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August 22, 2005

On "Peak Oil"

Tony writes:

There is a "crossover point" where the cost of Arab oil exceeds the cost of making oilish products from scratch out of other hydrocarbon sources - like coal - which the USA and europe, Russia, etc are lousy with.

In reality, "oil/gas" are what I'll term a "convenience" energy products, because the raw form is closer to what you want than coal is. But, to a chemist constructing relatively simple hydrocarbon molecules, its just a matter of production cost between using oil as a starting point rather than coal, or discarded furniture, or scrap plastics, dead bodies, etc...

As the chicken people say - parts is parts.

There may be a few years lag where oild prices are stratospheric, but when local cracking plants are built and come online, then arab oil won't be worth any more than the synth equivalent product and prices would stabilize for the next several hundred years.

This is true, but it's hardly cause for great comfort. Alternative methods of producing liquid petroleum are expensive, and only become economically competitive when the price of oil becomes very high.

So it's true that there is an upper limit to the cost of crude oil -- at some price-point, yes, it will become as costly as producing oil from shale or coal. I don't know what that number is, but let's say it's $150 per barrel. Yes, oil won't go much higher than that, as at $150 per barrel it has no cost advantage over shale-oil or coal-oil, but obviously the prospect of $150/barrel oil is hardly cause for celebration.

Oil is a pretty amazing substance. It packs an energy wollop not found in much other chemical compounds (apart from explosives, which are expensive to produce, and difficult to control in combustion reactions), and very little energy needs to be added to make it an easily portable, easily controlled, easily carried, fairly safe, and very potent energy source. Millions of years of geothermal pressures have already packed oil with a great deal of energy, easily combustible-- just add oxygen and a spark. Sure, there are costs for refinement and extraction, but those costs are pretty low compared to the amazing energy punch oil packs.

It's not absolutely irreplaceable-- we can replace it, if necessary -- but it will not be cheap to do so.

And, just as an economy may stagnate when labor costs grow too high, so too can an economy plunge into recession when energy costs grow too high. And this world relies more and more on petroleum power and less and less on simple manpower.

If it does happen that oil becomes so expensive that alternative fuels become viable, we can expect the cost of those fuels to go down, as more and more money and talent and research is poured into making their production as efficient and cheap as possible. But it still will be much more expensive than crude oil, at least as we've come to know the expense of crude oil, because crude, unlike the alternatives, is virtually ready to be combusted right out of the ground.

There is an upper limit to the cost of liquid petroleum. That upper limit, however, may turn out to be disasterously high. Or, if not disasterously, at least much higher than we've come to expect, and requiring some nontrivial changes in lifestyle.

Much Cheaper Than I Guessed? Commeters Brass and "[anonymous]" say that shale can be converted to oil and sold for $45/$40-$50 per barrel-- and the only thing preventing this from happening on a larger scale is fears of a sudden drop in the cost of crude, making a major investment in such industry a financial disaster.

True? I don't know. I'll have to look it up (or, if they're kind enough, they can shoot me a cite).

If this is true, though-- then it seems that the government ought to guarantee the success of companies producing this sort of oil, promising them, for example, that they will purchase all excess product for at least cost plus 10% (or $50 per barrel, or whatever), and put that oil into the Strategic Petroleum reserve. And let that guarantee run for 10 years or so.

Costly? Well, to the government, as a direct cost, yes, possibly. But if it's true that oil can be produced from shale at so competitive a price (at least competitive according to what we've come to expect, price-wise, for the last year and a half), then it seems this technology is the fusion of today.

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posted by Ace at 04:04 PM

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