Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Peak Oil

Recent increases in oil prices have sparked renewed interest in the subject of “peak oil,” the idea that the world has consumed half of the total supply of petroleum, a resource that underlies most of modern civilization which will from now on become progressively more expensive as demand exceeds our ability to produce (extract and process) it. Because we have been lax in developing substitutes, controlling population growth, and curbing our appetites for more energy, many advocates of the theory believe that civilization will crash and most of our population will die in the process.

Applying my consumption model to oil with starting reserves calculated from reported values, the number of people using oil (“population”) peaks at the same time that I’ve projected for world energy, about 40 years from now. Production (“consumption”) of oil peaks about a decade earlier.

If the peak oil theory is right, then the original world reserve of oil was twice the amount at the production peak, or about 5.2 trillion barrels used for energy. I estimate that we currently have about 3.5 trillion barrels remaining that would be used for energy. Assuming that 21 percent is and was used for asphalt and product feedstock, then the total amount of oil remaining is 4.4 trillion barrels, and the original world reserve was 6.6 trillion barrels.

My model assumes that the number of people using a resource will drop in proportion to the change in the fraction of the resource that’s available (adjusted for preferred growth in population and per capita consumption). Those who do not use the resource will use something else or use nothing (either literally or because they are not being added to the population). Using less is an option only until a full per capita unit is reached, after which the savings counts as a loss of population (especially in a closed system where everyone is forced to use the resource).

In the case of oil, my model projects a slowing of per capita production, which suggests that per capita demand is also slowing (at least historically). Other energy sources are the logical beneficiaries of this trend; but as the peak oil adherents are quick to point out their growth may not be enough to pick up the difference, thus leading to the common behavior of population over time.

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