The End of Oil Part 3

In my previous posts dealing with oil energy and depletion I’ve tried to get a handle on many aspects of oil production and use along with projected supply and demand using the conventional tools of most energy analysts such as resources and reserves with new reserve growth, field depletion, cost estimates along with production costs in my attempt to try to discern future use, cost and availability projections. I now know that this method is flawed because it ignores fundamental properties of the oil production and processing system. The first barrel commercially processed in 1859 in Titusville PA was our cheapest barrel to produce and every barrel since has cost more and every barrel in the future will cost even more. O f course I mean this generally, not literally but it turns out that a useful first tool could be to look cumulative production over a long enough period of time and compare that to cost and see what the relation might be. Another task might be to look at production and see if there might be a way to chart production cost say per barrel over time. Might there be a way to see how much energy the production side of things uses and see how much energy or wealth is delivered to the greater society from the distribution of that oil energy. Might there be a way to predict future depletion? We know that there is a correlation between energy consumption and economic activity which can be crudely measured in GDP. There are ways to measure how much GDP is generated by a unit amount of energy. For this analysis to proceed we will need first and foremost, accurate data sets. It turns out this is very difficult to acquire for many reasons. Among them are sloppy or absent record keeping, the desire of producers to conceal how much they produce or have as reserves and in some cases deliberate falsification of the figures for political or financial gain and so forth. It turns out that there are a few honest men who have made truth and transparency their goal. The best example is the Texas Railroad Commission who kept detailed records starting with the big oil boom in Texas earlier in the last century and there are other agencies which have done credible verifiable data collection. Another problem is there is a lot of data, a lot of DETAIL to handle and examine and for many reasons very few people bothered to look at this project. The first and most important person who did was M King Hubbert, a Shell geologist who presented a paper in Houston Texas in the late 50’s in which he showed a distribution function using a Gaussian curve showing oil production in the US up till then projected into the future. The most stunning part of his curve was he projected oil production in the US would peak in 1970 and world production would peak about the beginning of the 21st century. Allegedly loud guffaws and snorts were heard throughout the oil patch. The so-called Hubbert Curve was ridiculed and generally ignored by the oil executives and most petroleum geologists. But guess what happened? US production peaked in 1970 and world production peaked about the turn of century. This was in fact PEAK OIL, a term which can push some economists , executives,pundits and politicians into a lathering sputtering hissy fit at the sheer mention of the word.

Shortly after US Oil output peaked A group of systems analysts called the Club of Rome from MIT(?!) put out a book called “The Limits to Growth” in 1972 in which they laid out a model of future trends in the economy using a new invention which greatly facilitated their work, the digital computer. Their model examined a variety of parameters such as energy and resource growth, population, pollution, and projected them into the future. Some people were stunned, including myself and their lives were forever altered. Many others fumed and snorted and went into full denial and attack mode. To this day there are still plenty of people  who regard the book as rubbish and they likely are the same crowd who drink at the climate deniers bar and grill and who are card carrying members of the Flat Earth Society.

Meanwhile oil production when through wild gyrations in price and availability with oil shocks in the 70’s and 80’s, with huge new discoveries in Alaska and the North Sea leading to rising production and falling prices and an economic boom which lasted for 25 years. It turns out those were that last big field discoveries. But price gyrations in oil continued with a spurt to $147/barrel and a stomach churning plunge back to $30 and back up and down where it now sits at about $50 a barrel. Some people including a few intelligent analysts, bloggers and economists started to voice the opinion that prices too high killed economies and price too low killed oil companies. What should be the price that oil needed to trade at to hit that Goldilocks Sweet spot? When oil prices were over $100 five years ago Wall Street went on a spending spree throwing money at anyone with a pickup truck and a drill bit as the new or not so new technique of hydraulic Fracturing took off in a frantic search for new sources of what came to be called “Unconventional” oil. The US was to become Saudi America with huge supplies of Tight oil locked within tight rocks and there were mountains, MOUNTAINS I SAY! In the southern Rockies made of oil shale lying there for the taking. Saudi America was going to be Energy Independent ! We would export to the world which would again become our Oyster. America could be Great Again! Wall Street and petroleum pundits sprouted like flowers after a rain and no one seemed to notice that those fracking wells petered out way too fast and some whispering could be heard that some weren’t making money,even at over $100.. For a while money was made by a fortunate few buying up oil leases and peddling them to the suckers born every day. Even the CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson, said a lot of people “were losing their shirts”. But not Rex of course. And then starting in 2013-2014 all this expensive to produce frackoil hit the market along with a continuing recession and before long oil crashed back to $25 and then mercifully edged back slowly up but it came too late for a lot of under capitalized wildcatters. At around this time a group of Project managers and engineering whiz kids led by a guy by the name of B.W. Hill at what was called the Hills Group decided to take a new look at sorting out the conflicting data on Oil availability and production using an altogether different methodology, Thermodynamics. Thermodynamics you say? You remember thermodynamics, right? The first law, the second law, the third law….Was there a fourth law? Stay tuned in a future blog while we try to find out how thermodynamic principles might lead us out of the desert into the promised land of true knowledge.


About cal48koho

I was born in Montana and raised in a dozen Air Force SAC bases. I attended Holy Cross,West Point and UNC in Chapel Hill(MD"71). Army doc in the last years of the Viet Nam fiasco. My wife and I live in a log cabin I built in Jackson Hole in 1975 when we aren't on our Cal 48 yawl. I've done a dozen different jobs and retired from ER and Anesthesia in 2004. I've written magazine articles and am writing a Kunstleresque novel about life in a past Peak Oil world. We are living in a beautiful alpine setting where we hike and ski when we're not thinking about economics and spreading the implications of PO to anyone who will listen.
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