When I first started blogging more than thirteen years ago, the main focus of my online essays was peak oil. It was a good time to discuss such things. The price of crude oil, which had been rattling around a little above its all-time lows for more than a decade, started rising not long after the turn of the millennium. The corporate media yammered endlessly about how that was just a temporary blip and it would head back down soon, but the price of oil wasn’t listening; it kept rising, slowly, raggedly, with any number of dips and lurches and vagaries, but the direction didn’t change. Those of us who read between the lines could feel the fear as pundits tried to avoid dealing with the fact that the universe was refusing to do as it was told.
What’s more, there was good reason for the fear. Starting in the late 1990s, a handful of petroleum geologists and retired oil industry insiders started going public about an awkward fact that everyone in the industry knew, but nobody was willing to discuss with outsiders: despite frantic efforts and extravagant funding, oil exploration was falling short of oil extraction. It was getting to the point that less than half as much oil was being discovered each year as was being pumped out of the ground. (Imagine that you spent more than twice as much money each year as you earned; it’s the same kind of problem.) Nor was it a matter of inadequate exploration budgets or something similar. The difficulty was something far more threatening.
Most of my readers have seen a picture of the Earth from space. (For those who haven’t, here’s a good example.) Take a close look and you’ll notice that there’s no pipeline from Neptune or anywhere else, to replenish the 82 million barrels of crude oil our species pumps out of the ground every single day. That’s the difficulty oil exploration was facing: the Earth isn’t flat, so it contains a finite amount of oil, and by the late 1990s the vast majority of that oil had been discovered. There simply weren’t that many places on the planet that petroleum geologists hadn’t gone over on their hands and knees, looking for any trace of oil.
By the time I started blogging that was a serious issue. Oil had risen past $50 a barrel—at that time, an unheard-of figure—and was still climbing. Industrial economies worldwide were creaking under the strain, because oil yields nearly all the transportation fuels that keep the global economy moving. Worse still, other nonrenewable resources weren’t in much better shape. All this caused a significant minority of the public to remember all those warnings of crisis from the 1970s, the last time oil prices did the same thing. A movement—the peak oil movement, as it came to be called—gradually took shape in response to the rising cost of oil and the recognition that you can’t extract an infinite amount of anything from a finite planet.
There were two standard flavors of peak oil activism during the heyday of the movement, from 2008 to 2012 or so. The first flavor insisted that as the price of oil kept going up, alternative energy sources would become more affordable, and the world’s industrial societies would finally get around to transitioning over to some other energy source. Fans of nuclear power formed one bloc in that wing of the movement, fans of what tended to be lumped together as “renewable energy” (solar, wind, biofuels, and the like) formed another, and the two factions belabored each other with a right good will, each insisting that the other wasn’t economically viable. (For what it’s worth, the evidence suggests that they were both right.)
Then there was the other flavor, which can be described readily enough as warmed-over apocalyptic fantasy using peak oil as an excuse. Every month or so I could count on fielding yet another claim that peak oil would bring the global economy crashing down any day now, or uleash some other kind of eschatological mayhem on the world. Here again, there were two competing blocs within that wing of the movement. The first, the straightforward survivalist bloc, feverishly stockpiled canned beans and ammo in the hope of being able to open fire on live targets sometime soon. The second, the utopian bloc, insisted with shining eyes that the total collapse of industrial civilization would inevitably usher in some much more perfect society—though of course it was hard to find any two of the people who held this opinion who agreed as to what exactly that much more perfect society would inevitably be.
There were a few of us in the peak oil scene, to be fair, who didn’t buy into either the alternative-energy camp or the instant-apocalypse camp. We argued instead that the soaring price of oil would peak and then, after inflicting a great deal of damage on the global economy, decline again for a while. Part of the decline would be driven by demand destruction—the process by which people who can’t afford a resource stop buying it—and part of it would be driven by the ordinary workings of supply and demand, as soaring prices made it economical for oil companies to extract oil from low-grade deposits. We predicted that the price of oil would drop again, though it wouldn’t go as low as it had been a decade back.
We argued, furthermore, that nuclear power and renewable energy were both hopelessly uneconomical as ways to power either the electricity grid or the transport grid, the two main uses of energy in a modern industrial society, and that the grand plans for an energy transition being brandished by a range of enthusiastic activists would go precisely nowhere. Some of us even suspected, and mentioned in print, that the peak oil movement would be shoved right back out onto the fringes just as soon as energy prices started dropping again.
Those of us who proposed those things were denounced six ways from Sunday and thirteen to a dozen by the alternative-energy camp and the instant-apocalypse camp alike. For a while there, it was a common entertainment of mine to see if I could arrange to get an equal number of irate comments from both sides—say, six alternative-energy advocates insisting that I was wallowing in unjustified pessimism while six apocalypse fans chided me for groundless optimism. Ah, those were the days! Then the price of oil turned down and kept going down, all the alternative-energy fans went off and found some other techno-bandwagon to board, all the apocalypse fans started talking about climate change instead, and those of us who had been trying to talk some basic common sense into both sides found ourselves talking to empty air.
All that might as well be ancient history at this point, except for two things. The first, of course, is that the price of oil is starting to creep up again. As I write this, depending on what grade of crude oil you’re talking about, it’s around $60 a barrel, up from around $30 at the bottom of the post-crisis lows and then again after the 2015 slump. (There was a similar double bottom between the mid-1980s and the turn of the millennium.) Those of my readers who were around for the previous version of this story already know that pundits are all over the map at this point, some insisting that the price of oil will climb further while others claim in soothing tones that of course it will decline again. Next to nobody is ready for the current slow, ragged upward ramble to turn into sudden sharp upward bounds in petroleum prices, blowing past $100 a barrel with contemptuous ease and quite possibly breaking the $200 a barrel mark before it slows, wavers, and begins to decline—but yes, that’s what we can expect at some point in the next decade or so.
That’s one of the warning signs I’ve been tracking. The other’s a sudden shift in the online chatter and attempted trolling that comes my way, back to the alternative-energy fantasies and warmed-over apocalypses I used to field in the days of The Archdruid Report. That may seem odd, even whimsical, as an indicator, but in my experience such shifts provide a remarkably useful barometer of the collective conversation of our time.
For most of a decade, nearly all the comments I got from apocalypse fans fixated on the notion that anthropogenic climate change was sure to broil us all by next Wednesday at the latest, and most of the alternative energy wish-fulfilment fantasies I’ve fielded fixated just as rigidly on the notion that windmills and solar panels would surely save us from the well-heated broiler in question. That’s hardly been a surprise; apocalyptic beliefs are as subject to fashions as K-Pop bands, and since oil prices slumped after the 2008-2009 peak and peak oil stopped being fashionable, anthropogenic climate change has been at the top of the charts. Of course it’s had the huge advantage of lavishly funded publicity from a galaxy of corporate interests, which peak oil never had, but we’ll talk another time about how odd it is that so many self-described radical activists have bought into a protest movement that’s dominated by corporate funding and receives constant favorable publicity from the corporate media.
(Just to minimize a certain kind of confusion, I should make something clear. Anthropogenic climate change is a real and serious issue, and it’s being used to manipulate the public on behalf of some extremely dubious political and economic interests. It fascinates me that so few people seem to be able to hold these two ideas in their minds at the same time.)
As the saying goes, though, that was then and this is now. Of late I’ve started to get comments highly reminiscent of the ones I used to field back before peak oil dropped off our society’s collective radar screen. I’ve began to hear again from people who are convinced that once US shale oil reserves run down, oil production will tip into a permanent decline, the global economy will crumple, and away we go down a toboggan ride into survivalist territory. I’ve also begun to hear again from earnest individuals who are sure that abiotic oil or helium from the Moon will solve our energy crisis once and for all.
The thing I find most striking about these claims is not that they’re being made. Nor is it that they’re being made now, when most people think that peak oil has had a stake made of shale hammered through its heart and will never rise again. It’s that they’re exactly the same claims, down to the fine details, that were being made during the last period of peak oil activism. What’s more, most of them are exactly the same claims, down to the fine details, that were being made during the energy crisis of the 1970s, when what to do about petroleum depletion was the assigned topic of debate for my high school’s debate team in the 1978-1979 school year.
We can discuss some other time how much this odd repetition of the same old claims has in common with Hollywood’s reboot culture, where endless rehashes of outworn franchises try and fail to make up for the fact that the studios and the screenwriters are too deep in groupthink to come up with a single original idea any more. The point that’s relevant here is that people on the fringes are starting to notice the issues around petroleum supply again. That’s worth noticing. In an era of collective mental stagnation like the present, when the cultural mainstream proclaims and enforces a rigid set of intellectual and social dogmas to which all respectable thinkers must kowtow, the fringes are the only place where changing realities have a chance of being noticed. That doesn’t mean that everything on the fringes reflects some new reality, far from it, but if you keep an ear turned toward murmurings from the fringes, tolerably often you’ll get to hear tomorrow’s news long before the officially approved pundits get around to mentioning it.
With that in mind, let’s turn our gaze back to the realities of petroleum extraction—that’s usually misspelled “production” in the media, but nobody’s producing oil, they’re just extracting it from nature. Over the last decade or so, most of the growth in the world’s petroleum supply has come from a dramatic ramping up of drilling and extraction of oil and natural gas liquids from North American shale deposits. According to the most reliable figures I could find, the US currently produces 12.5 million barrels of oil a day (mbd), of which well over half comes from “tight oil”—that’s industry jargon for oil extracted from shales and other low-porosity rocks by hydrofracturing (“fracking”). That’s up about a million barrels a day from last year, and the US government predicts that next year the figure will go up again to an average of 13.2 mbd.
Longtime readers of my blog will have noticed that this isn’t something I predicted, or expected. Like most peak oil bloggers back in the day, I assumed that shale oil extraction would be subject to ordinary economic forces, and that these would put a hard lid on the extent to which shale oil would be able to make up for declining petroleum extraction from other sources. Fracking isn’t cheap, and tight oil deposits have very high rates of depletion: where a conventional oil well can keep pumping for decades at a steady pace, fracked wells taper off very quickly, and it’s a rare shale deposit that will still pay for the costs of its upkeep ten years after it’s first drilled.
Those of us who expected the shale oil boom to turn into a bubble and then a bust were wrong. We were wrong because we forgot the first law of petroleum: when it comes to oil, politics always trumps economics. Access to petroleum is so crucial for industrial nations, and especially for extremely wasteful industrial nations such as the United States and Canada, that all other factors get to sit in the waiting room when decisions about petroleum are made. That’s why Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, for all his environmental rhetoric, has backed a petroleum pipeline meant to get Canadian crude from the tar sands to the Pacific coast. He knows perfectly well that when push comes to shove, Canadian voters love to give the environment lip service but don’t want environmental protections to affect their lifestyles, which is why Canada is one of the only countries on Earth that uses more energy per capita than the United States.
That’s also why shale oil producers have continued to drill and pump away in blithe disregard for the fact that in terms of strict economics, their activities don’t make enough money to keep them from going broke. It doesn’t matter, because the US government sees to it that a steady stream of cheap credit makes up the difference. Having another seven million more barrels of oil per day is important enough to the US economy that gimmicking the money system to cover it is a small price to pay, and so an unspoken bipartisan consensus supports the necessary gimmicks. That was the point that we missed back in the day, and I missed it as much as anyone.
It’s important, in other words, to realize that all the criticisms of shale oil—valid as they are—are outweighed in practice by the hard political realities surrounding domestic US oil production. Is fracking an environmental disaster? Of course. Are US communities going to be paying for the current fracking spree for decades to come in a galaxy of direct and indirect ways? Sure. Does fracking fail to make any kind of economic sense? No question. Will the US dollar sooner or later lose the global reserve currency status that allows the virtual presses to keep on spinning, pulling dollars out of thin air to prop up an otherwise uneconomical industry? Yes—but when that folds out from under the shale industry, another gimmick will be found. (Modern political economy is a gimmick-rich environment, and finding a slush fund to prop up a business model that won’t work otherwise is child’s play these days; just ask Elon Musk.)
There are only two problems the economic gimmickry surrounding shale oil won’t solve. The first is that even with tight oil deposits producing flat out, the US doesn’t extract as much oil as it uses. That awkward fact has been ignored, finessed, and falsified so many times that it’s going to be necessary to talk hard numbers. At present, according to publicly available data, the US extracts right around 12.5 mbd of crude oil every day, 6.5 million barrels of it from tight oil. At present, according to that same data, the US consumes 20.5 mbd worth of petroleum products. Our domestic extraction is thus equal to a hair under 61% of our domestic consumption. Without shale oil, we’d only be extracting about a quarter of our domestic consumption, and the US would be twisting in the wind, its economy hemorrhaging wealth to overseas oil producers.
Obviously it would be more welcome still to American political and economic managers if extraction could be boosted even higher—to equal or even exceed consumption. The problem here, of course, is that nature isn’t cooperating. Remember that picture of the Earth from space? The same problem applies to shale oil. The US has very substantial shale oil deposits. More to the point, it had very extensive shale oil deposits, and it’s spent most of a decade drawing those down as fast as fracking technology permitted.
Remember all the shale drilling in western Pennsylvania early in this decade? Most companies that were busy there have moved out West, because the “sweet spots” in the Pennsylvania shale fields have been drained dry and there are no good prospects there for further drilling. Again, this is one of the major differences between tight oil and conventional oil deposits. There are conventional oil wells in Pennsylvania that were drilled in the late 19th century and are still producing at a modest rate today. Fracked wells don’t have that kind of production profile. With them, it’s up with the rocket and down with the stick.
That’s the second problem with shale oil: it runs out. As petroleum geologists like to say, depletion never sleeps. Next year, the shale oil industry will have to find and drill enough new wells to make up for the ones that are running dry. They’ll have to do the same thing the year after that, too, and so on into the future, until they run out of places to drill in the US. I don’t think that’s going to happen in the next couple of years; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if US tight oil extraction rises further, to 14 or 15 mbd before it finally peaks and begins to slide. Sooner or later, though, and almost certainly well within the next decade, it’s going to peak and start to slide, and then we’ll begin to see headlines very reminiscent of the ones we saw in 2005-2010, or for that matter in 1972-1979.
Does that mean that the long-awaited energy transition will finally happen then, or that the global economy will get around to collapsing at last? No, we’ve been here often enough now that it’s not at all hard to predict what will happen. The price of oil will spike to jawdropping levels, dealing a body blow to the world’s economies; then demand destruction will cut in, and the sky-high oil price will make it economical for some other low-grade, high-cost oil source to be brought online and bring prices back down again. (My guess is that other countries that have substantial shale oil deposits, and sensibly held off on developing them until the US ran through its tight oil reserves, will jump on the fracking bandwagon in turn.)
The price of oil will go down, though never as low as it was before the spike, and yet another round of activists will have to go running after whatever the next fashionable cause du jour happens to be. Meanwhile, without more than a few of us noticing, the industrial world will have taken another step down that prolonged process of decline I’ve named the Long Descent.
In the meantime, while we wait for the next panic to hit, there’s a good deal that can be done, and there’ll be even more to do once the price of oil starts to climb in earnest. Before we can talk about that, though, we need to discuss what’s going on with the global climate…and what’s going to happen when the current fad for climate change activism finishes jumping the shark.