The CIA’s interest in predicting peak oil is pretty clear when you think about the disruption that would occur when an oil dependent world with a surging population is faced with declining oil supplies. Peak oil would give rise to shortages in gasoline, fuel oil and petrochemicals, which would lead to price spikes in food and other basic commodities and consequently to domestic turmoil (think Russian bread riots and you’re on the right track), and global instability. Writer William Hicks at energybulletin.net recently noted that back in 1978 a CIA analyst named Richard Nehring predicted that the world would “run out” of oil in 60 to 90 years, which would put him pretty much on the same track as the current general consensus – or is he?
The Consensus on Peak Oil
Hicks puts the current general consensus on the time left until peak oil at about 35-40 years, which would make Nehring’s prediction right on the money. Energy & Fuels, a publication of the American Chemical Society, was somewhat less optimistic in a prediction published last year. They put the peak of conventional crude production at 2014.
Long Term Oil Shortages a Possibility
In a 2005 report, the Department of Energy also indicated that peak oil could be around the corner. In a reversal of its usual rosy optimism, DoE stated that the start of global oil production decline could not be known with certainty, and that failure to prepare a “crash mitigation program” would result in decades-long chronic shortages.
An Alternative Scenario for Oil
Nehring’s prediction was based on the low probability that gigantic new oil fields would be discovered in our time. However, new avenues have opened since his analysis. Between tar sands, shale and deep ocean drilling, the oil industry is developing significant new sources. Combined with drilling for natural gas in shale formations such as the Marcellus and with alternative energy, it is possible to envision a “soft landing” for peak oil. In this scenario, declining oil production from conventional fields is at least partly, or even fully, balanced by unconventional sources, with the development of other fossil fuels and alternative energy rounding out the picture. In fact, it sounds very much like our current situation.
The Oil Refinery Bottleneck
There are two major problems with the soft landing scenario as a long term solution. First, the ability to extract oil from various sources is only one factor in meeting demand. If oil production continues to increase, then oil transportation and refinery resources will also need to grow apace with demand, and military analysts wax fairly pessimistic on that point according to a 2010 report from the U.S. Joint Forces Command.
The Price of Peak Oil
The second problem takes us full circle back to the CIA’s interest in the issue, mainly, the relationship between energy and political instability. The soft landing scenario applies only to the quantity of energy produced, not to the consequences of producing it. Oil and other fossil fuels from conventional sources have already proved to be a risky energy strategy fraught with environmental and public health hazards. With these sources in depletion, we are turning to even riskier strategies – tar sands, shale, and deep ocean waters. These have already established themselves as destabilizers due to their record of real and potential threats to water supplies, fisheries, and other fundamentals of economic stability.
The pursuit of unconventionally sourced oil and other fossil fuels may offset the coming decline in conventional oil production, but it may wind up bringing about exactly those consequences we should be striving to avoid: shortages of basic commodities, price spikes, domestic strife and global turmoil.
Image: CIA seal, public domain image via wikipedia.