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Rethinking peak oil

Lin Shi

Yuhan Zhang

Readinch

Faith-based theories about future oil supplies are easily knocked down, but China should still prepare for the risks of declining reserves, write Lin Shi and Yuhan Zhang.

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In recent years, Chinese scholars have been embracing “peak oil” theory in increasing numbers. The idea – first put forward by American geophysicist MK Hubbert in 1949 – is that individual oil fields, oil-producing regions and world oil production will display a “bell curve”: a steep rise in available supplies, narrow peak and subsequent rapid fall.

Proponents argue that world oil supplies will peak in the mid 2020s at an annual output of 40.3 billion tonnes, while China will see domestic oil production peak at 190 million tonnes per year by around 2015.

At first glance, their view that finite subsoil resources like oil will be harder to find and harder to tap appears very reasonable. But the peak oil model itself shows an inadequate empirical representation of historical patterns. World oil discoveries have peaked at least four times since 1950. Take the United States: here, there has been a major deviation between Hubbert’s projections and real figures of oil production. As economist Daniel Yergin has pointed out, at the end of 2010, US oil production was 3.5 times higher than Hubbert forecast.

Peak oil theory holds a static view of the world, and its models ignore price effects: lots of oil discoveries and high production mean that prices and profits wane, and incentives for further exploration decline. But ensuing oil shortages then restore these incentives. When incentives exist, the industry will continue to produce and is likely to produce even more.

Peak oil theorists also neglect the role of technological advances in oil production as a great multiplier. The history of the oil industry reflects an endless struggle between nature and our knowledge. Progress in technology allows both new discoveries and the increase in recovery rate needed to turn non-recoverable or hypothetical resources into recoverable reserves.

Worse yet, peak oil theorists do not take into account the assessment of unconventional oil resources, such as oil shale, oil sands, biomass-based liquids, coal-based liquids and liquids arising from chemical processing of natural gas. These could substitute for conventional oil when new technologies, such as steam injection for oil sands deposits, mature. Unconventional oil will very likely contribute to future production. By 2009, unconventional liquids had already contributed approximately 14% of total global production capacity, and this share was expected to grow to 23% by the end of 2030.

It’s true that China’s largest oil fields, in its north-eastern and coastal regions, are already mature and that production has peaked, with an annual output of 189 million tonnes. To date, China has already extracted 5 billion tonnes of oil out of 7.84 billion tonnes of discoveries, numbers that seem to leave little room for China to leverage output volume. But on balance, China’s overall oil production is still trending upward, at an average annual rate of 2.1%.

In addition, scientists and energy experts estimate that China’s untapped oil reserves in the western interior provinces and offshore fields could be as high as 12.2 billion tonnes (Figure 1). China will likely have an annual discovery rate of 900 million tonnes by 2020 and this rate will remain at 600 to 700 million tonnes leading up to 2030. As such, oil production is expected to continue to rise.  

Figure 1. China’s untapped oil sites with significant oil reserves (circled in red)


Source: US EIA, USGS, Chinese Academy of Engineering, 2011

None of this means that China should disregard the peak oil conversation. In the popular debate, it may be easy for peak oil sceptics to argue that economic forces and advanced technologies will stave off the feared peak. But in the policy world, things are different. China’s leadership would be wise to approach the peak oil issue cautiously and strategically. China should consider what consequences it would face in a post-peak oil era.

Declines in oil production in certain regions of China have raised a red flag, compounded by the widening gap between oil consumption and oil production. The annual growth rate of China’s oil consumption was 2.8% from 1980 to 1990. With rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, the number jumped to 7% between 1990 and 2010.

The elasticity of oil consumption with respect to GDP (a way of measuring growth of oil consumption compared to growth of the economy) also increased from 0.3 in the 1980s to 0.7 in 2000s to more than 1 in early 2011. This means that the speed at which oil consumption is rising in China has now outstripped GDP growth.

In contrast to surging consumption, China’s oil production growth rate is only 2%. China already depends more on oil imports from unstable sources than either the United States or Europe: nearly 60% of its oil is imported from regions such as the Middle East and North Africa.

China’s oil demand is expected to increase in the foreseeable future, driven by industrial and agricultural use as well as phenomenal growth in car ownership. Turmoil in oil-producing nations raises the prospect of serious energy security concerns. During the unrest in Libya, more than 35,000 Chinese evacuated and all the oil-related investments in the country came to a halt. Rising world oil prices – the price had topped more than US$100 (631 yuan) a barrel as of 2011 – also raise economic concerns about elevated inflation and affordability of life for Chinese households.

Over the long term, China’s best bet is to scale up research, development and deployment of clean energies, particularly biofuels, as a substitute for oil. The Chinese government aims to increase non-fossil fuel energy to 11.4% of China’s total energy mix by 2015 and to 15% by 2020. These objectives are plausible, but they are not enough to decrease overall oil demand and consumption in the next two decades.

China cannot control or reduce the oil required to fuel its economic growth without accelerated structural reforms. Nevertheless, due in part to its current phase of industrialisation and urbanisation, China’s sluggish shift from heavy industry to service industry will take longer than expected.

A strategy for stabilising foreign supply is thus a short-term option. But China still needs to diversify its oil import markets in comparatively stable states such as Nigeria, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Another good near-term strategy against future oil crises is to enhance oil extraction knowledge and technologies.

If China’s policymakers can rethink peak oil theory and prepare properly for the risks – rather than simply engaging in faith-based energy debates – then the country will find itself in a significantly more secure position. 


Lin Shi is a teaching assistant at Columbia University and consultant to the World Bank; Yuhan Zhang is a Randle International Fellow at Columbia University and former researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Homepage image by saucy_pan 

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中国的甲醇实验

中国正在做的事情之一是进一步将煤炭资源转化成甲醇。见http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2012-03/05/content_14752817.htm

甲醇比汽油更便宜更清洁,而且现有汽车只需进行一些简单改造就能使用甲醇作为燃料。还有,根据中国日报的一篇报道,能够使甲醇混合物被充分利用的新车型也可以比较方便地投入生产。

China experiments with methanol

One of the things China is doing is to further look at converting its coal resources to methanol. See http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2012-03/05/content_14752817.htm

Methanol is cheaper and cleaner than gasoline and with very little modification, existing cars can be made to run on methanol. Also, as noted in the story from the China Daily, new cars can easily be produced to optimize the use of methanol blends.


调查研究不够充分

1.“关于未来石油供应的以信仰为基础的理论很容易站不住脚”--石油峰值论不以信仰为基础,它其实并不是一个理论,而是一个观测结果。它表明石油产出在到达一个高峰后会上扬,这一高峰先持续随后下跌。

2.石油峰值论(PO)的本意是指传统石油达到顶峰。如果勤于查看英国石油,国际能源署,美国能源信息局,你会看到这个词在2005年后就被束之高阁。

3.丹尼尔•尤金是唯一的信息来源,他对于石油的预测并不被看好,Jean Laherrère曾对他的预测作出分析。

4.哈伯特对美国石油产出的预测基于较低的48个州。诚然,石油产量比预计要高。目前美国的石油产出构成不仅局限于传统石油,也远远超出较低的48个州。从这个角度来说,哈伯特对于多领域峰值的下降的预测仍然是准确的。

5. 多数对石油峰值论有深度理解的人并没有忽视价格的影响。如果有经济学家准确地制作出价格模型,那么请你举例说明。全球油价呈现出衰退,每桶在140美元左右。而油价由保证金而定。我读到的多数石油峰值论都预计油价上扬。

Poorly Researched Oil

1 ‘Faith-based theories about future oil supplies are easily knocked down’ –Peak oil is not faith based and it not a theory. It is an observation that oil fields when produced reach a peak production and peak flow and then go into decline.

2. The original definition for Peak Oil (PO) was the peaking of conventional oil. If you bother to look up either BP, IEA or EIA you would see that the world has been on a plateau since 2005.

3. Daniel Yergin is only one source as is not highly regarded for his forecasting in relation to oil, see Jean Laherrere for an analysis of his predictions.

4. Hubbert’s prediction for the US was based on the lower 48 states. These did peak, admittedly the volume recovered has been higher. Production for the US is now made up of a lot more than conventional oil and far wider area than the lower 48. So his observation about multiple fields peaking and going into decline is still accurate.

5. Most people with any depth of understanding do NOT PO ignore price effects. How can one accurately model effects. Show me the economist that did. The world appeared to go into recession at $140+. Oil is priced on the margin. Most PO I’ve read expect a masking of peak


第二部分

6.石油峰值理论家们并没有忽视技术进步对石油生产的影响。这一领域关注的是科技对于流速的影响。例如,油砂资源丰富但因规模有限而流速不高。

7.你提到非传统石油资源却忽视能源利用率和能源密度。而所谓的桶装油并非千篇一律。

8.无论中国的储量怎样,可持续发展最终将依赖于能源利用率,技术和投资回归。

9.中国已大幅提高石油战略储备,你并没有意识到这一点。

10.金砖国家的中产阶级正在崛起,这将产生额外的需求。高居不下的石油枯竭率有悖于你经济发展将驱动石油产出的断言。国际能源署特别警惕谨防投资不足,其首席经济家已经发出多次警告。

11.对于生物燃料可以发展到替代原油这一说法的坚持,表明你对这一问题缺乏深度理解。只要看看生物能源的利用率或者限制粮食来源的影响就可想而知。你似乎认为所有种类的能源都可以替代原油。我建议你读赫希美国能源部的报告,因为我们在石油峰值论中面临的是液态燃料限制。

这篇文章的内容让人无法信服,文章信息幼稚且不准确,受制于传统经济学。我建议你去读一读油桶网上的文章或者其它相关文章。

Part 2

6. Peak oil theorists do NOT neglect the role of technological advances in oil production. What most with knowledge of the subject look at is how does this affect flow rates. For example the Tar Sand is an abundant resource but relative to size will have low flow rates.

7. You talk about unconventional oil but don’t discuss the EROI or energy density. Not all so called barrels of oil are the same.

8. You can talk all you want about Chinas reserves but ultimate recoverable will depend on EROI, technology and return on investment.

9. China has dramatically increased its Strategic Petroleum Reserves, so you see to be behind on this one.

10. The increasing middle classes in all the BRIC countries will create extra demand that has to come from somewhere. Depletion rates appear to be running very high and contrary to your assertion that economic drivers will deliver more oil, the IEA has specifically warned about the lack of investment. Its Chief Economist has given several warnings.

11. Do seriously believe that bio-fuels can scale up to substitute for crude oil. This really shows a lack of depth in understanding the issue. Just look up EROI for biofuels or the impact on constrained food resources. And you seem to treat all energies are to substitutes for Crude Oil. I suggest you read the Hirsch report done for the American DoE, because what we’re coming up against in PO is a liquid fuel constraint.

This was a deeply unimpressive article that was naïve and ill informed, rooted in classical economics. I suggest you read The Oil Drum or read anything.


决策者应该这样思考

谢谢您对我们的石油峰值理论做出的回应。我们发现您已经对“石油峰值”很是信赖。您对石油峰值的理解基本上是对的。正如文章的第一段所说:“该理论最初由美国地球物理学家M·K·哈伯特于1949提出,是指某一油田、油区、乃至全世界的石油产量将呈现一种“钟形曲线”的变化趋势,即现存供给快速上升,在达到一个短暂的顶峰之后,迅速下滑。”但是,您没看到我们的专栏文章,所以您可能不知道,在过去的至少100年里人们一直在重复警告着,世界石油产量很快就要达到峰值,地球上的石油就要耗尽了。1920年,美国地质调查局估测世界上只存在600亿桶可收回的成品油,但是迄今为止我们已经生产了1万亿多桶,另外还有1.5万亿桶的储备。

请允许我引用周大地的说法,他是中国最具影响力的能源专家之一,同时也是《中国能源发展中长期战略研究(2030、2050)》的撰稿人,“石油峰值现在争议很大, 产生石油峰值的原因主要是两大类: 一类是针对资源性的, 就是储量和库存的问题; 一类是由于经济因素如投资不足或其他问题造成的增加比较困难的问题. 如果真把"峰值" 当回事, 来所谓这种预测, 是没有道理的, 也不是主流意见。”

我们承认任何资源都是有限的,包括常规石油。但是我们认为,以中国为例,在短期内不会出现石油产量峰值(请看第二段)。依您看来,丹尼尔·耶金的观点不会得到重视。然而,剑桥能源研究协会(在美国)是一个在分析和预测全球石油市场走向领域很权威的公司。您有跟专家谈论过石油峰值的问题吗?

诚然,有关石油峰值的讨论会继续盛行,不过也不会有明显的进展。但是仔细审视一下,石油峰值理论就会显得不那么合理,因为它存在严重的逻辑和应用缺陷。

如果你认真阅读这篇文章,并了解中国的现状,你应该会发现这篇文章其实是在呼吁中国战略性地考虑石油问题。关于石油峰值的争论并不是决策者应关注的焦点。

同样,您对中国采取行动加强石油战略储备的信心也显得很天真。我们对中国进行了很长期的观察,而且我们就来自中国。石油战略储备不能彻底解决石油问题。我建议您读更多关于中国的文章并与一些政府高层人员进行交流。

您可以和很多经济学家和相关专家讨论石油峰值的问题。时间将给出正确的答案。

谨致问候。

And...We Are Back: The Ways Decision-Makers Should Think

Thank you for responding to our points on peak oil theory. We can see you already have faith in “peak oil”. Your understanding of peak oil is basically correct. As you may see and cite from our first paragraph, “The idea – first put forward by American geophysicist MK Hubbert in 1949 – is that individual oil fields, oil-producing regions and world oil production will display a ‘bell curve’: a steep rise in available supplies, narrow peak and subsequent rapid fall.” Alas, you did not see in our op-ed piece and you may not know that for at least 100 years people have repeatedly warned that the world oil production will peak soon, and our planet is running out of oil. In 1920, the US Geological Survey estimated that the world contained only 60 billion barrels of recoverable oil. But to date we have produced more than 1000 billion barrels and currently have more than 1500 billion barrels in reserve.

Please allow me to cite a statement by Zhou Dadi, one of China's most prominent energy experts and the author of China's Energy Medium- and Long-term Development Strategy Research (2030, 2050), "石油峰值现在争议很大, 产生石油峰值的原因主要是两大类: 一类是针对资源性的, 就是储量和库存的问题; 一类是由于经济因素如投资不足或其他问题造成的增加比较困难的问题. 如果真把"峰值" 当回事, 来所谓这种预测, 是没有道理的, 也不是主流意见".

We admit that any resources will be finite, including conventional oil. But we do argue that in the near term, for example, China will not witness an oil production peak (see paragraph two). Daniel Yergin, in your view, might not be highly regarded. However, IHS CERA is an authoritative company (in the US) analyzing and forecasting global oil market trends. Have you talked with experts about the peak oil issue?
True: the Peak Oil debate continues to rage without any obvious progress. But upon careful examination, the Peak Oil theory falls down because of serious flaws in logic and application.

If you read it carefully and if you understand the current situation in China, you should perceive that this article is a call to China to think about the oil issue strategically. The peak oil debate is really not the thing that the policymakers should focus on.

Similarly naive is your faith in China’s action to increase its SPR. We have been a long-time observers on China and we are from the country. SPR cannot fully resolve the oil problems. I recommend you read more Chinese articles and talk with some senior people in the Chinese government.

There are many economists and experts you can talk to and argue with about peak oil. Time will give us the right answer.

Kind regards.


可持续性,粮食和燃料

液态或气态碳氢燃料是否可持续的关键问题在于“其氢和碳来自哪里?”如果来自史前地下存贮,则为非可持续,最终将消耗殆尽。如果来自空气和水,则为可持续能源。

据此,长远来看,石油,煤炭和天然气都不是可持续能源,而中国喜欢着眼未来。不依托食物来源和非占用农田的生物能源将行之有效。生物降解可提供持续的乙醇,甲醇和甲烷(见生物沼气第三章:中国沼气指南)。 大卫·布鲁姆的《酒精制燃气》一书对此颇有见解。在中国,尤其是相关领导人应该阅读这本书。它绘制出一个路线,以可持续农业为核心的体系可以使中国可以实现粮食和能源安全。

Sustainability, food, and fuels

The key question on the sustainability of a liquid or gaseous hydrocarbon fuel is "where does it get its hydrogen and carbon from?" If it gets them from prehistoric subterranean deposits then it is not sustainable. They will run out eventually. If it gets them from the air and water then it is sustainable.

By this logic, oil, coal, and natural gas are all not sustainable, particularly in the long range. China is much more experienced in long range thinking. Bio-fuels that are based on non-food feedstocks, especially ones that do not use farmland are available. Ethanol, methanol, and methane from biodigesters are sustainable (see Biogas Volume 3: A Chinese Biogas Manual). A highly recommended book on this is Alcohol Can Be A Gas by David Blume. This book should be read by many in China, especially people in leadership roles. It maps out a course that China can use to reach food and energy security using a permaculture-centered system.


savvas

无论是中国还是全世界,我认为都有必要就未来液态燃料供应采取战略措施,这也是作者的主要观点。然而,作为一名未来能源非技术领域的长期学习者,我认为他们的观点有失公允,因为他们忽视了一些未来能源供应战略的关键因素,例如:
——生产成本(或能源利用率)
——全球范围内的“新发现”,非传统石油资源以及新生产技术具有重要意义(或在其他方面)
——取代非传统石油产出的萎缩的任务规模十分巨大
这些因素必将驱动未来政策,而且并不仅限于中国!

Mushalik的网站对此很有参考价值http://www.crudeoilpeak.com
同时还可以参看http://www.graphoilogy.com网站。

savvas

I fully agree on the need to strategic action with regard to future liquid fuel supplies, for both China and for the world as a whole. This I think was the key point the authors sought to make in their initial defense of their article. However, as a longtime non-technical student of energy futures, I cannot help thinking they do a great injustice to their argument by not discussing the key issues which will govern future oil supply strategy - notably:
- issues associated with costs of production (or EROI)
- the numerical significance (or otherwise) on a global scale of 'new discoveries', unconventional oil sources and new production technologies
- the sheer scale of the task of replacing declines in unconventional oil production. These are the issues which must and will drive future policy and not simply in China! See Mushalik's site for some excellent references at http://www.crudeoilpeak.com. Also http://www.graphoilogy.com. Savvas


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