Vaclav Smil: Does Anyone Remember The ‘Peak Oil’ Cult?

  • Date: 22/02/13
  • Vaclav Smil, The American

When the final figures for the fourth quarter of 2012 are in, the world will have a new crude oil production record: the total for the first three quarters was about 1 percent ahead of the 2011 total. This is a remarkable achievement for a commodity with annual output that now surpasses, for the first time ever, 4 billion metric tons and which has been, for decades, the largest source of fossil energy and the most valuable item of international commerce.

Global oil extraction was down in 2009 (2.5 percent lower than 2008 levels), but that had nothing to do with declining reserves and everything to do with weakened demand in the midst of the world’s worst postwar economic recession. That dip was brief; in 2010 global output was up by 2 percent and in 2011 it went up another 1.3 percent to surpass the 2008 record and come up less than 5 million metric tons (Mt) shy of the 4 billion metric ton mark. What is even more remarkable is how widely this rise has been shared: this becomes clear by looking at what happened to global output and to major oil powers’ oil production during the first decade of the 21st century.

These are the percentage increases for crude oil extraction between 2001 and 2011: global production was up by 10.8 percent, and Saudi Arabia’s output was 20 percent larger. So much for any imminent collapse of the country’s supergiant oilfields, a claim that made Matthew Simmons a temporary celebrity. Russia’s production was 47 percent higher, but that large rise reflects the recovery from a prolonged post-1991 extraction dip caused by the economic problems of post-Soviet Russia. [...]

The IEA admits that “the categories ‘conventional’ and ‘unconventional’ do not remain fixed, and over time, as economic and technological conditions evolve, resources hitherto considered unconventional can migrate into the conventional category.” Indeed, they have been doing so for decades, and will do so for decades to come.

Obviously, there will come a time when global oil extraction will reach its peak, but even that point may be of little practical interest as it could be followed by a prolonged, gentle decline or by an extended output plateau at a somewhat lower level than peak production. At the beginning of 2013, there are no signs that the beginning of this new oil era (regardless of its specific course) is imminent, and forecasting its onset remains an exercise in futility. Only one thing is abundantly clear to me: for the past 15 years I have been quite confident that there is no imminent danger of any sharp peak of global oil extraction followed by an inexorable production slide — and early in 2013 that confidence is greatly strengthened by new facts. Is it too much to hope that even some catastrophists and peak-oil cultists will find it impossible to ignore those numbers?

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