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Why The Peak Oil Discussion Is Irrelevant

By Sid of Stone Marmot

Aug. 18, 2012

A lot of people are very concerned that we are at or have even passed the point where we have used up half of the oil that exits on this planet, this halfway point usually referred to as “peak oil.” Others claim we aren't close to this peak and there is much undiscovered oil left on the earth. Why this discussion matters at all is that many claim that once we pass this half way point, our oil prices are doomed to rise significantly. Since our present transportation structure is based on oil as a fuel and a significant portion of our chemicals, which give us fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, medicines, lubricants, plastics, etc., are derived from oil, significantly higher oil prices would devastate our economy and our lifestyles. If we are at or past this peak oil point, we need to significantly change our behavior and society now to avoid extreme hardship. But if we aren't close to this peak, the arguments go, then making significant changes to minimize the impacts of peak oil would probably cause more unnecessary harm than good.

I feel this whole discussion is a waste of time. It is irrelevant if we have discovered and used up half of the world's oil supply or 0.0001 % of the world's supply. The truth is we have discovered and used up almost all of the cheap and easily extracted oil. All future oil will be harder to find, harder to extract, and probably have a greater risk of a more significant environmental impact. And, as a consequence, it will cost more, a lot more.

Cost is not strictly in terms of money. A big criticism of many alternative fuels is that it takes as much or more energy to obtain them as you get from the fuel. Oil is approaching that point, also. At the start of the oil age, the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil was spent for every 200 barrels of end fuel. The latest numbers I've seen says that presently the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil will only get us about 15 to 20 barrels of usable fuel. The usable end fuel obtained for each energy equivalent of one barrel of oil is even lower, much lower, with some of the newer methods, such as tar sands (about 3 barrels of usable fuel) and oil shale (about 5 barrels of usable fuel).

And energy cost of fuel is just one of the costs. We are also using much more water, which is becoming a very valuable commodity, to extract and process each unit of fuel. We are also using more of other chemicals, some rare.

This isn't just an inflation issue. At the start of the oil age, we would just drill about 70 to 100 feet into the ground and the oil would gush out of the ground under its own pressure. Now we have to go a couple hundred miles offshore, run a drill bit into the ocean floor a mile or more below us, and then drill a couple of miles into this ocean floor to get at this oil. Or we have to shovel and transport millions of tons of dirt to a facility which processes this dirt with lots of water, chemicals, and energy to force the oil out of this dirt, and then do something with the dirt that remains after the process. Or we have to pump lots of water and chemicals under high pressure, which takes lots of energy, into the rock beneath us to break up the rock to allow access to the oil still trapped within the rock. No one can seriously claim that the then and now costs are comparable.

I agree we will never run out of oil, at least not until the sun expands into a red giant and boils all the volatile substances, including us, off of the planet. Oil will just keep getting more and more expensive until it is no longer practical to use as a fuel. And that point where the cost is no longer acceptable is closer than most of us think.

I also feel that we will probably never find an alternative fuel that is as cheap, convenient, and versatile as oil was in the last century. Oil will just keep rising in cost until other fuels start to appear more practical. We will also change our lifestyles accordingly, and most of us will probably feel then that we have made a lot of progress and question why anyone would have even considered using such a primitive selfish concept as private internal combustion vehicles in the first place.

And so far this commentary has made little mention of the environmental impacts of continued oil use.

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