Fossil Fuels: I’m Not Dead Yet

From Monty Python: "Bring out your dead"

Having looked at the major alternatives to fossil fuel energy production (summarized here), we come away with the general sentiment that the easy days of cheap energy are not evidently carried forward into a future without fossil fuels.  That’s right, fossil fuels will be dead and gone.  Is it time to pile them on the cart to be hauled away?

In the slapdash scoring scheme I employed in the alternative energy matrix, the best performers racked up 5 points, whereas by the same criteria, our traditional fossil fuels typically achieved the near-perfect score of 8/10. The only consistent failing is in the abundance measure, which is ultimately what brings us all together here at Do the Math. Fossil fuels are presently used in abundance—85% of current energy use—but this is a short-term prospect, ending within the century. The first effects of decline may be close at hand.  Do I hear talk of nursing homes?

The gulf between fossil fuels and their alternatives tends to be rather large in terms of utility, energy density, practicality, ease of use, versatility, energy return on energy invested, etc. In other words, we do not merrily step off the fossil fuel ride onto the next one by “just” allowing the transition to happen. The alternatives come at a cost, and we will miss the golden days of fossil fuels. But wait…what’s that murmur?  Not dead yet?

Still Got It?

Before we leave fossil fuels for dead, we should understand that peak oil happens around the time that the resource is half-depleted.  So we’ll have many decades of conventional oil, albeit at dwindling rates. Likewise for gas and coal, whose peaks may be decades away still (but likely this century all the same).  My main concern is how we cope with the decline stage of fossil fuels, which is not as final as being dead, but effectively forces us into a new era of energy transition. Because conventional oil will begin its decline first, a chief concern is how we might replace its function for transportation.  Rather than write off fossil fuels completely, some see promise in what alternative fossil fuels might offer.

Indeed, a number of non-conventional fossil fuels may represent our most convenient next step in energy. The low-hanging fossil fuel fruit has been plucked, so that the conventional sources get progressively harder and more expensive to acquire. Meanwhile, the ground is full of sub-prime fossil energy that becomes exploitable as the conventional resources wane (and become more expensive). If inferior replacements for conventional oil turn out to be exploitable at scale, our concern may shift more to the climate change side of the story: many fear that we may run out of atmosphere before we run out of hydrocarbons—and they could be right.

In a strictly quantitative sense, the notion that we have an abundance of hydrocarbons yet may be accurate enough. I used the following plot in the post on peak oil, adapted from Brandt & Farrell. Dark shades indicate reliable resources, while light shades represent increasingly speculative holdings.

We are about halfway through the conventional oil endowment—thereby near the production peak assuming the usual symmetric performance history. But perhaps we can recover a much greater fraction of the oil in the ground through advanced oil recovery technologies. Then we have tar sands and heavy oil from Canada and Venezuela. Or we can liquefy natural gas to cover the oil shortage. And as the Nazis and Apartheid South Africans demonstrated, liquid fuel can be produced from coal. Finally, we have a potential option in oil shale. Resource estimates vary, but even taking the dark green segments in the picture above (reliable lower-bounds), we at least triple the remaining “liquid” hydrocarbon resource available.

By the way, I recommend totally ignoring the vertical axis on the plot.  Cost of extraction tends to rise as energy prices rise, and these estimates are rooted in a cheap energy economy.  At the very least, the lines should slope upward, as the tail end of a resource is always more costly to extract than the early stuff.  In any case, I consider the cost estimates to be unreliable.

Let’s just put a timescale on this resource. 4.5 trillion barrels of remaining “liquid” hydrocarbons, at today’s rate of petroleum use, would last about 150 years. But it does not work this way. In most aggregate resource situations, the peak rate of production is reached when half the resource is gone. In this case, our total 5.5 trillion barrel “liquid” resource—past and present, devoting remaining coal and gas to liquid form—would be halfway depleted in 60 years, assuming the alternative fossil fuels can step up to the rates we enjoy today. And this does not allow for competing uses for gas and coal, acting to reduce substantially the time-to-peak if fully exploited, so these numbers are too optimistic. Even so, by another measure, if we resumed our growth track of energy use, for instance at 2% per year (more modest than historically typical 3% per year), we would burn through 4.5 trillion barrels of liquid fuel in 70 years.  We would reach the halfway point (peak) in 50 years, before tapering down. Any way you cut it, chasing after sub-prime hydrocarbons is another short ride, ending this century, that has the ill side effect of putting us deeper in the climate hole.

The Hirsch Report

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy commissioned a study of peak oil and its ramifications. Called the Hirsch Report (summary) after its lead author, the focus centered not on when the peak would occur, but rather on what we could do to mitigate the damaging effects. The report rightly identified the peak oil predicament as a liquid fuels problem, since electricity and heat are more easily substituted by alternative means—though not trivially so.

For liquid fuel replacement, biofuels, electric cars, and hydrogen-based transport were considered not to be technologically ready and/or of insufficient scale. The five options deemed to be ready for large-scale implementation were:

  1. Increased vehicle efficiency
  2. Enhanced oil recovery
  3. Heavy oil & oil sands
  4. Coal liquefaction
  5. Gas-to-liquids

Note that not one of these options represents a departure from fossil fuel transport. At some level, this speaks to a desperation in our predicament: we simply are not ready to be weened from the fossils, even as it becomes ever more imperative that we do so.

So what? If the resources are abundant enough, as the figure above suggests, then why not adopt this list of mitigation strategies and just get started?

I’ll make a few global comments before discussing each option in turn.

The most significant point is that the declining fossil fuel supply will be experienced not according to the total amount in the ground, but rather according to how quickly that resource is extracted and made available. We face a rates shortage more so than a resource shortage. To illustrate, in 1973, the U.S. was experiencing a declining rate of domestic oil production and got slapped with a Middle-Eastern oil shock that more than tripled the price of oil practically overnight. At the time, approximately 100 billion barrels of oil sat below American soil, most of it already known to exist, and with thousands of wells already accessing many of the deposits. 100 billion barrels would have been enough to satisfy all of domestic demand for over 15 years. Yet imports increased over the next several years while domestic production continued to decline.

Was this some sort of masochism, or the anagrammatically similar machismo? No. All the incentives were there for increasing domestic production, but nature did not care. Real oil wells—as opposed to the hypothetical ones conjured by economists—struggle to move viscous oil through porous rock, and are not amenable to extraction at arbitrary rates set by human demand. There is no spigot: no straw in some underground lake of oil.

Similarly, the raw amount of hydrocarbons in the ground is only part of the story. Can they be extracted and processed at a rate that makes up for conventional oil decline? That’s the key question.

The second global point, as stressed in the Hirsch Report, is that the scale of oil consumption is so breathtakingly large that even a modest decline rate of a few percent per year represents a staggering energy shortfall. Globally, a 3% annual decline in a resource that constitutes a power consumption of 5.5 TW means a yearly decline of 165 GW, or about 40 GW in the U.S. It is a tall order to scale the mitigation strategies up to a point that they could backfill this annual shortfall. For this reason, the report advocated starting a crash program 20 years before the onset of decline in order to assure sufficient scale in time to match the decline when it starts. The report concluded that a lead time of only 10 years risks major disruptions to economies. Beginning the crash program at the onset of decline was considered to be a catastrophic option. And a show of hands: who here thinks we would start an all-out mitigation program at the scale of World War II mobilization before resource decline sets in? If I weren’t typing, I’d be sitting on my hands, even while hoping that I am being too cynical.

A third point is that many of the scales I discuss below are based on a 3% annual decline of conventional oil. For a net oil importer like the U.S., the available oil may go down even faster if any countries reduce their export rate. At least one major oil-exporting country will make the calculation that at double the price, they can afford to sell half as much oil and still keep their economy humming (observing that they are not hurting at present). Oil prices rise higher as a result, tempting others to preserve their black gold for their own uses, only exacerbating the problem. How long will this go before military seizure takes place? In any case, oil importers may face an even steeper decline rate at the hands of geopolitical factors. Such things are not unknown to humankind.

Collecting some thoughts, the mere existence of alternative hydrocarbons in the ground does not translate to a storehouse of resources ready to satisfy our demand at the time and scale we need without decades of steady preparation. Think of a farmer in the flush of late summer waving off concerns of the coming winter because there’s lots of corn on the field, but not bothering to spend the fall preparing for the winter by actually harvesting the grain. An imperfect analogy, but the point is that the scale of the problem requires substantial preparation well ahead of our time of desperate need.

Now let’s look at the Hirsch Report options, recognizing that at best, all but the first are stopgap “solutions” based on a finite resource.

Improved Efficiency

Not technically a finite fossil fuel resource, improving the efficiency of our current automotive fleet does not represent a departure from fossil fuels, but aims to slow down their rate of use. I am a big fan of efficiency gains, and think there are always places to cut. On the other hand, efficiency gains tend to be slow, and do not have unlimited potential, as detailed in the post on limits to economic growth.

Consider that improved efficiency has been an ever-present goal of our car industry. Few people want their vehicle to be explicitly inefficient: an SUV that got 50 MPG would sell like hotcakes. Indeed, we have seen a steady improvement in the fuel economy of a typical family car, amounting to a factor-of-two improvement over the last 3–4 decades. This translates to an annual rate of improvement of 1% per year. As explained in an earlier post, fuel efficiency boils down to aerodynamics and speed. Embracing smaller, slower, more streamlined cars is the only obvious path forward for improved economy. The Prius is primarily as successful as it is because of its small, wedge-shaped form.

Largely, efficient transport is a well-squeezed lemon. Sure, we’ll get more drops out and should make every effort to do so: 1% per year can make a respectable dent in a 3% decline.  Accepting behavioral changes could bring a fresh lemon to the scene. Another way to say this is that we will only see substantial improvements in vehicle efficiency if we change our expectations about what a car is supposed to do (or migrate away from personal cars as a primary means of transportation).

Enhanced Oil Recovery

A number of techniques exist to improve the fraction of oil in a well that can be brought to the surface. Of course oil developers use every practical tool at hand to stimulate oil flow: pressurized water injection, horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and injection of gas like CO2 to dissolve into the oil and allow it to flow more easily. This last technique generally goes under the heading of Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), and can improve the extraction of oil by about 10% of the original in-ground amount. It runs a bit on the expensive side, but future energy will be expensive anyway. So this technique will help offset the decline, if employed at large scale, and has the advantage of delivering light crude oil that our infrastructure is geared to process.

Heavy Oil and Tar Sands

Some oil, like the stuff in Venezuela, is substantially more viscous than conventional oil, approximating tar. Additionally, tar sands in Canada offer similar raw material for making synthetic crude oil. These two resources combined may supply something like half-a-trillion barrels of feedstock. California has a bit as well.  Presently, Canadian production is a little over 1 million barrels per day (Mbpd), while Venezuelan production is a little less than this. Optimistic projections expect 3–4 Mbpd by 2020 in Canada. For scale, ten years of conventional oil decline at 3% per year will leave a shortfall over 20 Mbpd. Venezuela is not expected to move so quickly. Put together, these might be able to offset a quarter of the conventional decline—having a head start over other options.

Heavy oil and tar sands require more effort to extract and process than conventional oil, lowering the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) to something in the neighborhood of 5:1 (reference). At least it’s net-positive, but nowhere near the 100:1 originally enjoyed by conventional oil, or even the 20:1 levels we find in conventional fields of today’s caliber.

Heavy oil and tar sands will no doubt relieve some pressure on declining conventional oil, but they are capable of only partial relief. In other words, just because we believe the resource to be half-a-trillion barrels, rate-limited extraction will limit its ability to mitigate conventional oil decline. Did anyone notice that the U.S. does not own either of the large heavy deposits? Hey. Don’t discount Canada: last time we were in a war with them they burned down our White House!

Coal Liquefaction

When pressed, societies have in the past resorted to synthesizing gasoline out of coal, in a method known as the Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) process. Coal, which is mostly carbon, is partially combusted, or “gasified,” to make carbon monoxide. The CO is combined with hydrogen gas to make long-chain alkanes like octane, spitting the oxygen out in the form of water. One typically uses CO also to create the hydrogen gas from water via CO + H2O → H2 + CO2. Thus only one of every two carbon atoms winds up in the synthetic fuel, the other lost to CO2.

The National Mining Association, strongly advocating our using more coal as fast as we can, estimates a refinery cost pushing $1B, yielding 10,000 bpd production. For scale, a 3% per year conventional oil decline would leave the U.S. short by 600,000 barrels per day, requiring 60 such new plants to be built every year to plug the gap—each costing about the same as a 1 GW coal-fired plant (and processing 0.6 GW-worth of liquid fuel energy per day). It’s a big deal. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that coal liquefaction—or any of these alternatives—carry the full weight of replacement, but simply use full-scale numbers to establish the bounds and set the scale.

Compounding the problem of the required rate at which new processing plants would have to be built, consider the numerous downsides of coal. We would desperately like to shake our addiction to the dirtiest, most CO2-intense fossil fuel. How’s that workin’ out for us? Mountaintops razed flat, mine tailings, sulfur, mercury, and other toxins leaching into streams and rivers: expanding coal production is not high on the list of things we want to do.

We should also be careful about assuming that we are up to our ears in coal. It’s true that the U.S. has ample coal resources compared to its remaining oil endowment. But consider that the estimated total U.S. resource has declined from about 3000 Gt (gigatons) prior to 1950 to half that amount around 1960, lately sitting around 300 Gt. This isn’t due to depletion of the resource (70 Gt so far), as the number I’m quoting is total resource: past production plus estimated resource.

A similar story unfolded in the UK—whose leading role in the industrial revolution owed to vast amounts of coal in the ground. For over fifty years leading up to 1970, British coal was repeatedly estimated to total about 200 Gt. Over the next few decades, the estimates collapsed to about 30 Gt. The biggest shock is that this happened when 25 Gt had already been consumed, suddenly leaving about 5 Gt of recoverable coal when it had been imagined to be about 170 Gt. Imagine you’ve got $17,000 in the bank and you are contemplating buying a new car—only to realize that your latest bank statement puts you at $500: 3% of what you thought you had, and maybe not enough to even buy a old beater that still runs. As we’ve learned more about what kind of coal seams are accessible, downgrading estimates has been a global systematic phenomenon. Many folks, unfortunately, still carry around the old concept that we’ve got more coal than we could possibly know how to use (to the chagrin of the climate-concerned).

To date, the U.S. has used 70 Gt of coal, at a current rate of about 1 Gt/yr. If the current official estimates are right, then we have about 230 Gt left. Simple math suggests this means 230 years, or 86 years at a 2% annual increase. But other compelling evidence put together by David Rutledge suggests that we are now about halfway through the resource, having only 60 Gt left. The same analysis puts remaining global coal at 370 Gt, having used about 310 Gt to date. This estimate of remaining global coal is a little less than half of conventional estimates. I’m not prepared to judge which estimate is correct, but take seriously the possibility that we have much less coal than is assumed—especially in light of the dramatic trend of reduced resource estimates over the decades. If you’re going to err, it’s best to err on the safe side.

How do these numbers translate into oil production? One kilogram of coal, containing perhaps 0.7 kg of carbon, via Fischer-Tropsch, will commit 0.35 kg of carbon to about 0.4 kg of octane (C8H18), producing about 0.6 liters of fuel. One barrel (160 ℓ) of fuel then requires about 250 kg of coal, leading to the association that each ton of coal yields 4 barrels of fuel. Replacing a 3% shortfall of about 200 million barrels per year in the U.S. requires an annual uptick in coal production of 50 Mt/yr, or a 5% increase, year over year, for a doubling time of 14 years. In a related measure, if the U.S. wanted to (or were forced to) cease oil imports, it would mean doubling coal production, giving the U.S. perhaps as little as 30 years of resource.

Could we imagine ramping up coal production at anything approximating this scale? Again, it could certainly contribute to easing the decline, but is likely incapable of carrying the load on its own—if we would even want it to do so, given the many downsides of coal. We are presently striving to use less, not more.

Gas to Liquids

As with coal, methane gas can be synthesized into liquids like octane via the Fischer-Tropsch method. In this case, steam is mixed with methane (CH4) to produce CO and hydrogen gas. Then the CO is combined with hydrogen in the usual F-T dance. This time, all the carbon goes into the fuel since the necessary hydrogen is provided by methane, and is therefore a more efficient process. In either the coal or natural gas route, all the carbon ends up in the atmosphere after combustion anyway (unless one of the carbons is captured in the coal version), so no big difference there.

The U.S. uses about 20 tcf of natural gas per year, where a tcf is a trillion cubic feet. One cubic foot is 28 liters, and at 16 grams per mole, 22.4 liters per mole at standard temperature/pressure, methane has a density of 0.7 g/ℓ. Each liter of methane can create 0.64 g of octane, so that a liter of octane (at 700 grams) requires 1100 liters of natural gas. Replacing a 3% annual shortfall of 200 million barrels (at 160 ℓ/bbl) would then require 35 trillion liters of methane, or 1.2 tcf: a 6% annual increase in natural gas production—similar to the impact on coal. This isn’t too surprising since we currently get comparable amounts of net energy from gas and coal, and each being roughly half what we get from oil. So a 3% decline in energy from oil would need to be replaced by something like a 6% uptick in either replacement.

Estimates of how much natural gas is available is all over the map. Conventional natural gas development is in decline in the U.S., but a recent surge in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has many folks giddy over the prospect of a seemingly inexhaustible resource. But beware of the low-hanging fruit phenomenon. If we base our enthusiasm on the earliest, easiest to exploit examples (akin to gushers in the early days of oil), we may find ourselves disappointed. See the illuminating report by David Hughes for a more sober assessment of our likely natural gas resource.

For example, the U.S. Energy Information Agency projects that shale gas—currently at about 15% of domestic gas production— will nearly triple by 2035 to be our single biggest resource for natural gas. This is on top of a conventional supply that falls by 29% over the same period. In aggregate, the rapid expansion of shale gas allows a slow net growth rate of 0.4% per year. The faith in shale gas to deliver already seems stretched a bit, so that it is difficult to assess the likelihood of net gas production growth at all. And even if it does grow, the 0.4% per year projection falls far short of the 6% level that would be needed to offset a 3% per year decline in oil.

Where Does this Leave Us?

We built this world on fossil fuels. It is distressing to realize that our primary fuels will begin an inexorable decline this century. The result is that we will have difficulty even maintaining our current energy expenditure rate—let alone continuing our historical 3% annual energy growth rate. A major adjustment is in the offing.  Economic growth, look out!

Yes, we can re-purpose other fossil fuels (coal, gas, heavy oil/tar) to help plug the gap in liquid fuels, meanwhile accelerating their depletion. We can use liquid fuels more efficiently. We can try every trick to tease more oil out of depleted wells. All these things will happen. Their collective effort will ease the pain (and bring on new hurts), but it is not clear whether all efforts in tandem can arrest the decline, given practical, political, end economic realities. They are all more expensive, all lower EROEI, all harder, and with the exception of efficiency improvements keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Although the pain may be eased, the problem does not go away. I’ve never had a hangover, but I imagine this is what such an existence would feel like: a fossil fuel hangover. When will we decide to pull the plug?

My cynical prediction is that concerns over climate change are unlikely to hold sway over energy scarcity. Heck, climate change has had little influence over our current energy mix even when energy is cheap and abundant. In some sense, this track record only highlights the difficulty we have in finding suitable alternatives to fossil fuels. Maybe declining fossil fuels will provide the impetus that climate change has not succeeded in delivering: for us to finally embark in earnest in a deliberate departure from our old friends.

But we may decide instead to cling to the lowborn cousins of the royal fossil fuels: the kings of old. No matter what mix we decide to pursue, if we wait until the decline starts before seriously ramping up all viable efforts in tandem, we will find economic hardship, job loss, energy volatility as demand flags and then resurges, etc. The unpredictable environment will not be conducive to large investments in risky alternatives. In short, we could get caught with our pants down. And if you’ve ever tried to run in this state, you know what happens next.

So I don’t look at the hydrocarbon resource figure above and feel cause to breathe (cough?) a sigh of relief. If we’re going to try following that route, though, we’d best hold our noses and get on with it. Failing this, an advisable strategy is to start transforming our personal lives to be less dependent on energy—because then we’ll be less disappointed with failure and skyrocketing energy prices when that comes.

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117 thoughts on “Fossil Fuels: I’m Not Dead Yet

  1. I have heard speculation one of the key reasons the Nazis lost the war–other than Yankee gumption, of course–was that coal liquefaction is actually energy negative.

    • I doubt this rumor. A quick search turns up numbers in the 5 to 8 range, which seems entirely plausible to me. But I have not gone through numbers myself.

      • 5 to 8 what? EROEI? Getting 5 Joules per one joule of coal seems rather unlikely. Converting 5 Joules of coal to 5 Joules of oil per 1 Joule of coal for work would still seem unlikely, though make more sense.

        • EROEI of 5:1 means you can capture/transform 5 units of energy for the investment of one unit to carry out said transformation. For instance, at 5:1, to deliver 5 Joules of liquid energy, one must expend 1 Joule of energy to affect the conversion. If that one unit comes from the unprocessed resource itself, it means you have to dig 6 Joules out of the ground, using one of those to produce 5 units of the alternative form. Nothing comes for free, but viable energy resources deliver more energy to the user than it took to extract or process that energy.

          • I think the Peak Oil blogosphere makes EROI seem a lot more important than it is, at least so far. Going from 100:1 to 5:1 sounds like a huge change. But think of it this way: in order to get 100 barrels of oil in energy, you’d have to drill 101 at a 100:1 EROI, or 120 at a 5:1 ratio. So it’s only a ~20% increase in oil usage.

            It’ll really become significant if we continue to decrease the EROI of our fuel sources, but for now it shouldn’t make much difference.

          • Those numbers feel wrong, Charles. Try another angle: at 100:1 you need to burn one barrel of oil, and you get 100 back. At 5:1, you need to burn 20 barrels of oil to get 100 back. You need 20x the investment, or, correspondingly, just getting the energy is taking 20% of your economy instead of 1%.

            I suppose another angle is that 5:1 is still profit of 400%, which compared to normal business profit margins is wheee insane.

          • I like the first angle better. In the second angle, imagine that energy profit is 10%, like business. It would mean that we would have to ramp up energy production ten-fold over today’s level just to have the same amount available. Having a hard enough time keeping up now, that prospect elicits no “wheee” from me.

          • If EROI is defined as Eout/Ein, and Enet=Eout-Ein, then at 100:1 ratio you’d need to invest 1.01 barrels’ worth of energy to procure 100 barrels. At 5:1, you need to expend 25 barrels’ worth of energy to procure 100 barrels. So EROI as defined *is* significant- and below 5:1, it has been hypothesized that you are well over what is described as the Energy Cliff:

    • I’m only an amateur at WW2 history, but I doubt that speculation very much. The timing is all wrong. Nazi Germany had already lost the battle of Stalingrad and was in full scale retreat before Germany had its supplies of oil cut off.

      Oil shortages for Nazi Germany did not become acute until late 1944 after they had lost access to the Plotski oil fields, and their syncrude plants were bombed. By that point they had already lost anyway.

      The German syncrude program performed adequately and supplied 36 million barrels of oil per day, which was over half their oil requirements. Syncrude alone was enough to avoid acute oil shortages. Nazi Germany did not face severe shortages of oil until after the syncrude plants were bombed.

    • What would “energy negative” even mean, here?

      Say you start with 100 Joules of coal and a bunch of water. It’d be nice to have magic catalysts you wave them over that produce 100 J of oil. But realistically I’d expect to use up some of the energy in the coal to drive the process, producing 33 Joules of oil, or 50, or 60. Converting one form of energy to another more convenient will usually take work. But what’s negative? What *can* go negative?

      • In principle, it can take more energy to convert a resource than the converted resource can deliver, and I’m guessing this is what Ruben means. For instance, corn ethanol flirts with energy negative. By the time you add all the energy used to plant, fertilize, water, harvest, process, ferment, etc., the resulting liquid fuel may offer less energy than what went into bringing it about. Such “resources” would constitute a net energy drain. Sometimes this might be warranted, if form A is hard to come by any other way, and you can invest 2 units of abundant energy form B to make one unit of rare form A, the “negative” energy return may still be worthwhile. But on the whole, I tend to dislike resources with EROEI less than 5:1.

        • With corn, the fear is that we’re spending a gallon of oil to make a gallon of ethanol meant to replace a gallon of oil (ignoring constant factors.) So it’s supposed to be green, but isn’t, because we’re using just as much oil. Also corn’s supposed to be bringing solar energy into the system, and it’s disturbing if that contribution seems swamped. (Actually the fertilizer is probably coming from natural gas, not oil, but we could probably convert gas to oil more efficiently than by going through corn.)

          Coal to oil is a pure conversion, like converting heat to electricity, and absent hard data I’ve always assumed similarly lossy conversion (and even more so for synthesis from atmosphere.) So, expensive, but the sort of thing you do if you need liquid fuels for flight and shipping. The whole point being, yes, to convert abundant coal or gas (or biomass, or atmospheric CO2) into rare but useful oil.

          • If you tried to use corn ethanol instead of petroleum to run the machinery and processing—so it is a closed system—then an EROEI of 1.2:1 would mean that for every 12 gallons coming off the field, you’d put 10 back in. So you only keep 16% of the product. If the EROEI is 0.9:1, there is no way it could be self-supported in this way. So the fear with corn is not just that it’s a fossil fuel sink, but that without fossil fuels it may not be able to support itself as a true source of liquid fuel.

    • With coal, you get roughly half a BTU of liquid fuels out per BTU of coal input. So that means around half a BTU consumed to produce half a BTU, or an EROEI of about 1. But, this is where economics can trump EROEI (at least in the short term). Coal is cheap and liquid fuels are not.

      Fantastic article by the way. You hit upon so many of the topics that I think are so important for people to understand.

      Robert Rapier

      • Thanks, Robert. I assume that the 5:1 EROEI estimates for CTL are counting external energy inputs, not from the coal itself (I should really investigate). But you are right that if you count the coal energy that does not end up in liquid, by your numbers, the EROEI is down in the dirt.

        • If you think about it, though, one shouldn’t do an EROEI accounting of just external energy inputs. If I accounted for EROEI in that way, I could in theory derive 100% of my energy requirements from the BTUs contained in the coal, and thus have an EROEI of infinity. I can do the same for oil refining. I could either use external energy to fuel the refining process and get an EROEI of 10, or use fuel gas produced from the oil itself and get infinity — for the same process. By counting actual energy consumed — whether external or internal — the EROEI is consistent.


          • Agreed: external inputs alone can mask the true energy cost. In the case of CTL, just because we use only one out of every two carbon atoms does not necessarily mean that we forgo half the available energy, in a weird way. A gram of octane has roughly double the energy of a gram of coal. In the post, I determined that it takes 250 kg of coal to make a barrel of oil (112 kg of octane, actually). At 6 kcal/g vs. 11 kcal/g for coal and octane, respectively, I get to keep 82% of the energy content. The hydrogen bonds, absent in coal, largely make up for the lost opportunity in carbon. On the face of it, getting one unit of liquid fuel energy while forgoing 0.18 units looks like an EROEI close to 5:1 for CTL.

            I would have to dig deeper to find out how much energy is actually required, counting external inputs vs. that used from the partial combustion of coal to CO, etc. But EROEI takes on a new twist if one talks about potential energy that is forgone (even if not used) in the process of a conversion.

    • WW2 was essentially the first major resource war. The Germans and the Japanese had military economies that could only function by thrusting out to take resources from other less powerful nations. The Japanese had to take the oilfields of Indonesia, the Germans the food producing areas of eastern Europe and the oilfields of Romania and the Caspian and if possible the Middle East.
      The Americans had their oil (and other raw materials) within their own territory, and in vastly greater amounts.
      It therefore became a direct contest to see who ran out of gas first.
      If on the other hand the Germans had harnessed the energy of the atomic bomb , that would have reversed the course of the war (they were close to having the means to deliver it to the USA). The UK would have been nuked back into the stone age. As it transpired, the UK became effectively an aircraft carrier from which to bomb and invade occupied Europe.

      • This strikes me as oversimplistic. I don’t think Germany *needed* to steal food producing regions. And I’ve never heard that it was a matter of Germany running out of gas. John Keegan wrote that before the war, world industrial output was partially distributed as such:
        Japan 7%
        USSR 14%
        Germany 14%
        UK 14%
        USA 42%
        Plausibility can be checked against relative populations and development levels. Never mind energy; US and UK alone were together making more than half of the world’s stuff; USSR brings that up to 70%. The Axis was outgunner from the start, or more accurately, out-factoried. Japan was challenging a nation 6x its power.

  2. “… we will find economic hardship, job loss, energy volatility as demand flags and then resurges, etc. The unpredictable environment will not be conducive to large investments in risky alternatives.”

    First of all I’d like to thank you for your devoted efforts towards producing such an excellent information resource. Well done sir.

    Regarding the quote above – sounds a lot like current events…

  3. There’s a second climate-related economic problem. A huge chunk of our current economy’s valuation (the fossil fuel industry part) is based on the assumption that we will extract and burn all the reserves. If we declared a credible world-wide carbon budget (if pigs had wings), pffft!, there goes the valuation of all the oil and coal companies.

    In the short run, I’d bet on increased carpooling when prices start to pinch. I recall that there was a fair amount of that during the 1970s, and improvements in GPS and smart phones and social networking ought to make it easier to find riders or rides. The flip side of this is that it makes fossil fuels that much more valuable, since we would extract double or triple the people-transportation from a gallon of gasoline, so we would probably continue to extract them.

  4. Once again, that was a very interesting read.

    In most of the US, it’s basically impossible to survive without a car.
    It’s also the case in some parts of Europe, but less so.
    I live in a medium-sized city in Germany, and I can go everywhere I need by walking or taking the tramway. I don’t own a car, and the last time I needed one was to move out.
    How on earth do you tell millions (billions?) of people that their house is in the wrong place, that the urban area around them is totally inadequate without cheap oil and that they should have thought about this problem before because they cannot go to work any more, cannot go shopping either and cannot grow their own food?

    I find it really hard not to think that we’re completely screwed when I think about global warming, energy scarcity and our present frivolity.

    • I don’t think it’s quite that bad, but I view this from the perspective of someone who grew up in Florida (to which millions of people moved, decade after decade after decade) and who gets around quite a lot on a bicycle. If you look at things with a “car eye”, it’s “impossible” to get by without a car. If you look at things after spending some years doing a lot of commuting and errands on a bike it’s not necessarily so bad.

      Except for work commuting, you can “fix” a lot just by changing land use. Shopping and services are easier to move than all their customers. There’s a size/distance/cost tradeoff to made here, I assume we will sort it out by the usual market mechanisms, if zoning can be changed to allow it.

      The primary obstacle to not driving cars, is other cars on the road. Dense cities in the US still have plenty of car use, and it’s because of the perceived relative safety of using cars. There are low-energy options that we don’t use here in the US because they would be (or seem) unsafe in the presence of automobiles. Bicycles and electric scooters are two of these. Where I grew up (Gulf Coast Florida) is a prime example of this; shops and services are actually distributed relatively close to all the people (it’s wall-to-wall people), but all the routes there are filled with cars, some moving very fast. So you drive. Reallocate that pavement, you might make not-cars more attractive.

      There’s a range of low-energy options. If someone says “bicycle”, that’s not just a bent-over-hard-saddled-skinny-tired racing bike; it could be a cargo bike, or a velomobile, or something with electric assist. An electric scooter can give you more speed to let you handle a longer commute.

      There will be carpooling to work. (see comment above).

      Some fraction of people will just need to move. But people have moved in the past for economic reasons, so they will again.

      On the other hand, I’m contemplating changes to zoning, changes to road use, lots more physical effort and exposure to the weather, and sharing your car with Other People. Maybe some people view that as the End Times.

    • Well, if you don’t tell them anything, the price of gasoline goes up and speaks for itself. States or countries with wise governments and people that can listen to them can work on adjusting en masse. Those with foolish governments or populaces that won’t listen will go down struggling.

      Note the former isn’t mythical. Japan’s a poster child for a government that can tell it’s people to jump, but Germany’s been racing to renewables as a matter of policy, Nicaragua was in the news recently for wanting to go renewable, a friend in Chile claims Chile has a 20 year plan to get off oil. Don’t know the reason, but most of Europe if not the world has high gasoline taxes, so less sprawl and built in financial buffer.

      And, as with cell phones, countries that never got around to developing the old oil-based infrastructure won’t have the sunk costs telling them not to develop renewables. Solar power that looks expensive to us can be “woo! electricity!” to an African village that hasn’t had any. The oil addicted will be left behind, the world will move on.

    • In the short term, for getting to and from those houses, municipalities might find it worthwhile to pay the price for frequent buses or light rail, even if they’re not optimal for the space distribution. I estimated that the US could have pretty decent transit buses all over its roads for less than we spend on new cars every year.

    • We can definitely survive after peak oil.

      Bear in mind that 80% of car trips at present are discretionary and could be sacrificed; only 20% of trips are travelling to/from work. In addition, we drive 25 mpg cars at present when 200+ mpg cars are technologically available now, using little tandem-seating ultralights like the Volkswagen 1L. In other words, we could reduce our oil consumption by 95+% fairly quickly without severe disruption because most oil is WASTED.

      Similarly with transport of goods. We waste oil now because oil is cheap. We could easily electrify train routes, and use trains more and trucks less, and possibly even use trolley-trucks etc.

      Bear in mind that the economy allocates resources to their most important uses as a consequence of the price mechanism and of basic asset allocation decisions. As a result, the economy would not sacrifice essential functions unless oil supplies declined by 80% and did so more quickly than we could transition to alternatives. Since the economy already turns over the fleet of cars, and already transitions between energy sources, far faster than any plausible rate of oil decline, we do not face a disruption to civilization.

      Peak oil may cause unwelcome changes to the American lifestyle. We may have to drive little tandem-seating ultralight cars in the future when we’d prefer to drive SUVs. We may also face a recession, because people who’d recently bought SUVs need to curtail their consumption all of the sudden.

      We do not, however, face any disruption to industrial civilization. It is well within the capacity of the economy to transition faster than oil declines. Even a 90% reduction of oil supplies within 30 years would not cause anything like the industrial collapse posited by Kunstler etc.

      Or course peak oil could provoke a war that engulfs all the major powers and ruins everything. There is no way to predict this. Such a war could even happen without peak oil. However there is nothing inevitable about it.

      • “Bear in mind that the economy allocates resources to their most important uses as a consequence of the price mechanism and of basic asset allocation decisions.”

        I’m not so sure in the case of oil. In a truly efficient economy, we’d have a small human population and an effectively limitless supply of fossil energy (because we’d be continually finding new and more interesting ways to live our lives while using even less of the earth’s finite resources than before).

        Instead we have a global industrial economy that’s designed to use as much energy as possible, via exponential growth in population and demand for energy-using stuff and activities (including making solar panels and hydrogen) Winding down any part of the waste economy (especially the car industry, which is the gold foil on the cherry on top of the icing on the waste cake) shuts off power needed by the energy waste/debt finance structure, including the power to fund alternatives to wasting energy.

        Look at what’s happening in Europe. The German money-engine is cooling down as it adapts to low-density, less waste-friendly renewable energy inputs. Follow Italy’s increasing inability to pay for sufficient oil imports to maintain its waste-economy now that Germany is quietly getting itself out of the waste game – and therefore isn’t generating the shedloads of spare fossileuros that Italy and others need to borrow to fund their own ‘insufficiently developed’ waste machines.

        Bottom line: you can’t keep a waste-based society alive by making it more efficient. Be ironic if Germany ended up being invaded by other countries seeking to tear down its solar panels in the name of ‘energieverschwendungraum’ (energy-wasting space).

      • Do you we have the technology to have electrified train routes and high mpg cars? Absolutely. But, if the price of oil doubled/tripled tomorrow how long would it take to build a fleet of these high mpg cars? Years? Decades?

        And building a fleet of cars is cake compared to building a brand new electrified train system for the whole country. We are talking 5,000+ miles of train to be even remotely useful in replacing long distance trucks. That would just be Florida –> New York and East Coast –> West Coast.

        Then there is the problem of the energy trap that Tom wrote about a few articles ago. I wish I shared your optimism…

        • “But, if the price of oil doubled/tripled tomorrow how long would it take to build a fleet of these high mpg cars? Years? Decades?”

          It would probably take 2 decades or so. That is fast enough, since oil will not be exhausted in 2 decades. There will still be significant (although reduced) oil production even 100 years from now, barring a war that destroys us all.

          Remember that it’s not necessary to complete the transition to alternatives before the oil decline begins. Instead, it’s only necessary to transition to alternatives fast enough to offset declines _as they occur_. Thus, we would only need to replace about 2% of our truck traffic with electric rail traffic, per year, to offset declines, without _any_ reduction in cargo transported. I’m sure that 2% per year is an achievable figure. Bear in mind that we built the entire interstate highway system in 20 years or so.

          • I look forward to my Government building these high mpg cars and issuing one to me when my turn comes!

            Because if the price of oil doubled tomorrow the economy here in the UK and in the other OECD countries would crack within weeks, and me and 40-odd million other potential car buyers would be lucky to be able to afford puncture repair kits for our bicycles ever again, let alone new cars.

            As it happens, the UK has been replacing about 5% of its car fleet each year, and the last five or six years have seen a 20% improvement in the average official mpg of new cars.

            Theoretically, the most of the UK car fleet could turn over in the next 12-14 years, with even the 12-year-old cars being capable of 55-65mpg (imperial gallons) in 2025.

            However, UK new car sales are declining due to falling real incomes and scarcity of credit (although they appear to be in rude health compared to markets like France and Spain). It will need a very pronounced turnaround in the economy to return to restore the car market to equilibrium, let alone growth.

            I can’t see that happening for several years. By which time we’ll be reaching the point where very little liquid fossil fuel is reaching export markets, pulling the curtain down on the era of mass motoring in the customer countries.

    • It is interesting how much optimism has been expressed in this thread.

      Unfortunately, I’m not sure that such optimism is warranted given the scale and complexity of the predicament.

      One of the things I like most about “Do the Math” is that through estimation, Tom has been able to provide a sense of scale and plumb the depths of some of this complexity – not something that is otherwise easily done.

      I think it behooves us all to stop hand waving and take seriously the risk of civilizational collapse. It seems highly probable that we have already reached a point in time where all-out effort at mitigation may not be sufficient to prevent severe discomfort in the not-so-distant future.

      • Technically, there is ample reason for optimism. The supply side looks iffy, but the demand side here in the US has tons of waste that could easily be trimmed, and trimmed in a hurry if we were motivated.

        So for example, I know how to double or triple the pmpg of a car overnight — carpool, the next morning. No challenging research problems, no gloomy thermodynamics — just use your car the way it was intended, with peoples’ butts filling all the seats. There’s at least one startup (Avego) pushing iPhone apps to make this easier.

        Or, how about your diet? A big chunk of our energy goes into the production of food to grow meat. Eat less meat (beef, pork, lamb, deep-sea fish, and go easy on the chicken), save energy. No research necessary — again, this energy-saving measure can be deployed overnight.

        Or, how about bicycles? Even drinking 1% milk for transport fuel, the end-to-end efficiency (including the energy required to grow the feed for the cow that produces the milk), a human gets the equivalent of 150mpg. Potatoes, about 780mpg. Oatmeal, as much as 3000mpg. Depending on where you live, and the bike that you already own, you might be able to replace auto trips with bike trips, starting tomorrow morning (roughly 1/3 of the US population lives in places as dense or denser than Assen, a Dutch town with 40% bicycle ride share).

        You could adjust your thermostat, especially in the winter, and dress a little warmer indoors. Further research needed? I don’t think so.

        There’s reasons all this boring demand-side stuff doesn’t get so much press. First, we don’t like change, and we’ll happily engage our own internal BS generator to spew out excuses for why we cannot possibly do X, or Y, or Z — or, we’ll watch/listen to the advertiser-supported talking heads who will tell us soothing (?) tales about how unAmerican it would be to change. Second, nobody is going to make terribly much money from demand-side reduction; if anything, big established industries would see their revenues cut. Third, there’s not too many exciting research problems to solve; it’s really cool to be the guy who develops the breakthrough battery/algae/solar cell, but where’s the fame in telling people to eat less meat, ride their bikes more, and carpool for long-haul travel? That’s not going to get anyone tenure.

        So technically, optimistic, socially, not so sure, but the only way to make progress on the social side, is to keep pointing out that yes, we could do it.

      • “I think it behooves us all to stop hand waving and take seriously the risk of civilizational collapse.”

        I don’t see any examples of people arguing against collapse who are “hand waving”.

        If anything, it’s the peak oil doom movement which engages in hand waving. The peak oil movement has made a long series of drastically wrong predictions, usually in a tone of total certainty. Now they have forgotten about their prior failed predictions. I think that is the ultimate act of hand waving.

        “Unfortunately, I’m not sure that such optimism is warranted given the scale and complexity of the predicament.”

        It’s not just the scale of the predicament, but also the scale of our resources. For example, how quickly could we build electrified rail lines? Is it within our industrial capacity? Could we build them fast enough to offset the declines of oil?

        It means nothing just to point out the scale of our problems. The question is whether they are larger than the scale of our solutions.

        Every country with hundreds of millions of people faces a massive number of problems every day. For example, we must build an entirely new fleet of 100 million (!!) cars in this country during the next 15 years, even without peak oil. Anything done on a national scale will seem enormous compared to the individual.

        • Tom S.

          It’s always fun when someone takes the time to itemise how many times Daniel Yergin has been totally wrong with his cornucopian, ‘anti peak oil’ predictions.

          Would you care to itemise a similar list of drastically wrong peak oil predictions?

          After all, we do seem to be on an undulating plateau for all liquids, despite the huge hike in oil prices. Even the IEA has now called peak conventional crude. The NGLs and stuff that make up the numbers deliver less energy per barrel, so the declining net energy thing is visibly happening.

          “For example, we must build an entirely new fleet of 100 million (!!) cars in this country during the next 15 years, even without peak oil.”

          The ‘must’ is a cracker!

  5. Something that I find a bit off-putting about the Brandt&Farrell graph is that their cost estimates for the remaining liquid fossil fuels are based on current extraction prices. There seems to be no incorporation of the idea that the fewer reserves are available, the more difficult and expensive fuel extraction tends to be. For instance, for conventional oil, “High estimate is from Energy Information Administration (2005), and is the sum of finding and lifting costs reported for “worldwide”. Low estimate combines a lower estimate for development costs for Middle East producers (Stauffer 1994) combined with the lifting costs for the Middle East from Energy Information Administration (2005).”

    • I agree. I totally ignore the vertical axis. The cost of extraction tends to float up as energy is more costly. At the very least, their lines should slope upwards, as the tail end of the resource is always more costly to extract than the early stuff. I added these sentiments to the post: should have thought to do it straight away.

      • I don’t think we should totally ignore the vertical axis – the *relative* cost differences are what really count.
        CtL will always be more expensive than GtL which is more expensive than oilsands etc.
        The fact that oilsands are being done, and expanded today, with oil at $100/bbl, and GtL is not (Shell has just completed the first large scale one, and has now plans for any more) suggests that the GtL price is at least $100/bbl, and CtL more than that.

        The cheap oil is running out fast…

  6. The best part is, even if we moved all cars, pickups and SUVs over to pure electric, AND never used oil to make electricity, how long would all the oil in the world still last if it was used only to make Diesel (for trains, semis, cargo ships) and Jet Fuel? You know those things that allow us to move products around the world and have this commerce system.

    Forget about how you get to work, how does food & stuff get to you? Does the world revert to 1812, maybe an electrified 1812? This is what I worry about in the next 30-40 years.

      US production is 3 billion barrels per year gasoline, 1.4 billion barrels diesel (distillate), 0.5 billion barrels jet fuel, 0.2 billion residual fuel oil (bunker, what big ships use). Asphalt and feedstocks are another 0.5, if that. Total production is 6 billion barrels. So if you cut cars out, you potentially double production. Of course, oil naturally comes in various fractions, best suited for various uses; OTOH, it’s also convertible with work. has consumption not production, and more recent, but similar story. 8.6 million barrels/day gasoline, 1.4 jet, 4.5 diesel, 0.5 bunker.

      Diesel (distillate fuel oil) also includes heating uses, which are substitutable. Trucks can also be replaced or electrified, with infrastructure, and of course diesel trains can be — someone said their transmissions are already electric, using the diesel engine as a generator.

      Jet + shipping + industrial is 1.2 out of 6, so quintuple the time. Or 1/5 the production capacity needed, if we synthesized liquid fuel from other sources.

  7. Note that not one of these [Hirsch report] options represents a departure from fossil fuel transport. At some level, this speaks to a desperation in our predicament: we simply are not ready to be weened from the fossils, even as it becomes ever more imperative that we do so.

    I’m ready. This weaning will be harder for governments, and government departments such as the U.S. Department of Energy, because fossil fuel users subsidize them.

  8. You say:
    “This time, all the carbon goes into the fuel since the necessary hydrogen is provided by methane, and is therefore a more efficient process. In either the coal or natural gas route, all the carbon ends up in the atmosphere after combustion anyway (unless one of the carbons is captured in the coal version), so no big difference there.”
    Am I missing something — surely this is an error? If all the carbon from natural gas goes into the synfuel, then surely this is a more efficient process than CTL? All the carbon may eventually end up in the atmosphere, yes, but with CTL a large proportion does so a the synthesis stage, whereas with GTL this is occurring at the consumption stage (naively implying more bang-for-buck)

    • I mused about this too: how can CTL do as well as GTL if CTL gives up one of the carbon atoms? I think the answer is that methane is hydrogen-rich, so that some of the chemical potential energy residing in methane does not end up being utilized in octane. Perhaps the excess hydrogen can be used for energy separately. But as far as the liquid fuel goes, CTL gives up some carbon while GTL gives up some hydrogen, making it roughly a wash.

      • Good point. What if we redefine efficiency to mean “energy yield per unit of greenhouse gas emitted? Hydrogen (AFAIK) has no effect there…

  9. [editor note: this post is longer than is ideal; please try to keep short]

    Great summary. But I want to address the idea that in order to be sustainable and low-energy we must accept wimpy cars. This may be the case with pure ICE’s but not for EV’s. This is a myth perpetrated by the Neighbourhood Electric Vehicle / golf cart problem (it takes a big investment to get a car tested and certified for the highway and since no major automaker was previously willing to do this, all previous EV’s were legally mandated to be wimps and top out at 40 km/hr — reinforcing the public perception). I harp on this because it is a major barrier to the widespread uptake of EV’s by the public.

    Now, the most fuel efficient car in the world (Tesla Roadster) is ALSO one of the fastest street legal cars in existence! My friends drive my Leaf and they are amazed. This is because the energetics are fundamentally different for an EV than an ICE. A powerful ICE sucks gas all the time regardless of whether you need it (unless they use complicated cylinder disabling features). This is not true for an EV.

    I don’t know what percentage of the cars sold nowadays are hybrids, I’d guess maybe 10%. There is no fundamental reason why they could not all be plugins, and right there that could solve a huge part of the scale issue in converting over to electrification. I don’t agree with Hirsch’s dismissal of EV’s. If we are facing energy shortages, we only have certain options available to pursue. Pulling energy out of all these poorer quality sources described in the article is one option, but then that leaves us with nothing at the end if we don’t also change our consumption infrastructure. Instead devoting that effort to electrifying the automotive fleet is another option to spend our efforts. I say we do both.

    Let’s say for the sake of argument that there were enough fossil fuels left to convert the remaining vehicle fleet over to electric and to provide every household with rooftop of solar panels. In the summer there is no reason why those households could not enjoy the same energy consumption they do now, and drive cars even better than what they currently drive.

    Of course, getting to that stage is the challenge, but if we still have half our FF’s remaining (I am skeptical of this for reasons explained in the article) then the hurdles to this transition are largely political, not technical.

    • I don’t disagree on principle. The wimpy statement is simple: freeway driving is dominated by air resistance. If you want to spend less energy getting around, no choice but some combination of slowing down in a smaller, more streamlined car.

      If you have plenty of excess energy from renewables (I dream of this day), then sure: go nuts with high performance EVs.

      If you took a normal Prius and added plug-in capability (with stock battery at less than 2 kWh), you’d get a range of maybe 5 km (3 miles). So just plugging in our hybrids without major battery upgrade is not nearly enough.

      Then there’s price. Tesla may be high performance, but also high price tag. I looked at the Volt for myself, but shied away from the price.

      I would love EV’s to break our into a viable mass solution (would open the gates for solar, for instance), but I’m less than convinced this will happen to my satisfaction.

      • Further to Tom’s point, my wife’s electric bike has about 0.36 kWh storage in its battery, has a range of about 50 km (30 miles). In other words, it’s more than 50x as efficient.
        It has a cruising speed, without pedalling, of about 35 km/h (~20 mi/h).

        There are a lot of size/power graduations between a bike and a car that offer huge efficiency gains.

        Regarding a car’s performance, include the time you spend working to pay for it and its performance doesn’t look so rosy — especially if you factor in real-world factors (like red lights, finding a car park, and gridlock)

        • Then they’d only have to increase the Prius battery size by like 4 times or something to give it a 20 km range, not too tall an order. This is actually what Toyota is doing I believe, they are bringing out their plugin version this year? This should only legitimately increase the car’s price by $1000 or so (realistically, they’ll probably charge more).

          So then with a 20 km e-range you could dive to work on electric, charge it at work, and drive home on electric. Most trips are short.

          I have a feeling that once mass production ramps up, EV’s will cost no more than equivalent ICE cars, maybe even less due to their simplicity. Of course, as oil becomes scarce, costs of ALL manufactured items will go up.

          It’s true what you say, you really get a feel for energy efficiency when having to do a long drive in an EV. 50-60 km/hr is ideal. Highway driving forces you up to 80 or 90 which kills range.

          • *km*/hour? US highway speed limit is usually 65 *miles* per hour, or 105 km/hour. 50-60 km/hour would seem horribly slow.

            And with high speed rail in the range of 300 km/hour, all that effort into EVs might seem rather mis-apportioned.

          • Damien, the point of a plug-in hybrid isn’t to be useful on a 65 mph freeway – the vast majority of trips are much shorter and never touch a superhighway. We’re talking about the 10 mile round-trip to a grocery store on 35 to 45-mph surface streets.

            High-speed rail and EVs are not mutually exclusive – to the contrary, they are mutually beneficial. You cannot build HSR stations on every block, but you can conceivably put an HSR station within EV range of every major population center.

          • This is in response to Travis’s comment.

            A big issue with EVs and plug-in hybrids is cost-benefit to the purchaser. Here in the UK, someone of average means might reasonably justify spending £10,000 on a new ICE with go-anywhere, use-anytime capability, and a 500-mile range at 55mpg (imperial). A plug-in hybrid is more expensive because it is more complex (two powertrains). In practice, EVs and plug-ins are currently 2 to 2.5 times the price of an average ICE.

            It’s often argued that the cost of EVs and HEVs will fall as sales volumes rise – but why should sales increase greatly? These cars don’t do what ‘ordinary’ people want cars to do – which is provide carefree, long distance journeys.

            The argument that high oil prices will force people to buy EVs doesn’t necessarily hold. High oil prices are just as likely to force average earners to do what they did before the East Texas oilfield was discovered in 1902 – not own cars at all.

            Fiat’s boss said last week that his company needs to get out of making small (that is ‘cheap’) cars. He clearly sees the flow of buyers drying up and needs to reorient the business to large, low-volume, high margin vehicles.

            Many of those vehicles will be plug-in hybrids and EVs – although liquid petroleum will still be hard to beat at almost any price. The critical point is that these exceptional, high-tech marvels will NOT allow (and aren’t intended to allow) the continuance of what we earlier generations experienced as mass motoring.

    • The Tesla Roadster may be a wonderful car, but costs 109,000 and is basically an electrified version of the Lotus Elise which costs 40,000 – 50,000 depending on version. So you are paying 200%+ more for a car that has less range and is less versatile.

      If the Tesla Roadster could have been produced for 10,000 more than the car it is based on then we might be on to something. Btw anyone know how much a new lithium pack is for the Roadster?

  10. Great article – gives a more nuanced appraisal than most. The difference between a hangover and what we’re about to experience is this: a hangover goes away; fossil fuel depletion does not. We have to get used to an unending headache that is barely perceptible now, but which will make its presence felt more and more as the years go by.

  11. What I am missing here is an outlook on the possibility of creating hydrocarbons directly with the surplus of renewable energy production (i.e. Substitute natural gas ).

    Wind energy is efficient and wind turbines are being build at a high rate all around the world. Most of the potentially produced energy is wasted when there is wind but not enough consumers of electricity. Basically wind turbines are switched off 50% off the time they could produce energy. This energy can be used to electrolytically produce hydrogen in a first and methane in a second process. In germany Greenpeace Energy has build the first substitute natural gas plant. See .

    The effectveness given is 60%, but as the energy would otherwise simply be lost its a huge amount of energy that can be stored and processed to a more valuable product.

    Many cars in europe allready run on natural gas and the storage capacity and pipeline infrastructure ist allready there. It is a clean and easy to handle low cost source for hydrocarbons that should be developed wherever wind turbines are build.

    Especialy if one considers the environmental hazards of shale gas and the overall costs for “alternative fossile fuels” for society they could be much higher then investing into renewable energy from the start. Of cause short term profits for exxon and co. will be much higher with shale gas when they are not held responsible for the amount of damage they “wreck”.

    • this to me sounds as one of the mitigation path, we would have to choose now on a big Scale.

      the Problem with “WindGas” is, that the Process of making Methan seems to be not nearly as eficient as a direct use of electricity. Of cource the argument, that otherwise, the Wind turbines would just be shut down is true.

      But as i know, for the first step, producing H2, you loose 40% of primary energy, and for the secound step, the problem is the availibility of C02 in enough concentrated form to produce methane. So maybe an intelligent combination with Biofuels for example or other ways could ease this process, but lately, you loose about 60 to 80% of primary energy. I am not sure about these numbers, maybe someone her knows it better.

      But sure its a step in the right direction..

      me on myselfe i think about changing my energy company to greenpeace energy for the reason i could by windgas for heating…

  12. According to the Energy Information Administration, US consumption of petroleum products peaked in 2007 and is now down about 2 Mbpd:

    Three comments: 1. Want to know what peak oil will feel like? It’s here. I guess we didn’t plan for it.

    2.This explains the much-bruited media story that the US is now an exporter of petroleum products, and the untold story of a wave of refinery closures. It has nothing to do with any new magic extraction technology; it is just that now there are too many refineries for the domestic market.

    3. One positive aspect is that the US has used oil so wastefully in the past that the decline hasn’t started to hurt yet, and it may not hurt badly for a few years yet.

  13. So which is more likely… Will our political leaders unite to make hard choices and long-term plans, with the fossil fuel companies abandoning their billions and billions in profits? Or will we just invade another country and take their oil? We’ve already invaded Iraq, and we’re teetering on the brink of war with Iran…

    • Such invasions seem like a rather poor way of getting oil. I mean, we *didn’t* ‘take’ Iraq’s oil, even ignoring the bombings of pipelines and reduced production. Mostly the oil countries have been happy to sell whatever we’ll buy. At best such wars might shift profits from states to Western oil companies, but they haven’t been making a positive difference for consumers.

      “War for oil” is a strong meme but any simplistic reading doesn’t seem to work in reality.

      • Sure, but we haven’t had a real oil crunch yet. The point is, it would be very easy for us to force Iraq to sell their oil only to us, if we were really facing a shortage. Or we could simply restrict the amount of oil being sold to “enemy” nations like China, which would free up more for us. When it gets to the point where there’s not enough fuel available at any price, and it starts to be a real restriction on the military, that’s when we’ll see the claws come out.

      • Iraq and the middle east is far away. It would easier to conquer/merge with Canada or Mexico or both. Call it Canamerico. They are the 2 largest exporters we get oil from.

      • I don’t think the US is really in the Middle East to secure oil. It is there to secure the dollar. Its military presence ensures that international transactions continue to be done in dollars, because without this the dollar is worthless. Without a US military presence what’s to stop Iran, Iraq or Saudi Arabia from selling their oil to China in return for Renminbi? I believe this is already happening between Russia and China, because there is no way the US military could position itself between those two countries!

  14. Another fine article. There is just one important point I felt you glossed over, falling EROEI. As the EROEI approaches 1, the price grows without bound. How much oil is in the ground will be completely moot once it takes more energy to extract it than it produces. That could conceivably happen in just a couple decades.

    • Good point. One caveat: if liquid fuels prove extremely hard to get in other ways, I could imagine spending a greater amount of energy in the form of solar, wind, nuclear, etc. to dredge the stuff up. So EROEI < 1:1 does not always stop something dead, but diminishing EROEI in practice will likely curtail use well before reaching the 1:1 level.

    • I think it will be moot before 1:1. At some point the economics will take over. Look at what happened when oil hit $150 a barrel a few years back, food riots in Mexico and other places.

      The modern world was built on cheap oil and cheap energy. Once energy expenses go over a certain % of income, then we start to see real issues.

    • Agree with Tom above, we could see other cheaper forms of energy be used to pull the last liquid fuels out of the ground even with an overall EROEI of less than 1:1, due to the advantage of liquid fuels. But this will only last for a short while because soon after this it will be more economical to convert that natural gas or electricity directly into synthetic liquid fuels, rather than pulling more goo out of the ground and processing it. This is the problem I envision Venezuela’s tar sands will face.

      • One clarification, those other cheaper forms of energy would still need to have an OVERALL positive net energy return. For example, if natural gas is pulled out of the ground with an EROEI of 40:1, we could either 1) use it as is (overall EROEI remains at 40:1), or 2) use it to pull Venezuelan gooey tar sand out of the ground with an EROEI of 0.5 to 1 because the liquid aspect of that product is more useful than gas (overall EROEI then drops to 20:1), or 3) convert the nat gas to synthetic oil via Fischer-Tropsch at 0.5 to 1 (overall EROEI again drops to 20:1).

        If we get to a point where the overall EROEI is still less than 1, then it doesn’t matter what we do — we are hooped. It’s therefore helpful to be clear about whether we are talking about total well-to-wheels EROEI or just one portion of the energy transfer steps along the way.

  15. As this post and the seems to focus largely on the problem of peersonal transportation I have to point out, that 17% of the US oil consumption is needed in food production. Famine might be a problem even the developed countries might have to face if no new strategies for food production are sought out.

    “Conventional” food production in the USA is a highly energy wasting industry. it is utterly dependable of the products of chemical giants like monsanto or bayer whos products are produced from fossile hydrocarbons. 1% of world energy consumption is used for the Haber Process for ammonia production allone.

    There is a huge potential in reducing the dependency from oil if the USA would embrace sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture has come a long way in the recent years an its harvest can compete with industrial agriculture.

    I do not share the hope of the blog author that the energy crisis will be mastered without a huge cost of human lifes, but I have hopes for sustainable food production being able to sustain much more people than we would think.

    Actually the USA might look towards the high crop harvests the amish are able to produce (largely) without the help of fossile fuel. More scientifically inclined might look into the progress german ecological farming as studied by the Technische Universität München Weihenstephan ( who show spectacular harvest results with advanced sustainable technologies.

      • In 1958 about 40% of the average household expenditures went to food purchase in Norway. In 2009 it sat a bit above 10%. This is not a trivial matter! (source statisitcs norway)

        • I’m not sure Norway, with its high latitude and later discovery of oil, is the best touchstone here. The numbers given by what I link to are for the US, anyway.

          Main point is, 1950 may be poorer than now but it’s a hella lot richer than 1850, which is what people tend to fear. Much of the world would love to rise to a 1950s US standard of living.

    • Don’t forget how much of US food production is driven by our protein-rich diet. US average is about twice the RDA (56g, according to Food Energy and Society, 3ed, pp67-68). Much of that protein comes from beef and pork, which inefficiently convert food input (corn, soy) into protein — a large portion of US crop production is fed to animals to produce meat. If we cut back our protein consumption somewhat, and shifted our protein sources away from beef and pork somewhat, we’d save a good fraction of the energy spent in food production. (40% of US corn goes to feed; 35% goes to ethanol; 15% is exported. About a quarter of US soy crop goes to feed animals, about half of that is poultry; 45% is exported. Sources: ,

  16. [shortened by moderator]

    You touched on this, but to me the Venezuelan oil sands are the real wildcard in the whole petroleum depletion scenario. They are much larger than Canada’s: [1200 Gbbl vs. 173 Gbbl according to Wikipedia]

    “The Venezuelan Orinoco Oil Sands … are too deep to access by surface mining.”

    Now, if price per barrel goes up:

    1) More reserves in Canada will be available to extract at a higher price. Maybe it will never be possible to expand production enough to make a huge dent in depletion, but it will be economically possible. Economically recoverable reserves will expand there as oil prices rise for a while.

    2) At some point I expect the Chinese to make a deal with Venezuela (I doubt Venezuela would touch a US concern with a 10 foot pole).

    This is the wildcard I’m talking about. They have the need, the cash, the manpower, and brainpower to make a SERIOUS effort in Venezuela if they so choose. I don’t think Europe has what it takes to duplicate it.

    I don’t think China has any experience with this sort of thing, but that hasn’t stopped them in the past with other technological efforts.

    I just don’t know how that will turn out. It might amount to very little or they could dwarf Canadian oil sands production. We’ll see, but I think eventually they try.

    • In reply to point one. It doesn’t necessarily follow that increased extraction will be economically possible if oil prices rise.

      Higher oil prices divert people’s money away from the consumption of goods. The money is merely burned in car engines (or evaporated indirectly though consumption of higher-priced food) instead. Falling goods consumption depresses the economy, so there’s less investment capital available for expanding oil production (and what capital there is will prioritise potentially higher-yielding opportunities than tar-sands, for obvious reasons).

      The likelihood is that tar sands will be subject to a receding horizon where the wider economic impact of higher oil prices will steadily push away the point at which a significant expansion of tar sands capacity becomes viable.

      Perhaps the real question is: ‘How much fossil energy would the people who call the shots need for a long, comfortable future as a non-waste-based civilisation; assuming the rest of us disappeared since we’d no longer be needed?’

      Not much, I think. Tar sands probably wouldn’t even come into it.

      • The likelihood is that tar sands will be subject to a receding horizon where the wider economic impact of higher oil prices will steadily push away the point at which a significant expansion of tar sands capacity becomes viable.

        What is your lower boundary below which you consider expansion of tar sands capacity insignificant?

        • Let’s say 40%, or 250,000 mbd.

          Syncrude (the company)’s 40% uplift in production capacity from 250,000 mbd to 350,000 mbd cost its backers $8.4 billion, or three times the original budget for the operation, which was $2.7 billion.

          Against a background of falling OECD petroleum demand (US petroleum consumption is down 6% since 2007 and OECD consumption as a whole is down 4%), and stagnant economic growth for the foreseeable future, attracting future investment looks to get harder and harder if oil prices rise higher and higher.

          In the circumstances, another 0.25 mbd seems to qualify as ‘significant’, though obviously not in comparison to global consumption of 88 mbd.

  17. I love this website, keep up the good work. You keep talking about how we could make the biggest impact by adjusting our behavior and attitude and outlook. I think a very useful post might be on how you have done just that and still manage to live in a modern economy and city. Do you make it into a game? Is there a spiritual component to it? Is it fun? Do you like the intellectual challenge? Do you feel virtuous doing it? How do you motivate yourself? Please do a post about the power of behavior changes and give us examples from your life.

      • Il faux cultive notre jardin?

        You cannot fix this by becoming your own private nation anymore that you can fix kleptocracy and global finance. It will take a bit more than DIY hardware on your own roof, and an enlightened mind. I understand the preference, and I sympathize, but that way civil rights wouldn’t have advanced either 50 years ago. Just sayin’ …

        It will take a movement. If it can be done for guns, maybe it can be done for survival?

  18. [moderator note: lose points for length, but solid otherwise…]

    You mention that automobile efficiency has been improving on average 1% per year in the US for some time. I suspect that behavioral changes would have far more profound effects on energy use than any technological advances. A predicament demands adaptation rather than solutions engineering. I was hoping that you might devote a post to the comparative approaches. Allow me to make a couple of examples.

    You mention we could make slower cars. I own a Prius. It serves my needs well, but it accelerates like a lame dog. I’m OK with that, but the auto industry is still promoting cars with 400hp. Almost all of the efficiency gains made in ICE locomotion has gone into improved performance rather than lower gas milage. This is a cultural issue more than a technological one. We have chosen to use technology one way rather than another. But what do the numbers really tell us about this? While it may be technically feasible to make a 200mpg car, we would need to make a mass cultural detour before this could help. To put this in another perspective, the auto industry in the US is saying that at current new car sales rates, it will take 20 years or more to turn over the vehicle fleet. That means you are getting 5% replacement rate with new cars on the road each year, (assuming total vehicle count does not change). If each model year gets a 1% improvement in mpg as we have seen before, then you reduce total gasoline use by .05% per year. I’m so excited!

    Lets get radical. Suppose our esteemed political leadership waves their magic legislation wands (like they did with the ethanol industry) and they mandate that all new vehicles as of today must get double the gas milage. (The magic wands obviate the 3-5 years needed to bring a re-engineered vehicle to market). Then we can reduce yearly gasoline usage by 2.5% assuming everyone is still selecting the vehicle class they did before. (BTW, perhaps you can work out for us how Obama’s new efficiency mandates actually work out in this regard). This might help, but then some analysts are predicting that when depletion starts down the far slope the decline rate will be somewhere between 4-6%, and that’s just for geology and does not account for economic or political complications. Also, this is just for private vehicles. The trucking industry has been struggling to make a tractor-trailor rig get 10mpg for a couple of decades. To my knowledge, they are not even close yet. (The best get about 8, most get 6). It doesn’t really make much difference how aerodynamic your truck is, it is still going to take the same amount of total energy to lift 30 tons over a mountain pass. To borrow your metaphor, there just isn’t that much squeeze left in a turbo-diesel lemon.

    Where does that leave us? With SUV’s with their batteries removed, and the possibility of anti social behavior in gas lines directed at muscle car owners. I’m not looking forward to it. Have I done my math right? The alternatives? Incremental won’t cut it. MAJOR changes to living arrangements is likely.

    • Some perspective on lower-energy vehicles — I learned to drive in a 2000 lb Saab 96 sedan, with an 850cc 2-stroke engine producing about 50 horsepower. Its top speed was maybe 75 mph. I remember it as a lot of fun.

      If you are willing to sacrifice acceleration and optimize your aerodynamics, you can go 80mph with a very small engine — a very fit human. It’s been done.

  19. Tom,

    I have enjoyed you blog from the first post. I’ve run many of these same numbers myself over the years since Jimmy Carter put on his sweater in 1979 and told the nation we’d need to get to work on this problem while we still had the energy and money to try to solve it. Like you, if I’m reading between the lines of this last piece correctly, I’ve ended up a bit depressed, since the scale of the mansion we built with out inheritance is so great that we won’t be able to maintain it with our daily RE paycheck. The only realistic options are all really bad. Billions of people who we’d expect to be alive won’t be here in 50 years, since there are more than the laws of physics involved in maintaining a global civilization. Local resources and communities will again support what can be supported. If life wasn’t thriving where you live now back in 1850, you won’t be living there in 2050. If you’re not living within a day’s walk from a water mill by 2100, you won’t be living there (see 1800 census). Solar PV, wind turbine electricity generators, batteries, thorium reactors, you name ’em – they’re all global peak of the oil era technologies that, by their end of lifetime in 20 years won’t be maintainable or replaceable. Our children – unless we’re truly not part of the 99% – will not be living a life that remotely resembles ours, or theirs, today. That doesn’t make the future awful. Mozart and Beethoven wrote every note pre-oil and coal, pre-industry. It will make life for the masses – and there will be a lot fewer masses – much more similar to life of the thousands of years pre-1900 than the life we’ve known since 1900.

    • Bill. I think you are absolutely right, both on the maths and about Beethoven. I’m sometimes depressed by it, too, although I’ve come to a liveable level of acceptance.

      The funny thing, if anyone’s read my comments higher up this thread (assuming they were passed by the moderator), is that my day job is working as a shill for the car/fleet/fuel industry.

      I find that the cognitive dissonance involved is increasingly hard to work around, but it’s a fascinating situation to be in. The manufacturers clearly know what we know. I don’t think they have any illusions about mass motoring surviving the passing of cheap liquid fossil fuels.

      I think you’re right about private cars being for the 1% in future. Maybe the upper end of the massively shrunken middle class will merit electrically-assisted bicycles while the rest make do with Salvage-Era solutions like ancient moped engines tuned to 100mpg, fitted into wood pole frames with canvas seats and bark-textile compound wheels.

      Could even be fun.

    • Seems kinda depressing to me, being that them thorium (and molten uranium) reactors have rather impressive (and long lasting) EROEI. Seriously, 1 ton of dirt, is equal to like 50 tons of coal. Yes, (the thorium in) dirt! Ok, maybe that was an overly optimistic statement from the pro thorium sites, however, I doubt they could be off by such that the whole of humanity (and then some) couldn’t continue living “somewhat” like we do now from such 50 year old technology.
      Going a step in the opposite and diffuse direction, there is still a technical hope, being that the EROEI for solar is 10 (or more once made the “best” and most efficient way).
      So, some numbers albeit simple… We have, at most, 30 years until the price of FF’s snuff us out. If we expend 3 years worth on just solar panels (preferably machine made GaAs concentrated Fresnel arrays) and an equal or lessor amount for the batteries and other storage and powerlines (It couldn’t be more… could it?) Then we still have 9 years prolonged at EROEI of 10 (which is for normal, infrared emitting dark colored panels). However, CPV takes only like 6 months till EROEI, thus upping those prolonged years to like 84!
      Now factor in growth… well, let’s also factor in efficiency to counter, and let’s also factor in the change in standards, such as the financial necessity to counter higher FF prices with good ole fashioned self limitation. I believe with that, we at least should give “hope of survival” a chance as that shall at least enable a full 30 years of estimated “solar infrastructure” life expectancy (in exchange for 6 years of FF’s). Still somewhat dismal, being that we would also have to set aside some 20% (of that) just to double up.
      However, I believe we NEED those many tens of thousands of square miles of install jobs as part of an economic means towards said solution!

      Now, thorium reactors would be at least many times more effective being that they produce energy up to 50 million times as concentrated as FF’s.
      Therefore, I “know” that it is possible to even raise our apparent standards even as we lessen our energy usage…

      I agree that “everything” must be reduced in order to pull it off, as we don’t have much time except for a coordinated plan of attack (and efficiency on all fronts).

      I “know” (that without massive planning) we are headed directly for fossil fueled depletion… because of the lifestyles, lack of collective vision and the lack of political will to initiate a coordinated plan of attack.
      Thus I agree, it seems kinda depressing because we have the tech, just not the collective will.

  20. Thorough in depth and readable essay Tom. I think it would be useful to add that the US has been using less gasoline and electricity importing less petroleum for several years, 21 million in 2005 to 18 now. That’s a drop of 14% or so. .
    That’s more than 3%/year decline BTW. I also have one tiny request that you try to keep your units consistent. I get all topsy turvy when you start mixing cubic feet with liters. Joules and gigatons and gigajoules and btus////yikes!Thank you.

  21. I think the key factors here are production price, energy return and feedback. This is somewhat obfuscated way of saying that when oil gets expensive enough, and the energy yields get low enough, we won’t be able to maintain the supply chains necessary for the extraction, processing and distribution of hydrocarbon fuels.

    Unfortunately, we seem critically dependent on oil and petroleum fuels for transportation. If liquid hydrocarbon supply chains cease to be self-sustaining, it results in a transportation-based, sudden, cascading supply chain failure that ultimately cripples all other industries, including the oil industry itself.

    I’m guessing that there might be quite a lot of hydrocarbons left in the ground by that time. We just won’t be able to exploit them. Of course, such a supply chain cascade failure might also be caused by war or natural disasters. The result would probably be the same.

    • Very true. We might see this play out in Mexico within a few years, given the decline of their major oil field, vs. domestic demand, and general breakdown of society.

  22. So in the simplest, best-case scenario, a constant 3% per year decline in global oil production means a halving period of ~23 years. Yikes.

    As a basic mental model, I picture the various energy buckets used by our civilization: maintaining what we’ve got, growing the economy, creating and maintaining human biomass, cleaning up after ourselves, etc. Just to keep running in place, so to speak, we’ll probably have to allocate more and more energy to the “clean up” bucket as a result of climate change (droughts, more intense weather events, sea level rise), just when fossil fuel extraction rates and quality are decreasing.

  23. We have the tech (and efficiency gains to boot) to overcome this 3% decline… just not the collective willpower.
    We need to figure a “blueprint to averting fossil fueled depletion”, and make it go viral.

  24. “My cynical prediction is that concerns over climate change are unlikely to hold sway over energy scarcity.”

    Here is the Paradox of Abundance: We have too much oil.

    The problem has ceased to be that we do not have enough fossil fuels, the problem is that we cannot even afford – even economically – to burn off the reserves we have.

    “The oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons — five times more than we can ever safely burn. It has to stay in the ground. [… I]t would be extremely prudent to write off $20 trillion worth of those reserves.”

    This is an economic necessity as much as an ecological one. As aqbc suggests above, we need a connection between energy yield and carbon impact, or between estimates of “profit” (contingent on having that energy available) and total economic cost (that is, the expected impact of carbon emissions e.g. on insurance costs, disaster relief, and loss of markets), with a planning horizon exceeding corporate quarters and election cycles.

    At some point, concerns over climate change are going to translate into tankers lost and oil rigs damaged, ports flooded, and refineries wrecked by tornadoes or simply not enough food to maintain an industrial workforce, if you want to believe the Kunstlers and their Great Leap/Slow Walk Backwards. Likely that’s 50 to 100 years out, and likely by that time, we will also no longer have use for the fossil fuel infrastructure as even in today’s conditions, it would not be economical – or energy positive – to exploit what will be left, so it all works out. “Cynicism” is a bit weak to describe this scenario.

    If this generation fails to act on climate change, our descendants have every reason to deface our graves. As you wrote: If we are not willing to do it now when we still have some excess energy for “discretionary spending”, how are we going to do it when every reallocation might have to trade live for live across generations?

    I wonder how many years before the end people on the Easter Islands “did the math”, and decided to cut a few more trees before their neighbor beat them to it. When it comes to self-interest, there are the enlightened, and then there are the merely lit.

  25. Thanks for the numbers and link regarding coal reserves. I note that Muller, in his book Physics for Future Presidents (page 89), claims differently. He puts U.S. coal reserves at 2000 GT and claims there may be another 2000 GT waiting to be discovered. Thus, he claims that Fischer-Tropsch can completely solve the liquid fuels shortage for several centuries into the future. But he doesn’t cite his sources.

    Meanwhile, it looks like you’re being a little too “pessimistic” in your interpretation of the Brandt-Farrell graph. If you measure carefully, the unused “reliable resources” add up to about 4.7 trillion barrels, not 3 trillion as you say. And if we add in half of the “speculative holdings”, that’s another 7 trillion barrels. So the projected date of peak liquid fossil fuels could be a few more decades away than you suggest–if we can develop the infrastructure for GTL and CTL.

    Anyone who cares about global warming should, of course, be terrified.

    • Thanks for catching that. I had measured approximately tree trillion barrels of non-oil alternatives and by the time I wrote it up, I forgot to add the oil back in. FWIW, I get 4.6 total, 3.4 from the alternatives—so we’re not actually that different. I’ll modify the text when I get a chance…

      Update: On Sat. morning (PST) I revised the paragraph on timescales after the hydrocarbon plot to do a more careful job.

      • Good–though the time scales are even longer if we add in some of the “speculative holdings”, which can probably offset, say, other uses for gas and coal.

        The lesson I’m getting here is that in the next two or three decades (and maybe sooner) there’s a high probability of a serious liquid fuels shortage and consequent global economic disruption. But the most likely result of that shortage will be a massive effort toward GTL and/or CTL refining, plus a lesser shift toward electric vehicles powered by coal-generated electricity. Any large-scale shift to truly alternative energy won’t begin for at least half a century.

        • That may be the way things play out—I am hesitant to predict. Several important points:

          1) In Bob Hirsch’s recent book (Impending World Energy Mess), a timeline is laid out for how quickly these resources could be ramped up. The result is that waiting until a decline starts will leave us well short of today’s liquid fuels levels, and may not even be able to hold steady, depending on the decline rate of conventional oil.

          2) Even a flat allocation of liquid fuels must be interpreted in the context of growing usage in China and India, so it looks like a decline to the western powers.

          2) The cessation of growth will have reverberating global economic repercussions, one of which will be lack of stability and certainty needed to implement costly new infrastructure. In other words, super-recession will puncture demand, resulting in price crashes and associated volatility that make it harder to convince investors that now is the time to plunk money into expensive CTL/GTL plants. Some will surely proceed, but perhaps not at the scale needed to keep pace with the conventional resource decline.

  26. Tom, I read in the latest Economist, 18-24 Feb (Roll on the barell), that cumulative decommissioning costs for the British North Sea Oil are expected to hit 30 billion pounds at 2040. That is bad, really bad. Are decommissioning energy “costs” included in EROEI calculations normally (for fossil, for nuclear etc)? It seems to me that The Energy Trap is even a bigger Trap if we take those costs into account. Of course, in the end we don’t have to decommission these things, they can just be there as the pyramids or the great wall. But, at least for nuclear, leaving them is very risky…..


      That’s cumlative, total, not per year. 30 billion pounds. There’s 14 billion barrels to be recovered, low end, for 1000 billion pounds value at current prices. Spending 3% on decommissioning — not counting the past value extracted, which would lower the %age — sounds pretty reasonable.

      • True, it does. However, one can wonder how those costs will vary with the status of the economy – and the price of energy – at the time of decommissioning. If we indeed come into an Energy squeeze (or Trap), then the overall cost level will be driven upwards and it will be proportionally more costly to decommission the things.

        • North Sea decommissioning is exactly one of those innumerable items that grant an energy decline slack, not more pain, as it can be postponed with no drag on the economy. In the case of a squeeze brought on by a decline, energy for such things as decommissioning could be diverted to building solar, wind, whatever, see the last 20 articles :-). Later, once the curve reverses a postponed decommissioning can be revisited.

  27. Tom,

    I love your articles but I think we’re coming to the conclusion that continuing ‘business as usual’ is not feasible in the long term. Thoughts then turn to how we adapt…

    Upmost in my mind is Electric Bikes. Search the web and you’ll find countless examples of people getting > 500 mpg(e) or more. Given that most daily distances of travel (particularly in Europe) are < 50 miles, electric bikes seem like a sure solution – and China has been making millions of them recently, so clearly they're scalable.

    How about crunching the numbers on the lithium and energy resources required to create a few billion lithium battery packs if most people were to ditch their car for an e-bike – and compare this with the fuel savings of people moving away from ICE powered vehicles. Is such a wholesale migration feasible?
    (Furthermore, you could assume that many existing bikes could be retrofitted with an e-bike kit so we're just talking about the kit costs.)

    Really enjoy the site though – thanks for all your work.


  28. >>>estimates a refinery cost pushing $1B, yielding 10,000 bpd production. For scale, a 3% per year conventional oil decline would leave the U.S. short by 600,000 barrels per day, requiring 60 such new plants to be built every year to plug the gap… It’s a big deal>>>

    If the plant lasts twenty years, including finance that works out to $20 or $30 per barrel of liquid on top of coal costs. That seems affordable even without expecting the typical 20% cost reduction per doubling of production. For comparison of capital investment I see the *world* oil and gas industry now expends some $600B/year of capital.[1] I do object to the environmental hazards posed by surface coal mining and waste disposal, if CTL must be done at the surface and not in situ (which may well be possible). But CTL production costs? I don’t see the problem.


  29. One thing I am hoping to see, I don’t know if this is something on Tom’s radar, is how feasible carbon capture and storage will be. Based on my limited research, this seems unlikely. Firstly, there is the problem that you can’t capture and store emissions from millions of individual tailpipes. In the case of liquid fuel “production”, if we were still using good sources with EROEI’s of 100:1 then we wouldn’t need CCS anyways because almost all the carbon would come out the tailpipes and be unrecoverable. But with the poor quality sources like oil sands the extra carbon emitted during extraction and processing is significant. But that’s the catch 22 problem — those liquid fuel sources already have very poor EROEI’s (I calculate 3:1, others 5:1) — that’s why they emit so much carbon. And from what I can find, CCS eats up a lot of energy, don’t take this too literally but I seem to recall reading up to 30% (I’ll confirm next week). So what would that drop the new EROEI to? 2 to 1?

    For electricity generation from coal it may have some usefulness but then it becomes an issue of geology. I think this CCS may be just another diversion.

    • In the alternative energy world, assuming we get there, you would mainly need carbon capture for two reasons: Liquid Fuels and Atmospheric Cleanup.

      In the first scenario, assuming that not only could we change all of our electricity needs to some form of alternative energy, but could scale it to provide us a surplus, then we could generate liquid fuels for either the specific areas where electricity is not feasible to use and/or to provide long storage storage if our new energy sources has indeterminacy issues.

      In the second, we use it as a means to draw CO2 out of the air and fix it back into the ground in some form. Ideally of course, fixing it into a fuel we could then use at some later point if required.

      The first one isn’t so much an engineering problem in my mind (we know we can generate liquid fuels from electricity, its having enough juice to do it) but an economic one. Could liquid fuels still be economically justified with such a scenario?

      The second one is a question of governmental will. Companies are not likely to run capture facilities for profit, it will likely never be a profitable model. So governments will have to enforce atmospheric cleanup

  30. The problem seems to be the vicious cycle of diminishing returns. Higher energy costs cause food and finished goods prices to rise, reducing demand. Reduced demand results in less investment. Out sourced jobs reduce purchasing power and drive housing prices down. When the energy cost to travel to a low pay service job exceeds the renumeration this produces another unemployed person, yet populations continue to grow.

    EROI seems a critical measure but I wonder how many of the costs are really accounted for. Obviously climate change effects are not, what about the energy and materials cost of all the machinery involved, the workers housing, transportation and education, the executive jets, the pollution/medical costs, etc?

    The answer might be to rearrange our living arrangements for greater efficiency, build out large scale fusion receptors (with good-enough solar panels) and scale down from a 2 ton SUV to a 200lb electric bike – but my sense is that most Americans would find this so unacceptable that they will choose to go to war first.

  31. I’m not sure we can shrug of liquid fuels so quickly. They are just too good. They are extremely safe considering their (excellent) energy density, and are stable enough to sit happily in simple metal/plastic containers in any environmental conditions you are likely to encounter. The technology required to use them is simple, robust, and again very safe.

    In a way, we have been fortunate with oil. Imagine if the only readily available liquid fuel was some kid of hydrazine derivative. Sure, it has great energy density, but its not exactly fun to handle. Look up the MSDS for hydrazine and mentally try to construct what a hydrazine gas station would have to be like.

    It seems to me we can probably do better than the Nazis when it comes to creating liquid fuels from other sources of energy. Carbon compounds (including carbon dioxide) and water are readily available, and any form of energy can in principle extract the wanted elements and combine them into a fuel. As I said, the utility of these fuels means that its probably worth paying quite a bit of attention to this problem, and then focusing on the more fundamental problem of energy sources once we have disengaged our energy storage method of choice from the source.

    Or you could try this:

    • Oil is indeed fantastically convenient. I do believe that we would not have advanced so quickly without it. On the flip side, oil’s head-and-shoulders outperformance of alternatives also makes us vulnerable—by building out a society dependent on its convenience.

      Reversing the combustion reaction, so that H2O + CO2 + energy → fuel + O2 would be a marvelous feat, but entropy/enthalpy stand in the way, so that we need to find suitable catalysts to pull it off. People are searching hard, but no one has yet found a route that is simultaneously cheap, efficient, and robust. We can’t do it right now, though it is certainly a dream worth pursuing.

      • So what are the actual options at the moment? I’m pretty sure we *can* do “artificial photosynthesis” the hard way, concentrating CO2 and forcing it back into hydrocarbons, so what would the cost be? (Experiments in the style of Miller-Urey show that electric discharges + CO2 + water = organic compounds). $100/barrel? $1000? Or, what’s the energy efficiency? 100 Joules of input make how many joules of oil? 33, 10, 1%?

      • You can produce H2 using the S-I process, with process heat from CSP or Gen-IV nuclear.
        The reverse water-gas shift reaction is catalyzed at high temperature by a variety of transition metals.
        Again, the heat can come from CSP or nuclear, and the CO2 most readily from lime kilning for cement, post-fossil fuels.
        Then, adding more hydrogen produces syngas for Fischer-Tropsch or Mobil synthesis of liquid fuels.
        So if you have sufficient process heat (or electricity) and water, and still make concrete, you have the energy and ingredients for replacing oil in air and long-haul transport. (Concrete production is the right order of magnitude, and also slowly reabsorbs CO2 as it weathers, making the overall cycle carbon neutral). If solar or U238/Pu239 or Th232/U233 or D-T or p-B11 (etc.) can provide sustainable energy at reasonable price/EROEI, then liquid synfuels should follow.

        • Not in practice. Methanol-to-gasoline and Fischer-Tropsch have both been worked out at large scale.

          Murphy talks of catalysis as a difficulty, but several-step sequences, e.g.

          2 H2O —> 2 H2 + O2
          3 H2 + CO2 —> CH3OH + H2O
          n CH3OH —> CnH2n + n H2O,

          we know well how to catalyse each step. Is he, perhaps, thinking one-step catalysis is a thing of beauty, and multiple stepwise catalysis is a cheap and common spectacle?

          • Why bother with the last step? Methanol is an acceptable fuel for many applications is it not?

            It strikes me this might be useful as a sort of ‘carbon battery’ to smooth out intermittent power sources – creating methanol for storage when there is surplus power and burning it when there is a power deficit. Especially as recovering the CO2 and H2O from burning the methanol is probably a more efficient way to feed into the first two reactions than harvesting them from the environment.

            I wonder how this would compare with other forms of energy storage?

        • Maybe, though you can convert between them, and I suspect the hard parts are the carbon fixation and electrolysis, not what you make in the end.

  32. Tom, you do a fantastic job providing us with these energy analyses.

    I think you should stick to the energy / resources ins and outs, as you do so well, but it is worth readers also noting that industrial production of energy resources has to happen in an economic framework. Money speaks. It appears from a number of well researched posts of late that the cost of energy production in coming decades will escalate quite dramatically, because there anything that’s going to be as energy dense and cheap as oil is. And this will have major ramifications on the ability of our economies to remain buoyant.

    In a sense, although the maths of energy production are critically important, so is the economic climate in which any such production has to operate within. It appears to be the case that around $100 per barrel is like a tipping point for an industrial economy.

  33. Two comments (I am sorry if they have already been covered – I am still reading this excellent series) but I wonder if you have looked at:

    1. The total rare earth supply for mobile battery applications?
    2. The importance of petroleum as a lubricant – there being no ready substitute?

  34. It seems imprudent to dismiss fossil fuel alternatives based upon a study published 7 years ago.

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