National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: July 2008 – A Month To Remember

There is a growing consensus among those who follow such things, that the new high of world oil production (87.9 million barrels a day) reached last July is likely to go down in history as the all-time peak.

This is by no means a unanimous opinion.

The official government forecasting agencies, the IEA and the EIA, have devised rather bizarre scenarios that would allow oil production to ease higher for another 20 years or so. These organizations, or course, are not free agents both being bound by political strictures rather than a search for truth. While the world’s governments are inching closer to public acknowledgement of peak oil, they have many diverse responsibilities such as maintaining the domestic tranquility, fighting various kinds of wars, and providing some semblance of financial stability. Clearly a sudden admission that world oil production had just entered an irreversible decline would not help with these other responsibilities. Optimists and those unwilling to contemplate the ramifications of rapid change are still maintaining that oil production will grow in some mysterious manner for the foreseeable future.

Most students of the subject at first thought that world oil production was going to peak for geological reasons — the inability to find and produce enough oil to keep our annual consumption of 30 billion barrels increasing. In recent years, “above ground” factors such as wars, nationalistic governments, and failure to invest have become the popular reasons for constraints on increasing world oil production among those who for one reason or another do not like the geologic (running out of reserves) argument.

While all these factors are contributing to the likelihood that from here on out less and less oil will be produced, it seems that the initial decline in production will come because the world economic situation has deteriorated so much that we simply don’t need 87.9 million barrels a day (b/d) of oil anymore.

At the minute, OPEC is scrambling to figure out how to enforce an equitable production cut to drive prices higher again. Current talk is that it will take cuts totaling 3 million b/d or more to balance supply and demand. If reductions on this order actually take place in the near future, then world production which has been declining since July will have started on a downward slope from which it is unlikely to ever recover.

New oil production and refining projects are being cut back right and left due to low prices, lack of demand, and the inability to borrow money. It will take several years for these cutbacks in investment to affect oil production; in the meantime, depletion will take over and cause irreversible declines in oil production in the next five to ten years.

In the three-way struggle among worldwide oil depletion, new oil production projects, and the global recession, we have a pretty good handle on depletion and new projects, but appreciation of the depth and length of the recession is not well understood. What was widely believed last year to be a couple of weak quarters is now generally acknowledged to be the worst economic slump since World War II. Optimists, especially on Wall Street and in Detroit, are saying that by 2010, or 2011, or 2012, the recession should be over and economic growth will return. There is great faith that the world’s governments can manage a recovery by lowering interest rates, pumping trillions of government money into the financial system, loaning money to failing corporations, and instituting massive stimulus packages. Some are not so sure.

Whatever the root causes of our new recession – bad lending practices, leverage, too much debt, lax regulations, or as some believe, high oil prices – it is clear that it is going to be worldwide, serious and will take some time, perhaps years, to work itself out. The last recession of this scope went on for ten years and picked up the name of “the great depression” somewhere along the way.

The role of oil in the nature and duration of the recovery from all this will be critical. Should OPEC succeed in driving oil prices back up to $75 or $100 a barrel by imposing serious restrictions on production, then, as we saw last summer, money will be drained from the recovery into oil producers’ coffers, but there will be more incentive to invest in new production. Gasoline prices, however, will climb again and consumers will be back where they were last spring.

If the recession deepens over the next year or so, the demand for oil is likely to decline significantly. OPEC may have trouble getting prices back up to “satisfactory” levels. At present, worldwide demand for oil, while slipping, is not yet dropping precipitously. If such a drop should happen, then it is a solid indication of deep and lasting economic troubles for some time to come. Declines in worldwide production over the next few years initially will come from production cutbacks due to lack of demand. If the economic situation gets really bad, these demand-induced cutbacks could continue longer – perhaps for many years. At some point, however, worldwide oil depletion will catch up with new production as expensive investment in new oil fields is likely to shrink under conditions of declining demand.

At this point, the oil age will be closing down. Worldwide production will be declining rapidly through a combination of lower demand and then depletion. In four years sustainable production capacity is likely to be down from 87 million b/d to the vicinity of 80 million. In 10 or 15 years world production is likely to be in the vicinity of 50 million b/d and by mid-century 20 or 30 million. By the end of the century, oil production will be nearly gone and will be restricted to high-value uses for which there is no alternative. Future generations will either adopt alternative forms of energy, far more efficient machines, or do without. And it all started last July.