Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Michael Lynch -- A Pinhead Column on Peak Oil

I hadn't heard of Michael Lynch before, but he has the same bio -- decades-long energy consultant -- as other pimps for the Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), itself a mouthpiece for Exxon Mobil. Here's the New York Times article from yesterday>>http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/25/opinion/25lynch.html?_r=1 (Been having troubles blogger-linking lately, apologies in advance.)

Intellectually lazy, ridden by sophistry, fundamentally confused about definitions themselves, and notable more for unfinished arguement than for what it mischaracterizes, I'll wade into the mess:

"REMEMBER “peak oil”?" -- Lynch

Why the quotes? Does Lynch actually think Peak Oil's arguement hinges on accurate predictions as to its arrival? Later, he contradicts himself with an admission that it's a reality, but one not to be troubled with, on the supposition, I suppose, that he'll be dead by then, so why worry. So in the first three words, we have disingenuousness or a faulty capacity for elementary reasoning.

"It’s the theory that geological scarcity will at some point make it impossible for global petroleum production to avoid falling, heralding the end of the oil age and, potentially, economic catastrophe." -- Lynch

This definition is a workable starting point, but it's more complex than this. Most importantly, world oil production can still increase, but the effects of imminent Peak can still be manifested (as will become increasingly apparent soon) when consumption outstrips production. India's and China's oil usage are growing exponentially, China now outpacing the U.S. for vehicule purchases. The current world population of 6.6 billion will be, barring catastrophic war and/or disease, over 9 billion by 2050.

As well, another fact overlooked by blithe apologists like Lynch is that there are many subsets to Peak graphs. Peak by country (U.S. oil peaked in 1970, e.g.) and Peak by categories of oil (light, sweet crude peaked in May 2005, is peaking now, or will in the immediate future) are significant benchmarks. The first example is important since it translates into complex diplomatic, political, and economic conundrums. The U.S. isn't in Iraq simply to promote "democracy", but to create a buffering sentinel as palace gatekeepers to their "friends", the feckless Saudis. (Effectively, and without going into complex graphs at this particular time, when Saudi Arabia has peaked, so too has the world.) The second example is important since the low-hanging fruit has effectively been removed. The energy returned on energy invested (ERoEI) with the super fields of the 1950s and 1960s (world oil discovery peaked in 1964) used to be 30:1, even 50:1 in the world's largest giant, Saudi Arabia's Ghawar. Those giants now resemble Davids more than Goliaths, and the slingshot of alternative energies are currently unworkable, and even were they to be a significant help, would need at least twenty years to develop and be implemented. With the possible long-running recession/depression, energy on R&D and transition will further delay massive crossover, if not making it impossible. (Coal-conversion and nuclear plants are excellent stop-gaps, but environmentalists seem determined to prevent that from happening in Canada and the U.S.) Oh, and the Alberta Tar Sands? Leaving aside the incredibly destructive fate of watertables and fragile ecosystems, the ERoEI, in the best-case scenario (Vancouver Olympics economic expenditure predictions, anyone?), is slotted in at 1 and 1/2: 1. As already mentioned, rising energy costs can easily make this a zero-sum game, if not an actual energy sink.

"Well, just when we thought that the collapse in oil prices since last summer had put an end to such talk, along comes Fatih Birol, the top economist at the International Energy Agency, to insist that we’ll reach the peak moment in 10 years" -- Lynch

That's his arguement against Birol? A negative non sequitur. Where's the beef?

The International Energy Agency (IEA), the comprehensive agency that Lynch belittles in favour of energy and politically biased strongarms of Exxon and U.S. Congress, has conducted detailed analysis on 800 oil fields from around the world. Those fields account for 2/3 of global oil production and 3/4 of the world's reserves. The conclusion? Decline rates are far higher than previously predicted, between 6.7 to 8.6 % a year. 45 million barrels per day would have to be developed and produced to make up for the shortfall. Since the unexpected boons of the North Sea and the North Slope in the 80s, there hasn't been a single significant discovery of light crude anywhere, (the major reason why the U.K.'s economy is now in the tank).

"peak oil theory has been promoted by a motivated group of scientists and laymen"-- Lynch

"Motivated?" Yeah, by a concern for what's happening! What a weaselly essayist. To throw in a condemning word without an arguement, damning by the faintest of suggestive associations. Motivated by money, by personal sales of books, perhaps? Ha. Matthew Simmons made his money as an energy advisor for the U.S. gov't, hardly a crackpot who's sticking it to big business. Heinberg? That he's sold a few books means people are getting the message, a good thing. He needs to make a living, but he's not raking it in (Peak Oil publicists have been a fringe group for decades), certainly not to the extent that consultants are remunerated by the bottomless pockets of the oil industry.

"A careful examination of the facts shows that most arguments about peak oil are based on anecdotal information, vague references and ignorance of how the oil industry goes about finding fields and extracting petroleum."-- Lynch

A careful examination of the facts shows that any "vague references" are on the part of politically-overseen accounts from the OPEC bloc, who, like politicians anywhere, think only in terms of the immediate future. A careful examination of all kinds of factual data and graphs from multiple disciplines cross-referencing each others' work, shows that oil reserves have historically been inflated in order to ease worries from importers. The OTHER spigot the Kuwaitis and Saudis were concerned about as far back as the 1980s, was that of dollars flowing back the other way. That information on reserves, through painstaking research by (in particular) Simmons, and others, in published books and articles, has been exposed.

"And this has been demonstrated over and over again: the founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil first claimed in 1989 that the peak had already been reached, and Mr. Schlesinger argued a decade earlier that production was unlikely to ever go much higher."--Lynch

This is the height of intellectual dishonesty. In the long and uncertain history of Peak Oil projection, of course there are going to be people who get in wrong, and by a wide margin. What Lynch conveniently neglects to mention is that M. King Hubbert accurately predicted (in 1956) the U.S. Peak to the year, as well as being close to the effective world Peak (he had stated early 2000s, but this was well before the unexpected Alaskan and North Sea bonanzas, which helped to postpone it). Rereading the above quote again, I can't even see much to argue with about with Schlesinger's prediction. After 1979, production kept going up, yes, but the rate of production increase began slowing noticeably and consistently. All this is to throw sand in the eyes of the reader. Again, it's not about perfect timing of the Peak (though it should be gauged in order to transition less chaotically), but about what the implications for society will be WHEN the peak occurs.

"One leading proponent of peak oil, the writer Paul Roberts, recently expressed shock to discover that the liquid coming out of the Ghawar Field in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest known deposit, is around 35 percent water and rising. But this is hardly a concern — the buildup is caused by the Saudis pumping seawater into the field to keep pressure up and make extraction easier. The global average for water in oil field yields is estimated to be as high as 75 percent." -- Lynch

Good gawd! I've read Paul Roberts' The End Of Oil, and Roberts is the epitome of a sane, balanced, subdued, comprehensive researcher and writer. The claims about Saudi Arabia Lynch attributes to Roberts were made earlier (and were quoted by Roberts, if Lynch missed it), by Matthew Simmons in the latter's Twilight In The Desert. Lynch, either from stupidity or disingenuousness, avoids the point that what is extracted is largely, even mostly, the water itself, which is then incorportaed into oil production numbers. He also sidesteps the point that the consistent arc of increasing water/decreasing oil is not exactly a good sign. Ghawar's original 50:1 ERoEI is now down to 8:1 (and still falling), and the point Lynch can't seem to comprehend is that a decreasing energy ratio means that more oil needs to be used in extraction just to make up for the shortfall even if the same amount of oil is being produced. U.S. engineers are in Saudi Arabia because Ghawar's structural capacity is falling apart. The world's supergiant is following the trend of all oil giants: the party fluid has been sucked out, and now the technological wizardry has to be accelerated (technology itself is run on oil, a fact that pollyannish techno-futurists can't seem to grasp).


I haven't even dealt with the end of page 1 of the 2 pages yet, and my weekend still beckons. Perhaps I'll return with the rest, but for now, oil's well that ends well.

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