At last, peak oil has an official date

by frog

A frogblog fan reminded me about this lovely article from Monbiot just before the Christmas break. The Guardian’s video of the interview is here. It seems the IEA spent all of 2008 doing what it should have been doing all along – analysing all the world’s conventional oil supply to see when we are going to peak. When interviewed by Monbiot, Fatih Birol of the IEA actually gave a date for the event. (This date had been conveniently left out of their report just prior to Christmas.) From the Monbiot article:

For the first time, in the interview I conducted with its chief economist Fatih Birol, it has given us a date. And it should scare the pants off anyone who understands the implications.

Fatih Birol, the lead author of the new energy outlook, is a small, shrewd, unflustered man with thick grey hair and Alistair Darling eyebrows. He explained to me that the agency’s new projections were based on a major study it had undertaken into decline rates in the world’s 800 largest oil fields. So what were its previous figures based on? “It was mainly an assumption, a global assumption about the world’s oil fields.

This year, we looked at it country by country, field by field and we looked at it also onshore and offshore. It was very very detailed. Last year it was an assumption, and this year it’s a finding of our study.” I told him that it seemed extraordinary to me that the IEA hadn’t done this work before, but had based its assessment on educated guesswork. “In fact nobody had done this research,” he told me. “This is the first publicly available data”.(11)

So was it not irresponsible to publish a decline rate of 3.7% in 2007, when there was no proper research supporting it? “No, our previous decline assumptions have always mentioned that these are assumptions to the best of our knowledge – and we also said that the declines [could be] higher than what we have assumed.”

Then I asked him a question for which I didn’t expect a straight answer: could he give me a precise date by which he expects conventional oil supplies to stop growing?

“In terms of non-OPEC [countries outside the big oil producers’ cartel]”, he replied, “we are expecting that in three, four years’ time the production of conventional oil will come to a plateau, and start to decline. … In terms of the global picture, assuming that OPEC will invest in a timely manner, global conventional oil can still continue, but we still expect that it will come around 2020 to a plateau as well, which is of course not good news from a global oil supply point of view.”

Around 2020. That casts the issue in quite a different light. Mr Birol’s date, if correct, gives us about 11 years to prepare. If the Hirsch report is right, we have already missed the boat.

Birol says we need a “global energy revolution” to avoid an oil crunch, including (disastrously for the environment) a massive global drive to exploit unconventional oils, such as the Canadian tar sands. But nothing on this scale has yet happened, and Hirsch suggests that even if it began today, the necessary investments and infrastructure changes could not be made in time. Fatih Birol told me “I think time is not on our side here.”

Shock. Horror. I am so surprised. This is the first publicly available research? I think not Mr Birol. But “We told you so” is always wasted breath. The more urgent issue is that like climate change, we have left it so late that it is going to cost us more than if we had acted responsibly in the first place.

So peak oil has an official date, from the official international agency that governments look to for their answers. What is New Zealand doing about it? Pretty much the same as the UK. Next to nothing. Building lots of new roads. I am not anti-road at all, but we really ought to look after the quality of the ones we have rather than building more at a time when increased demand for them will be drying up before we’ve got our money’s worth from them. Better to invest in oil independent infrastructure, of all kinds. NZ is fixated on the idea of electric cars, which is great, but the new government isn’t doing anything about it. We’ll need them. We will also need a whole heap of public transport, preferably not fossil based.

Interesting times indeed…

frog says

Published in Environment & Resource Management by frog on Mon, January 26th, 2009   

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