FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Peak Oil

It doesn't take a rocket scientist (or a futurist, for that matter) to realize that the recent rise in oil prices is not an anomaly, but a long-term trend.

Seeing this, a new concept of "Peak Oil" is emerging, which is defined as the point "when our collective ability to extract enough oil is exceeded by our demand for oil." Although we're better at extracting oil than we used to be, the planet's reserves are finite, even if we were to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling. And global demand is increasing as countries such as China and India step up their consumption, combined with the developed world enjoying a relatively healthy economy.

Source: Association for the Study of Peak Oil. Click here for larger views and other charts.

Exactly when we'll hit Peak Oil is a point of debate: some say we'll reach it within a few years, whole others say Peak Oil is decades away, if at all. According to one estimate, global demand has already come within 1% of supply (many industry experts believe any difference below 10% is a problem). The UK-based Energy Institute estimates spare oil capacity to be as low as 0.5%, especially since large quantities of OPEC's capacity is currently bottled up in war-torn Iraq.

Concern about this phenomenon is so great that it has its own think tank, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO). This group estimates that the world could reach Peak Oil as soon as 2008. More conservatively, BP exploration consultant Francis Harper believes that peak production will occur between 2010 and 2020 -- still, too close for comfort.

In other words, we barely have enough time to begin looking for a solution. We could, of course, open up the ANWR for drilling, but bringing that oil online could take years... and at any rate, it's a stopgap solution. Petroleum engineer Jack Zagar argues that finding further new reserves could take decades. According to ASPO, we don't have that kind of time.

What else can we do? Some advocate the development of molecular construction through which fuels could be created through nanotechnology. Hydrogen cells and improved solar energy are also options. If those technologies don't work out, revisiting nuclear power may be a necessity. But whatever we do, the U.S. and the world need a strategy for alternative fuel development, distribution and conservation, and to make it a top priority.

It would be wonderful if President Bush would commit us to a timetable for ending our reliance on fossil fuels, just as John F. Kennedy did in committing us to landing on the moon. If he's looking for a project to build his legacy, this would be ideal. But I'm hardly optimistic. The U.S. has a history of putting alternative energy on the back burner and associating it with "fringe elements." That was especially easy during the era of cheap oil in the '80s and '90s. Sadly, the day may come when we wished we had taken that "fringe" more seriously and had begun developing alternatives when we had the chance.

Sources: KurzweilAI.net, Responsible Nanotechnology