Ten years ago peak oil was assumed to be a rather straight forward, transparent process. What was then thought of as “oil” production was going to stop growing around the middle of the last decade. Shortages were going to occur; prices were going to rise; demand was going to drop; economies would falter; and eventually a major economic depression was going to occur. Fortunately or not, depending on your point of view, the last ten years have turned out to a lot more complicated than expected. Production of what is now known as “conventional” oil did indeed peak back around 2005, and many of the phenomena that were expected to result did occur and continue to this day.
Oil prices have climbed several-fold from where they were in the early years of the last decade – surging upwards from $20 a barrel to circa $100. This rapid jump in energy costs did slow many nations’ economies, cut oil consumption, and with some other factors set off a “great” recession. Real economic hardships have not yet occurred.
Much of this is due to the reaction that set in from high oil prices and increased government intervention into the economy. In the case of the U.S., Washington turned on the modern day equivalent of the printing presses and began handing out money that was used to develop expensive sources of oil and gas. The high selling price per barrel, coupled with cheap money led to a boom in U.S. oil production where fortuitous geological conditions in North Dakota and South Texas allowed the production of shale oil at money-making prices provided oil prices stay high.
U.S. unconventional oil production soared by some 3.3 million barrels a day (b/d) in the last four years, and, if the US Energy Information Administration is correct, is due to climb by another million b/d or so in 2015. While this jump in production was unexpected by most, it was just another phenomenon resulting from unprecedentedly high oil prices, which in turn resulted from the lack of adequate “conventional” oil production. As is well known, economic development can have major reactions and feedbacks.
What is so interesting about all this is that a temporary surge in what was heretofore a little known source of oil in the U.S. is masking the larger story of what is taking place in the global oil situation. The simple answer is that except for the U.S. shale oil surge almost no increase in oil production is taking place around the world. No other country as yet has gotten significant amounts of shale oil or gas into production. Russia’s conventional oil production seems to be peaking at present, and its Arctic oil production is still many years, or perhaps even decades, away. Brazilian production is going nowhere at the minute, deepwater production in the Gulf of Mexico is stagnating and the Middle East is busy killing itself. On top of all this, global demand for oil continues to increase by some million b/d each year – most of which is going to Asia.
If we step back and acknowledge that the shale oil phenomenon will be over in a couple of years and that oil production is dropping in the rest of the world, then we have to expect that the remainder of the peak oil story will play out shortly. The impact of shrinking global oil production, which is been on hold for nearly a decade, will appear. Prices will go much higher, this time with lowered expectations that more oil will be produced as prices go higher. The great recession, which has never really gone away for most, will return with renewed vigor and all that it implies.
An additional factor which has grown considerably worse in the last ten years is climate change, largely brought about by the combustion of fossil fuels. We are already seeing global weather anomalies with record high and low temperatures and record floods as well as droughts. This too will take its toll on economic development as mitigating this change will soon become enormously expensive. We are already seeing migrations of restive peoples. Thousands are dying in efforts to get from the Middle East and Africa into the EU. Millions are already homeless across the Middle East and recent developments foretell hundreds of thousands if not millions more being added to ranks of refugees as decades and even centuries-old political arrangements collapse.
All this is telling us that the peak oil crisis we have been watching for the last ten years has not gone away, but is turning out to be a more prolonged event than previous believed. Many do not believe that peak oil is really happening as they read daily of surging oil production and falling oil prices. Rarely do they hear that another shoe has yet to drop and that much worse in terms of oil shortages, higher prices and interrupted economic growth is just ahead.
We are sitting in the eye of the peak oil crisis and few recognize it. Five years from now, it should be apparent to all.