Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Myth of Peak Oil

Shale drilling site in New Brunswick, Canada.

More accurately, perhaps, this post could be titled “The Myth of Steady-State Technology” or “The Myth of Zero Marginal Utility.” In short, though, the concept of peak oil is that petroleum production will reach a maximum point and then decline as global reserves are rapidly depleted, leading to a shock in the energy economy and an overall contraction in the general economy. For the alarmist, this idea can have dire implications, while the optimist may see little more than some minor inconvenience.

However, at either extreme, the idea is still seriously flawed. There is certainly a limit to the terrestrial supply of petroleum, but peak-oil alarmism often, if not almost always ignores the technological innovations that overcome various extraction problems and the economic forces that spur those innovations. Techniques such as hydraulic fracturing have made the extremely large ancient deposits easier and less expensive to access. Simply stated, as long as “fossil fuels” remain economically desirable, technological development will continue to open previously unobtainable reserves for centuries to come.

Of course, none of this is without controversy. Concerns about environmental pollution have moved to the forefront of public discourse, even as geopolitical problems have begun to retreat. Luckily, cleaner fuels and more efficient mechanisms have been steadily mitigating pollution problems for several decades now—unless, as many today do, we consider carbon dioxide to be a pollutant. In the developed world, particulates and toxic byproducts have been drastically reduced, and the air quality has noticeably improved.

Human health and prosperity have reached unparallelled heights in our petroleum-fueled modern age This situation is historically exceptional, so it’s impossible to say whether our current population is sustainable or whether any potential correction would be catastrophic and painful or gradual and painless. What we can say is that the lack of access to oil won’t be the cause of any contraction in the near future. The only barriers that we face are political, not technological or economic.