its own sake. This speaks to a new post-carbon civilization based on greater consciousness of human-embeddedness in our natural environment; of the significance of mutual cooperation rather than self-seeking competition as an evolutionary imperative for species survival; and thus of less-materialistic values oriented around health, freedom, education, and well-being as central to sustainable prosperity.

—The writer is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London. His latest book is A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save it.

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