Non Peak Oil

The concept of Peak Oil indicates we are running out of this precious resource and that the future may be grave if dramatic action is not forthcoming by the powers that be. If you doubt me ask Al Gore or read any of his eco-gibberish. The President has invaded a sovereign country, Iraq, in order to protect and secure the life and liberty of American Citizens while conferring the principles of democracy onto the grateful Iraqi people. It is possible this is not related to Peak Oil at all.

According to oil industry sources, the commonly accepted proven reserves are 1.226 trillion barrels of oil. Just how much is this? Using established standards for volume we can convert barrels of oil into cubic miles. The number that I calculate is about 48 cubic miles of oil. Given that the volume of the earth is much, much larger (many billions of cubic miles), then this is really not that much oil. Is oil really so scarce that the freedom of the Western world depends upon trampling a few small countries who really do not know freedom and have no history of anything other than brutal dictatorship, for which our democracy will be a refreshing and welcomed change?

If we consider that the world is consuming a lot of oil, and that the consumption grows each and every year, the key question becomes how long until we run out? I calculate this to be about 49 years at current consumption rates. These could actually be too low and thus we could be burning it faster than that depending on rates of consumption in growing economies like India and China.

The flaw in this argument is that every year we have more proven reserves at the end of the year than we did at the beginning, thanks to vigorous exploration and improved extraction technologies. This has been the consistent theme for as long as oil reserves have been calculated. There has never been a time that the oil industry has had less proven reserves at the beginning of the year than at the end, even with the intervening 365 days of consumption being factored in. Odd circumstances indeed for a scarce resource!

The natural production theory of oil (biotic) says that crude oil results from the trapped decay products of living organisms which get trapped under the Earth and then percolate for millions of years at elevated temperature and pressure resulting in crude oil. This theory is so well accepted that the Oil Industry does not even fund the research into alternative theories, even though this one goes back to the 19th century and is predicated on some pretty weak science. This always struck me as a bizarre and unlikely series of events, that deserts, fields and forests would get plowed under the earth and after millions of years become oil.

What about a larger scale source phenomena like Solar System formation? It is well known that there are copious amounts of methane in our Solar System. The gas giant planets of Jupiter and Saturn are proof of this. Methane is the most reduced form of a hydrocarbon possible and thus yields the highest energy content under oxidation (burning). Under the conventional theory oil forms as vegetable material becomes coal, which becomes petroleum, and finally natural gas (methane) as oxygen is removed and the molecules become more and more reduced.

According to Thomas Gold, this theory is wrong and he has some impressive figures with which to back up his ideas. Let's do some calculations with his theory. If the outer 100 miles of the earth's crust are biologically active as Gold suggests and the activity is uniformly distributed then there is a lot of potential oil to be found. If oil is just .001% of the volume of the outer 100 miles of crust, then we would have an additional 5,077,713,481,834,820 barrels of oil, or about 4000 times as much as the current proved reserves. If the oil zone goes deeper then we obviously have more. If the oil is being replenished from below via primordial reserves left over from solar system formation then a steady state might be expected in which extraction and replenishment would balance for a long time to come.

Perhaps this explains why we never seem to run out and some large oil fields continue to produce regardless of extraction rates? Some oil pools actually seem to be filling from below, which supports the deep hot biosphere theory of Thomas Gold.

Why then would the oil industry cry shortage in such a period of abundance? There is nothing like a perceived crisis to suspend rational thought and behavior. This happened during the seventies when stagflation ruled the day and we were running out of oil (again), in spite of the proven reserve facts.

If we are not running out of oil, then just what are we doing in the Middle East? We are currently spending about $150 billion dollars per year defending about 350 billion barrels of oil of which we purchase about $12 billion dollars worth for imports. This is clearly a bad bargain. We could withdraw the troops and let the price of oil quadruple and still save money and lives, theirs and ours. Clearly no one is performing cost benefit analysis on this fiasco.

Current "expert" consumption rates indicate the pool will run dry this century, but if history is any guide at the end of this century there will be more proven reserves than at the beginning of the century (which was the case with the last one). Freeman Dyson thinks Thomas Gold is on to something, and as co-inventor of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) he is nowhere near the intellectual schlump that I am and he might be worth listening to.

The basic thesis here is that lots of eco-nuts, and policy wonks think that oil production has peaked and that doom is around the proverbial corner (as it always seems to be, no matter how many corners we safely round).

I oppose these ideas for two reasons: 1) in my experience Al Gore gets virtually nothing correct in his public policy proscriptions, and 2) even if we are running out of oil the market will adjust and other forms will become available. Nothing will ration supply accurately like price, that is, market forces, and historically these are just the things not allowed to function, instead we get myriads of laws, regulations, incentives, and taxpayer funded boondoggles (Synfuel Coporation comes to mind) perverting the process.

If I am correct then this is another non-issue. At the end of this year, like the end of every year in the past we will have more proven reserves than we did at the beginning. Odd considering we are discussing an increasingly scarce resource, but the politicians and their funding dependent sycophants never let truth interfere with a good story, and that story is usually about picking our pickets.

July 6, 2006