The following data are taken from the monthly bulletins of the Association for the study of Peak Oil&Gas (ASPO).
The figure below charts the development of oil discoveries and production since 1930, with a forecast for the near future (regular conventional oil).
All oil produced must be discovered first, so you have only to plot the curve for discoveries in order to accurately forecast the production curve. In 1956, King Hubbert used a logistic-distribution-shaped production curve to forecast peak oil production for the United States by 1970 (it actually occurred in 1971).
Despite all the ballyhoo around every new discovery of an oil zone, present-day discoveries weigh very little in current global production. We’ve combed the land and seas with sophisticated devices, and either there is nothing left, or only in inaccessible areas. Oil is a finite natural resource. Peak discovery occurred around 1960, and all the technology in the world has not allowed us to do any better.
There are two significant points on the above graph:
The first point shows the start of oil depletion, i.e. when production starts to outstrip discovery and we start dipping into the stores, so to speak. Once again, in spite of all the technology used and the dollars spent, no one has managed to reverse this situation.
The second point indicates the moment when production reaches a maximum before starting its inescapable decline. This aspect is getting more and more attention in the news. Whatever we do, whether it is improving production techniques or investing in new field exploration, history has shown us that most of the oil-producing countries have reached or passed their oil production peak, and that for the others, peak oil is forecasted. The forecasts are being confirmed each year.
The current trend is to focus on peak production (even though the point of oil depletion is what counts and is much easier to locate), since all you have to do is find the point where the two curves intersect. The maximum point on a curve, the zero derivative, is much more difficult to locate. The point of depletion was reached nearly 30 years ago, announcing the inevitable decline in production, so it constitutes a key moment in forecasting. By the time the production peak arrives, it is too late to change anything.
In the diagram below, countries are classified by descending order of global reserves. For each country, the bar is divided in two, the lower part representing what has already been exploited and the upper part, what remains for production. Under the name of each country is its annual production (2004) and the year it will reach peak production (2004 forecast). Newsletter ASPO n°59 Nov 2005
Saudi Arabia leads by far, with large quantities of remaining petroleum reserves. It is the only country with any room to maneuver, i.e. that can still regulate its production. Its production peak has not yet been reached. All the other countries have the taps wide open.
Russia, the leading producer, is next. It has already reach its peak, but it still has large reserves.
Then comes the United States, which is reaching the end of its reserves, followed by the Gulf States, Venezuela, China, and a string of other countries including, Kazakhstan (one of the underlying causes for the war Afghanistan), a johnny-come-lately that should reach its peak in 2030.
Oil has two important characteristics: it has a lot of energy potential, and it consists of a carbon chain to which it is very easy to add atoms in order to create new molecules. So it is both an easily used energy commodity and an easily processed raw material. It is used as fuel for internal combustion engines, as a primary source of electricity and as a raw material for plastics, all types of additives (lubricants, paints, glues), medicines and fertilizers.
Oil is the natural resource that opens access to other natural resources (mining, fishing, agriculture), via the use of machines. A decline in its supply would inevitably bring about the decline of all other natural resources as they are currently exploited. So far, there is no other contender for such a fabulous commodity. Let’s be realistic: nothing will be able to replace it. Can you even imagine running the truck or exploiting the mine pictured below, without petroleum products? When fuel delivery ceases, the little truck will be abandoned there where it runs out of fuel, and the mine will go silent.
These pictures have been borrowed from a presentation on nuclear power and CO2 (see the nuclear power reference).
There is much talk in the media and political circles about “renewable energy”. We’ve seen that energy equals a mass accelerated over a distance, or the heat released by such a mass. So the term "renewable energy" is a misuse of language, since only energy resources exist in nature. These are:
So when you hear “renewable energy”, it really means the replacement of exhaustible natural resources by inexhaustible and/or renewable natural resources. A quick glance at the energy equivalence table shows that only wood can replace the exhaustible resources, but that its energy performance is low in comparison and it shouldn’t be exploited faster than it grows. So there really is no renewable energy source that can substitute for oil.
The other exhaustible resources are ores. The following information is taken from the"Quid" site.
It is clear that for most of the ores, more than half of the known accessible reserves have already been exploited. Even if there were no oil depletion, there would still be ore depletion. That makes a lot of resources to replace.
The argument you often hear is “we’ll come up with something”. That might have been believable during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when there was still so much to be discovered. These days, there is nothing left to discover, other than a handful of insect or plant species. The periodic table of the elements dates back to 1869, and is now complete – we pretty much know all the elements that make up our planet. When you believe in Santa Claus, you find out one day to your disappointment that he doesn’t really exist! Just keep this in mind: without ore, there can be no metal and, therefore, no machines. Metal that is squandered is lost forever; it will never return to its initial state (entropy) and only a small part of it can be recycled, using up a great deal of energy.
Steel is not a natural resource, but the result of an industrial process. However, it is made up of iron ore and coal – two elements that are natural resources, and which are exploited using machines that run on petroleum products. It will be difficult, therefore, to continue in the future to exploit them at the current rate. As a result, steel production will decline, and since steel is the basis for all machines and all construction (concrete is reinforced with steel rebar), the machines will come to a halt – not only due to a lack of fuel, but also to a lack of raw material.
The following data are taken from the BP databaseGlobal Iron Reserves (in billions of metric tons of metal content = 78 giga metric tons (year’s end 2004) Global Coal Reserves (in billions of metric tons of oil equivalent) = 909 giga metric tons (year’s end 2004)
Let’s remember once again that the quantities indicated are what is accessible with our current means. All of the “easy” ore has already been extracted, and what is left is more difficult to extract. That will require a lot of energy and, therefore, more oil for the moment. There are still significant coal reserves in the United States, but not much iron ore. Most of the coal and iron reserves are in Central and Eastern Asia, and that is also where the major oil and gas reserves are.