Guest editorial in Forbes: “The End of Fossil Fuel”

July 25, 2009 at 4:04 pm
Contributed by: Chris

I had a short guest editorial in Forbes this week, where I gave my macro view on energy and the economy as concisely as possible. It’s a sidebar to a feature they’re doing on a book by one of their staffers, Christopher Steiner, titled $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better.

At the request of Forbes, I am reposting only half of it here and linking to their site for the rest of the piece. Seems a bit silly when the whole thing has already been posted to dozens of other sites under Fair Use, but that’s showbiz…

The End Of Fossil Fuel

Chris Nelder 07.24.09, 3:00 PM ET

You will never see cheap gasoline again. You will probably never see cheap energy again. Oil, natural gas and coal are set to peak and go into decline within the next decade, and no technology can change that.

Peaking is a simple concept. We generally exploit natural resources in a bell-shaped curve, with the rate of extraction increasing over time until we reach a peak and then gradually slowing down until we stop using them.

Peak oil is not about “running out of oil”; it’s about reaching the peak rate of oil production. It’s not the size of the tank that matters, but the size of the tap.

The peak is usually reached when resources become too difficult to extract, or too expensive, or they are replaced by something cheaper, better or more plentiful. Unfortunately, we have no substitutes for oil that are cheaper or better.

According to the best available data, we are now at the peak rate of oil production. After over a century of continual growth, global conventional crude oil production topped out in 2005 at just over 74 million barrels per day (mbpd) and has remained at that level ever since.

The additional “oil” that brings the oft-cited world total to 84 mbpd today (down from 87 mbpd last year; according to U.S. government data) isn’t conventional crude, but, rather, unconventional hydrocarbons, including natural gas liquids, “extra heavy” oil, synthetic oil made from Canadian tar sands, refinery gains, liquids produced from the conversion of coal and natural gas, and biofuels.

Oil production is expected to go into terminal decline around 2012. The principal reason is that the largest and most productive fields are becoming depleted while new discoveries have been progressively smaller and of lesser quality. Discovery of new oil peaked over 40 years ago and has been declining ever since despite furious drilling and unprecedentedly high prices.

When it begins to decline, rate of crude production is projected to fall at 5%, or over four mbpd, per year–roughly equivalent to losing the entire production of Latin America or Europe every year. The decline rate will likely accelerate to over 10% per year by 2030.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency estimates that the world would need to add the equivalent of six new Saudi Arabias by 2030 in order to meet declining production and growing demand. Obviously, there aren’t another six Saudi Arabias waiting to be discovered, and unconventional liquid fuels simply cannot fill such a yawning gap.

Natural gas is likewise expected to peak some time around 2010-2020, and coal around 2020-2030. Oil, natural gas and coal together provide 86% of the world’s primary energy.

By the end of this century, nearly all of the economically recoverable fossil fuels will be gone. From now until then, what remains will be rationed by price. There will be shortages.

Renewable energy–solar, wind, geothermal–currently makes up less than 2% of the world’s primary energy supply, and although growing very rapidly, it is not on course to fill the fossil fuel gap, either.

As fossil fuels peak and then decline, the world’s economies will be forced for the first time to live within a shrinking, not expanding, energy budget. They will adapt to this new reality by repeating the cycle we saw over the last 18 months: commodity price spikes, leading to economic destruction, leading to supply destruction, leading back to price spikes. Only in recessionary periods, like now, will there be excess supply.

How this will affect the global economy, and our lifestyles, cannot be overstated. Former chief economist for Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce World Markets, Jeff Rubin, and oil investment banker Matthew Simmons have concluded that it means no less than the end of globalization.

Read the rest of the article at Forbes


  1. I re-tweeted the article today after hearing about it through @mymoneyshrugged. Nice job; I just finished reading (and writing a series of posts on) Jeff Rubin’s latest book. It’s fascinating to think about and even if one disagrees with his claim that high oil prices are really what triggered this recession, it’s hard to disagree with peak oil and what that will mean for globalization later on. I’m also reading Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma) now and the extent to which oil is implicated in corn and livestock production is staggering when you think about peak oil. We can see the future coming.

    Comment by MoneyEnergy — July 27, 2009 @ 7:21 am

  2. Excellent and concise introduction to the problem, Chris. Thank you.

    Comment by George Perry — July 28, 2009 @ 8:15 am

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