Science & Environment

Shortages: Is 'peak oil' idea dead?

Oil extraction, Culver City
Image caption Fear can be a powerful motivator - forecasting a shortage is a way of avoiding one

Since humans found that oil was better than coal for shifting vehicles, people have fretted over oil wells running dry.

Bouts of anxiety are periodic. In the seventies a Shell geoscientist, M King Hubbert , sounded an alarm that supplies would peak by 1995 " if current trends continue ."

They didn't peak. Fear is a powerful motivator and forecasting a shortage can be a good way of avoiding one.

Instead of seeing the 1970s oil crisis end in a long-term shortage, we responded by developing more fuel-efficient cars and burning less oil for heating. And what's more, oil production continued to grow.

The latest bout of worry over oil supplies was provoked by a series of events in the 2000s, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, the Iraq War and an unfortunate incident in which Shell's chairman resigned after the firm overstated its oil reserves by 250 million barrels.

It all disturbed President George W Bush. And his fears over energy security brought him into alignment with Tony Blair, who was pressing to combat climate change. The two agendas fortuitously converged - for a while - in the shape of home-grown energy sources like renewables and nuclear.

And by 2006 it looked as though the oil doomsters were being proved right .

Production actually fell, and by 2008 the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security began warning that an oil shortage could destabilise economic, political and social activity potentially by 2015.

A new parliamentary committee on Peak Oil amplified their concerns. And the government-funded UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) said forecasts suggesting oil production will not peak before 2030 were "at best optimistic and at worst implausible" .

Fears over Peak Oil have been exacerbated by the extraordinary surge of car ownership in China - 14.5 million new cars shipped to dealers last year.

Image caption Oil production has been boosted by new technologies to get it out of the ground

But the reflexive response we saw in the 70s has repeated itself. Thanks to government rules and fear of rising oil prices, new cars are using much less fuel.

And what do you know? In 2008 we reached a new production high of 73.71 million barrels a day according to the IEA, thanks largely to new technologies for getting the stuff out of the ground.

Oil comes from fragments of vegetable matter laid down amongst particles of rock. Even by 1980 we could only recover about 22% of the oil from a typical well. Technology has now driven that figure to 35%. Same oil wells, more oil.

Image caption A surge of car ownership in China has exacerbated concerns about peak oil

Supply has been boosted by unconventional oil extracted from rocks which were previously uneconomic to exploit - like oil shales and tar sands. It takes much more energy and water to separate the oil from these rocks than conventional oil drilling so it's much worse for the environment.

But your car doesn't know or care whether it's running on conventional oil or tar sand oil.

Fears over "peak oil" haven't evaporated, but the advent of unconventional oils has driven the peak further into the distance.

There's also a boom in unconventional gas production that's made the Americans relax about energy security. Gas can be turned into diesel - at a cost - pushing peak oil further into the distance. If things get really bad we can also turn coal into diesel.

And much of this sudden boom in unconventional and hard-to-reach supplies has come as a surprise to policy-makers.

I asked the director of the UK energy research centre which sounded the alarm just two-and-a-half years ago if he was still worried about peak oil. He replied: "Not much".

But there's a downside to the sudden dip in concern over fossil fuel shortages. The worry over energy security was helping to drive development of renewables and nuclear. Now that has slipped, a flood of cheap gas on to the world market threatens to starve wind and solar.

Image caption Oil shales were previously uneconomic to exploit

So here's another worry - not that we have too little oil and gas, for the time being at least. But that we have too much if we want to enjoy a stable climate.

The International Energy Agency forecasts that even with more efficient engines, oil demand will continue to grow until the end of its outlook period, 2035.

But its head has warned that if we continue to burn our fossil fuels at the current rate we may be heading towards a temperature rise of a catastrophic 6C.

The only way to use our fossil fuels without risk to the climate is to capture the carbon emissions from the oil and store them in rocks - technology that increases cost and consumption and hasn't been tested at scale.

What's more it works for power stations, not for the sort of mobile pollution units known as cars for which oil is the preferred source of hydrocarbons.

The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones and when the Oil Age ends it may be because we've run out of space in the atmosphere to safely dump the emissions. If we ever take the threat of global warming seriously, that is.

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