Those who talk about it often have a slightly excited look upon their faces, as though they cannot wait for the final cataclysm to come so that they can say “I told you so” as the cities begin to go up in flames and people collect together in small bands to try to eke out some semblance of survival in the mountains.
They appear to have gone rather quiet recently, however. Once again, “peak oil” has turned out to be nothing more than a foothill in the great undulating range of energy prices. Oil prices have fallen by two thirds in the past six months to end up $100 a barrel below their Summer peak at just $50 a barrel.
Of course, peak oil is nonsense anyway. Firstly, it is based upon a deliberate obfuscation of known, economically viable reserves on the one hand, and what is in fact under the crust on the other: oil companies only list the reserves that they have so far identified, and they do not list reserves that are, at current prices, too expensive to be viable, while at a higher price they would be worth drilling for. As Russell Lewis explains,
Oil reserves are never remotely equivalent to all the oil in the earth’s crust.This does not mean that oil could never run out, however. That is left to the price mechanism. As the supply of oil diminishes, the price will inevitably rise. This will not, however, trigger a mad rush to capture ever shrinking reserves until the oil economy collapses; rather, it will lead to a steady rise in prices that will encourage greater efficiency, spur research into make alternatives more cost-effective. For example, if fossil fuels quadrupled in price, wind turbines would be able to generate electricity more cheaply and so they would become a viable alternative. The increase also pushes up the cost of high-energy products and services (such as flights) and so discourages consumption. And finally, as we have already seen, rising fuel costs encourage consumers to pay more attention to the miles-per-litre that their car can achieve and so encourage producers to invest in more efficient engines.
The proven reserves are what the oil companies have decided to look for and
which are known to be exploitable under prevailing technical and economic
conditions. They are designed to provide the oil industry’s working inventory of
oil stocks. There is a limit to the amount of money the oil companies can spend
on searching for more or deeper wells because prospecting and drilling are
expensive, and there are other competing obligations which affect their
long-term profits, such as advertising, marketing, research, building refineries
and distribution. The best indicator of whether oil is getting scarcer is its
price, and though prices have risen sharply in the last two years [and bearing
in mind that this was written before the collapse in prices in the last six
months], that fact does not necessarily point to a long-term upward trend.
In fact, this last points to another flaw in the peak oil theory: it ignores human ingenuity. Even accepting that there is a set amount of oil, it is irrelevant to our ability to produce power from it. By inventing an engine that is twice as efficient, or a new means of producing plastics that requires half and many hydrocarbons, we have effectively doubled the amount of fuel available even if we have the same number of litres. If we invent alternative technologies, lakes of oil are made available for the remaining needs. In truth, we will never run out of oil, because before that ever happens human action and rising prices will have rendered oil surplus to requirements.
So the next time you see that fuel prices are rising and hear somebody mutter about peak oil, you can rest assured that new research is underway that will soon bring prices back down, and that there is plenty of oil left under the ground. More, in fact, than we will ever need.