Chapter 4:

Peaking Fossil Fuel Supplies

In order for the global economy to satisfy its ever-increasing need for energy, continuous discovery and development of replacement reserves must exceed the ongoing declines in existing reserves.

“The central topic raised here is what is known as “Peak Oil”. Peak oil is defined as the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.”

Living at this time in history, understanding what this means is critical to making decisions that affect our future. [2]

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Petroleum and Modern Life

For modern civilization, petroleum plays the most essential, vital role of any single resource on the planet. It is “economic oxygen” for the global economy. Without it, life as we know it would not exist.

 

Many factors have come together in a perfect storm, so to speak, and forced upon us the need to drastically reduce its use on the scale to which we’ve become accustomed. Successfully replacing petroleum in its singular role and within the timeframe needed to address rapidly peaking supplies while mitigating climate change are likely to be the most demanding and consequential efforts in human history.

Scale and Urgency Make This a Very Steep Hill to Climb [3]

Today, petroleum fuels 92% of global transportation. That’s cars, trucks, ocean freighters, airliners, farm equipment, buses, trains, etc. There are estimated to be 1.2 billion vehicles on the world’s roads and an estimated 2 billion by 2035. [4] Just in the US, there are 280 million on the road. There is no single alternative that can replace oil at the scale for which it is used today. Even a combination of alternatives is considered unrealistic by many of the world’s energy experts.

The biggest problem for changing our transportation system is that it’s powered by liquid fuel. Most alternative energy technologies today involve producing electricity. While transportation vehicles can be powered with electricity and hydrogen, the financial cost required to replace the existing global fleet of vehicles is massive … Trillions of dollars and it will likely take decades to achieve even with significant government subsidies. Adding transportation to the load on our grid will exponentially increase the amount of electricity required to satisfy the demand. Solar and wind will not satisfy that demand, alone.

Hydrogen is an alternative but also requires electricity to produce and an entirely new fueling system as well. This is a monumental task for the world to take on and we have so little time to make the change before it is too late. At Sustainable Energy Hawai‘i, working toward solutions are a priority.

Petroleum is a Critical Resource For So Much More!

Petroleum is not just a resource for transportation. It is also a fundamental raw material used in the manufacture of for deriving other hydrocarbons which are mixed with other non-hydrocarbon materials to create: [5]

Considering the importance of petroleum for such a wide spectrum of uses today, reducing the amount used for transportation (up to 70% of the petroleum used today) [6] would buy us much needed time to find replacements for all these other uses. Some future sighted thinkers have even suggested limiting the use of petroleum only to those tasks that don’t have reasonable alternatives through regulation and legislation thus saving the remainder for these critical uses.

Scale of Consumption

The scale of all fossil fuel use today is hard to imagine in a way that is meaningful to most people. At today’s rate of consumption, the global economy consumes approximately 100 million barrels [7] of crude oil, 24.6 million tons of coal, and 364 billion cu ft. of natural gas every single day. [8]

Focusing on petroleum for the moment we need to understand that the world has demanded more and more oil each and every year since Edwin Drake made the first commercially usable discovery in 1859. Today, that demand for petroleum totals nearly 37 billion barrels a year. What does a number like “37 billion barrels a year” mean? Let’s put it into perspective.

Since the dawn of the petroleum age, the largest oil reserve ever discovered is the super-giant, Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia. Fewer than 40 “super-giant” oil fields have ever been found. [9] All but a very few are currently experiencing a steady decline in their daily production. The most recent potential super-giant was discovered in 2000 (it took 16 years to begin producing) and a total of 5 have been discovered since 1976.

Ghawar is approximately 175 miles long and 20 miles wide. Discovered in 1948, estimates for the total amount of recoverable petroleum in the Ghawar oil field have ranged between 87 and 100 billion barrels of oil. Ghawar began production in 1951. It is still actively producing today, nearly 70 years later, supplying nearly 4% of the global supply at 3.8 million barrels a day (MMbbl).

Let’s imagine that its reserves, the entire estimated lifetime volume to be recovered from the Ghawar oil field, was made instantly available, all at one time, today. At best, it would only provide a 3-year supply at the current rate of consumption. Production volume at Ghawar [10] has likely been in decline since 2005.

The United States has been a major oil producer for the entire lifespan of the global petroleum industry. To date, the largest oil discovery in US history is the Prudhoe Bay, an offshore oil field in Alaska in early 1968. By comparison to Ghawar, Prudhoe Bay is a fraction of its size with an estimated production capability of 25 billion barrels. That is more than double the size of any discovery made in the lower 48 states.

At today’s consumption rate, Prudhoe Bay’s lifetime reserves were only enough to supply 8-months of our global consumption. Prudhoe Bay has been producing oil for 40 years. Its daily production “flow rate” is less than 10% the production rate of Ghawar. It has seen its production volume decrease from 1.5 million barrels a day to its current rate of 280,000 barrels a day; a decline of 81% over its 40-year production lifespan. [11]

In the United States our nation’s leaders starting with President Franklin Roosevelt during World War 2, have all known that there is a limit to how much oil can be ever be extracted from a given location and our foreign policy has been to find as many foreign sources to supply our needs.

Today, our appetite, our addiction, if you will, for liquid petroleum fuel has us looking for new sources in the most difficult locations on the planet. Not only are we drilling as far down as 6-7 miles below the ocean surface, but we actually are boiling petroleum out of bituminous dirt (oily sand) to get the liquid fuels we demand for our trains, planes, and automobiles.

Declining Petroleum Reserves

Production volume for “conventional” petroleum [12] peaked in the lower 48 states in the US in 1971 and around 2005 Worldwide. However, this conclusion does not include production of unconventional oil [13] and natural gas recovered during a relatively brief production expansion that came from a modern boom in hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The fracking boom now seems to have run its course and, as an industry, is in terminal decline, as well.

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It’s reasonable to conclude that having arrived at the peak of conventional oil production globally, sustaining the daily rate of consumption will not be possible for much longer. There is no practical replacement for the volume of petroleum (and fossil fuels, in general) consumed today. That means we have limited time within which to decide how civilization will manage its daily life in the years to come. Whatever the options we choose, the transition from the status quo to any new paradigm must take place on an accelerated schedule and will require unprecedented changes for all of us.

The same cycle of peaking applies to coal, natural gas, actually all natural resources. With the boom in natural gas production brought about by fracking now coming to an end, the effects of tighter supplies will inevitably be experienced. Consumers can expect to see this in the form of rising electricity costs in the not too distant future.

Oil Hit by Global Pandemic

An interesting phenomenon occurred in the energy market with the outbreak of COVID 19. We’ve all seen the empty highways in cities across the US and around the world. The global spread of Corona Virus brought about a sharp reduction in global economic activity which in turn cut the demand for petroleum.

For producers, matching demand with production isn’t as easy as one might think. There are technical balancing acts that come with extracting petroleum which include keeping subterranean pressure levels constant in order to maintain future oil flows. For some of those producing reserves to lose pressure due to being shut down or their extraction rate being curtailed, the risk they may never become operative again is very real. Another balancing act is storage. If wells must continue producing in order to maintain production viability, where to put the oil when consumption falls becomes a huge problem since there is minimal capacity for long term petroleum storage

Red dots represent fully loaded oil tanker ships “stranded” at sea due to the lack of global demand for oil.  Approx. cost per day per ship is $30,000

Fracking (Hydraulic Fracturing) [14] is another economic victim of the pandemic. With reduced demand, the price for a barrel of petroleum on the global marked has also dropped. At one point in early 2020, some oil producers were paying brokers to physically take the oil off their hands. Literally, it was like hiring people to come with buckets and haul it away. News reports read like this: “Oil Hitting a Negative Price on the Open Market”.

Fracking companies require oil to trade around $50/bbl. Below that they lose money. This industry has been plagued with low trading prices for years. Producers have filled in the low-price gaps with extremely low-interest loans available on Wall Street, however, those loans will come due someday and if these companies can’t stay in business the supplies will be affected accordingly.

Footnotes

  1. https://rockcreekfreepress.tumblr.com/post/465997609/norecovery

  2. http://articulatingthefuture.weebly.com/home/explaining-peak-oil

  3. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/global-primary-energy

  4. https://www.greencarreports.com/news/1093560_1-2-billion-vehicles-on-worlds-roads-now-2-billion-by-2035-report

  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petroleum#Uses

  6. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/oil-and-petroleum-products/use-of-oil.php

  7. 1 barrel of petroleum is 42 US gallons

  8. IEA-BP Global Data

  9. A Super-giant oilfield has reserves of 10 billion barrels or more)

  10. Reserve and production data from Saudi Aramco is a state secret and has never been verified by independent sources. Most experts believe that their stated production and their remaining, recoverable reserves are significantly lower than stated.

  11. https://www.hartenergy.com/exclusives/prudhoe-bay-once-lifetime-discovery-175011

  12. Conventional petroleum is the kind that comes out of the ground as a thick liquid using traditional drilling methods.

  13. Unconventional petroleum requires advanced production methods due to its geologic formations and/or is heavy and does not flow on its own. https://www.studentenergy.org/topics/conventional-oil

  14. https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/what-hydraulic-fracturing?qt-news_science_products=0#qt-news_science_products

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Next - Chapter 5 : “Alternative Energy Sources”   

A brief review of what is considered “Renewable Energy” today.

A deeper look at the 3 primary options for Hawaii follow this overview.