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Make No Mistake, the Oil Peak is Real

September 11, 2009

Peak Oil is a very simple idea. If there is a large but finite amount of oil in the world (which there is), and if we humans try ever harder to extract the oil as economies grow and demand increases (which we do), the number of barrels pumped out of the Earth will tend to increase year-by-year as long as oil remains abundant. Eventually, however, we will start running out of easily accessible oil, and the number of barrels we extract annually will begin an inexorable decline. Inevitably, there will be a peak year when we extract more oil than we ever have before or will again, a year that marks the end of the increase and the beginning of the decrease. And that’s Peak Oil in a nutshell.

Of course people can (and should) argue about how soon humanity will arrive at the peak. However, it’s difficult to see how anyone could dispute the basic logic of the peak’s existence. That’s why I’m impressed with Peter Foster, of the National Post, who sneers that the whole thing is “an unevolved intellectual shortcoming.” He goes on to assert that “Peaksters…see oil supply as essentially ‘fixed’ and economists as deluded and morally deficient…”

Well, economists are indeed deluded if they think the total amount of oil in the world is not “fixed” for all intents and purposes. The processes that convert organic matter into new oil operate with geological slowness. Perhaps Foster, whose sympathies clearly lie with the economists, sees supply as infinitely elastic – an abstract variable whose value can fluctuate forever in response to demand. But if so, he’s wrong.

As a natural rather than a social scientist, I fail to understand how the partisans of economics can have so much trouble grasping that Nature in her terrible glory simply isn’t that obliging. Eventually, we’re going to run seriously low on oil because there just won’t be any more – no matter how high the price goes, no matter how much we want it, no matter how many bullocks and virgins we sacrifice to Lord Hades or even Adam Smith.

Foster does seem to be groping towards this insight when he asserts that “a free market will provide all the incentive needed… to promote energy innovation”. However, it rapidly becomes clear that his concept of innovation is limited to finding more efficient ways to extract oil. I wouldn’t dispute the importance of this, but sooner or later we’re going to have to get serious about finding real alternatives.

In Canada, much innovation within the oil business revolves around Alberta’s tar sands. Many environmentalists love to hate the tar sands, but in my opinion they’re a tremendous blessing from the natural world – we need their oil to tide our economy over while we and other countries explore new and fundamentally different sources of energy. This will require an international effort of the highest order, and Canadians should ignore the likes of Peter Foster and get ready to do their part.

Corwin

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. nmboudin permalink*
    September 30, 2009 10:38 pm

    Hi Cor,

    Foster’s de-contextualized argument that “Oil is found in the minds of men” defies any logic I know. The technological fixes he cites are at best stop gap measures. We really should be reserving a substantial part of the profits earned from our finite resources into development technologies that capture infinite ones more efficiently.

    The problem with using the tar sands to tide us over is a matter of lost returns. We are diverting enormous amounts of natural gas, an existing and relatively clean energy source, to power the steam that processes the gunk into usable product.

    Not only does this process create more emissions than the oil harvested would, but it causes finanical loss, since we can no longer sell that gas to the US market.

    Since we are going to take a hit on the lost gas sales anyway , it makes more sense to use it to tide us over while we R&D a diverse portfolio of energy generating technologies.

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