Peak oil nuts may be right, but for all the wrong reasons
I've never had much time for the peak oil prophets of doom. To me they always seemed first cousins to the kind of people who hide out in log cabins in the back hills of Montana surrounded by plentiful stocks of canned food and shotgun cartridges, waiting for the collapse of civilisation.
In a nutshell, they believe the world's oil is running out. They point out that oil supplies are finite while demand appears boundless.
With no major new oilfields discovered in recent years, they argue that the world's oil production is peaking, or even that it has already peaked, and that from now on supplies must decline irreversibly.
Meanwhile, thanks largely to fast-growing car sales in China, India and other rapidly developing economies, demand for oil will only continue to grow. The result, the peak-oilers say, will be soaring prices, economic collapse, resource wars and the end of the world as we know it.
Their basic idea has been around for more than 50 years, and it is sound enough as far as it goes. Logically, if a resource is finite, there must come a day when its production will peak. Unfortunately for the peak-oilers, however, there are some major flaws in their conclusions.
For one thing, they have always failed to appreciate the potential of new extraction technologies. Visiting the Marmul oilfield in Oman in 1990, I was told by one senior engineer that after years of exploitation, the reservoir was exhausted and had no more than a year or two of production left.
More than 20 years later, thanks to enhanced extraction techniques such as polymer flooding, Marmul is not only still pumping oil, its output is actually increasing.
Peak oil advocates also failed to appreciate rising prices would make it economically viable to exploit new sources of oil, such as Alberta's vast tar sands. As a result, despite years of warnings that supplies are on the point of running out, we have more reserves than ever.
Three decades ago, the world's oilfields were reckoned to hold 30 years of proven supplies at 1980's rate of consumption. Since then the amount of oil we burn each year has leapt 45 per cent, but as the first chart shows, at today's consumption rate we have enough proven reserves to last us another 50 years. And huge areas of the world, including much of the Arctic and the entire continental shelf Antarctica, remain entirely unexplored.
Clearly the world is not about to run out of oil. But paradoxically, the peak-oilers' predictions might still prove correct, although not for the reasons they believe.
The world's production of oil may well begin to decline soon. But if it does, it will not be because of dwindling supplies of the stuff. The reason will be diminishing demand.
At the moment, about a quarter of all the oil we pump out of the ground is refined into petrol and is used for fuelling our cars. In recent years that demand has grown strongly, thanks largely to robust car sales in China. Only in Europe and Japan have tighter efficiency standards, punitive fuel taxes and the advent of hybrid vehicles reduced petrol consumption.
But over the course of the coming decade, engine improvements, the end of fuel subsidies, new anti-pollution regulations and a sharp fall in the price of automotive batteries are likely to drive down petrol demand in other markets, too.
According to analysts at Deutsche Bank, petrol demand in the United States, the world's biggest consumer, is set to fall more than 40 per cent by the year 2030. And although growing car sales will continue to drive up petrol usage in China for the next 10 years or so, even there demand is likely to peak by around 2025 before beginning to fall as electric cars become popular.
As a result, Deutsche Bank's analysts forecast that global oil demand will grow slowly from 88 million barrels a day last year to peak in 2020 at 95 million barrels. After that, demand will begin gradually to decline (see the second chart).
If they are right, world oil production may well begin to decline within the next 10 years as the peak-oilers warn, but only because we are burning less of the stuff, not because it is running out.
It seems Ahmed Yamani, Saudi Arabia's oil minister during the 1970s, may have had a point after all when he declared that 'the Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil'.