Peak oiler responds to Lynch op-ed in NYT

Michael Giberson

A few days ago I mentioned Michael Lynch’s op-ed in the New York Times in which he takes a few swings at peak oil.  Nate Hagens, at The Oil Drum, offers the beginning of a response:

Peak Oil has never been about the amount of hydrocarbon molecules that exist, but flow rates, timing and costs.

Actually, I think peak oil was initially about the amount of hydrocarbon molecules that exist, but the better arguments today are about flow rates, timing and costs.  Thinking on the margin.  Good start!  (But I think Lynch is on board with this “flow rates, timing and costs” thing.  For example, he addresses the peak oil argument comparing the “[discovery of] one barrel for every three or four produced.” This point concerns flow rates.  His next point concerns costs, he also talks timing.)

Reserves additions are backdated to date of discovery – even with that global discoveries peaked in 1960s and have declined every decade – we need to find oil before we produce it.

I don’t understand this point.  If reserve additions are backdated to the fields date of discovery, then things get analytically messy for peak oilers and their critics. (Which doesn’t undermine the concluding observation that “we need to find oil before we produce it,” though what this has to do with backdating I still don’t see.)  I guess the point is we should un-backdate reserve additions to get a better view of the real current flow rates.

New, better technology generally allows us to maintain current oil flow rate at cost of higher future decline, (which then requires more discoveries, etc.).

True, mathematically speaking, if we talking about some fixed amount of hydrocarbon molecules to be recovered.  But the better peak oil positions are about “flow rates, timing and costs.” Better technology increases production rates hydrocarbons and allows that production at a lower cost and increases the total amount of hydrocarbons recovered over any given period of time.  The way Hagens puts it, is as if we would be better off without better technology.

Lynch and most other natural resource optimists completely ignore net energy analysis – the fact that energy and other natural resource inputs are requirements of oil extraction.

The link is in the original, citing back to a guest post at The Oil Drum explaining net energy analysis.  The guest post is an intelligent and thoughtful exposition of the idea, which points out, among other things, “The relation between ‘peak oil’ and the [Energy Return on Investment] for world oil production is unknown” and “There is a widely held assumption that the EROI for a nonrenewable energy resource such as crude oil or a renewable resource such as wind inexorably decline once the physical quality of the resource base begins to decline (e.g., smaller and deeper fields, or less windy sites). This is not necessarily the case.”

Hagens has four more points of lesser relevance to peak oil. Sure current economic conditions and government deficits  affect the current demand and supply of oil.  But relative to the peak oil big picture, these are transitory noise.  The post has an extensive set of comments, but the signal-to-noise level is pretty low, so I gave up trying to find better arguments there.

Actually, I didn’t start this post intending to critique Hagens’s arguments, but I hope as The Oil Drum‘s staff works over a response to Lynch that they can do much better than this beginning.  Interest in peak oil seems to be growing even within the oil industry – not all proponents are as ignorant “of how the oil industry goes about finding fields and extracting petroleum” as Lynch suggests – so it is worthwhile to examine the best arguments for and against peak oil and the best arguments against those arguments.

Any reading recommendations?

4 thoughts on “Peak oiler responds to Lynch op-ed in NYT

  1. Perhaps when we base a discussion on a piece (Michael Lynch’s) that is not an example of someone trying to find out the truth, we end up with twisty, complicated arguments that do not advance the debate. I am not familiar with this site, and if its raison d’etre is to debate endlessly rather than discover the truth, then I apologize for this post.

    Being from an applied sciences background (medicine), I see the Peak Oil (or not) problem through its possible consequences. Our economy, which depends on growth to service the debts we incur, does this through the use of energy, mostly oil. It could increase efficiency, but is not doing so on a large scale. It could convert to coal/electricity for some applications, but that is costly, and undesirable, climate-wise.

    Oil extraction costs per barrel have been increasing. It appears that finding large new oil fields has proved difficult, and that costly new technology has been necessary in order to maintain flow rates. In any event, the cost per barrel and at the pump has clearly been rising over the last 10 years. Oil price spikes have so far been correlated with recessions. As we are rumored to be emerging from this one, the price is inching up again, and I don’t see how we are set up to avoid taking another hit.

    The concepts of reserve (before extraction), flow rates, price, demand etc… are related, but none of the relationships are simple. Reserve affects flow rate, to a point. However, cost of extraction impacts flow rates more. Demand impacts cost, but cost impacts demand – making predictions is messy. If civilization collapses and a trillion barrels of oil is left in the ground, and we never reach Peak Oil, will Lynch have won the argument?

    In the end, the analytical arguments break down and leave us stranded. After a year of reading Oil Drum posts, my intuition is that endless growth on a finite planet is impossible, that we therefore will scale down our impact, and that this will cause unprecedented economic dislocation. In addition, the time at which this scaling down will become inevitable could be reasonably soon.

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