Sunday, November 26, 2006

Peak Oil at West Point

This post is a slightly annotated summary of a poster presentation (Army Energy Strategy for the End of Cheap Oil) at the 25th Army Science Conference, Orlando, Florida, November 27-30, 2006, by three scholars of the US Military Academy at West Point.

The authors are Colonel Kip P. Nygren, head of Department of Civil & Mechanical Engineering, Lit. Colonel Darrell D. Massie, assoc. professor in the same department, and Paul J. Kern, a retired four star general. Note that Kern was commanding general of US Army Material Command.

As far as I know, this is the first article (written by the US military officers) that has “end of cheap oil” in the title. I write heavily on oil and military here but that article deserves a special treatment. I will tell you why at the end.

Since military and civilian aspects are handled together in the original article, I separated them and almost completely reshuffled for an easy reading. I discuss the military part in End of Cheap Oil and Military.

End of Cheap Oil

“The era of cheap, available oil is coming rapidly to an end,” argue the authors. “We are either at or very near the era when the demand for oil will outstrip the ability of the earth to supply the needs of the global society,” driving the price of liquid fuels to rise steeply over the next decade.

“Without ready alternatives to replace ever more costly and scarce oil, we are entering an age of uncertainty and insecurity unlike any other that could include economic stagnation or even reversal.”

They define the subject very well: the production peak of global oil. And warn that it “does not mean that all oil wells will run dry. Oil will still be plentiful after the peak. In fact, about one-half the total recoverable oil buried in the earth will still be in the ground waiting to be extracted. The problem will be that production will no longer be able to keep pace with the exponential demand for oil, and that is a situation which society has never before had to confront” [emphasis in original].

Meanwhile, to observe that global oil discoveries which peaked in 1960s have not kept pace with the consumption since 1980 is “another way to understand oil peaking.” As this situation continues we approach the peak with wide fluctuations in the price of oil.

They point out the Oil Shockwave simulation in which a supply decrease of only 4% resulted in a price increase of 177%. They argue that “we may be seeing the beginning of this phenomenon over the past year.”

What would be the response? “An obvious response to a decreasing production of cheap oil for transportation is to move to other fossil fuels and to non-conventional oil sources, such as tar sands and shale oil, and an abundance of oil exists in these sources, it is just not cheap oil.” [emphasis added]

But they correctly warn that “The extraction of oil from these sources requires a significant input of energy, so the net energy obtained in considerably less than that of crude oil pumped directly from the ground.” [emphasis added]

High oil prices will make non-conventional oil competitive, but “it is uncertain whether this production rate will be able to keep pace with even a reduced demand without a major transformation in our energy sources for transportation.”

Implications? They list “economic recession and decreased quality of life especially in developing countries,” and “political unrest as the quality of life is diminished” as significant potential consequences resulting from inadequate oil supply and rising prices. Moreover, “difficult societal and cultural changes that occur as priorities are reordered will further exacerbate a growing dissatisfaction with government.”

Options? They see four broad options for coping with the high cost of energy for transportation.

Conservation: by using energy more efficiently.

Life-Style Change: by living close to one’s job location, by telecommuting and teleconferencing will become the generally accepted means of locating your residence and doing business.

Substitution: by using solar heating, wind turbine as well as alternative fuels for transportation, such as “intermediate substitution (biofules) and eventual substitution (hydrogen).” Renewable energy sources as important contributors to an overall strategy for energy production are also mentioned.

Deprivation – some things we may just have to do without: such as no air-conditioning in the summer, no second car.

Besides those, Hubbert and peak projections are also discussed in the article, which quotes Hirsch, Heinberg, and Deffeyes.


In its attack to Peak Oil, the recent CERA report came to the conclusion that “It is no longer sensible to allow the issues about future supplies to be clouded in a debate grounded in a flawed technical argument,” was the CERA report concludes. Referring to Peak Oil, the report added, it “is based on faulty analysis which could, if accepted, distort critical policy and investment decisions and cloud the debate over the energy future.”

Further, Robert W. Esser, a director of CERA claimed "Peak Oil theory is garbage as far as we're concerned."

Peak oil is garbage for CERA, but not for some high ranked West Point officals.

Unlike CERA, they understand what they are talking about - Peak Oil, its implications, options, EROEI, as well as the distinction between Peak Oil and running out of oil.

Peak Oil is like relativity. As Einstein said it “teaches us the connection between the different descriptions of one and the same reality."


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