Why the ‘peak oil’ debate is irrelevant
* 17:20 08 October 2009 by Shanta Barley
The debate over exactly when we will reach “peak oil” is irrelevant. No matter what new oil fields we discover, global oil production will start declining in 2030 at the very latest.
That’s the conclusion of the most comprehensive report to date on global oil production, published on 7 October by the UK Energy Research Centre.
The report, which reviewed over 500 research studies, suggests that global oil production could peak any time from right now to as late as 2030.
“Either way, our research shows that the difference between even the most pessimistic and optimistic claims is just 15 to 20 years,” says Steve Sorrell, the report’s lead author, who is based at Sussex University in the UK.
This is a problem, says Sorrell, because 20 years isn’t long enough for governments to prepare well-thought-out policies that would tackle the economic chaos likely to occur when oil production begins to decline. Research in 2005 by the US Department of Energy suggests that policies to reduce the demand for oil while developing large-scale alternatives will take at least two decades to bear fruit, he says.
New for old
Global production of oil is declining at a rate of 4 per cent per year in existing oil fields and we have very little to replace it with, says Sorrell: “If we want to maintain global oil production at today’s level we would need to discover the equivalent of a new Saudi Arabia every 3 years.”
Yet discoveries of new oil fields are in decline. Even the “giant” Tiber field recently found by BP in the Gulf of Mexico “will only serve to delay peak oil by a matter of days”, he says.
“Of the 70,000 oil fields on Earth, just 100 giant fields account for 50 per cent of the oil we use,” says Sorrell. “Most of these giant fields are quite old and past their peak of production, and we’re not going to find many new ones.”
The International Energy Agency’s latest estimate is that that oil production will not peak until after 2030, but that “is conservative to say the least”, Sorrell warns.