Once upon a time when we talked about oil, the presumption was we were talking about crude oil (or perhaps crude oil plus condensate if you were a petroleum wonk). Nowadays, when BP, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) or the International Energy Agency (IEA) publish their flagship yearly reports (see here, here and here) the lead-in charts highlight ‘All Liquids’ (click for larger image).
I’ve taken the numbers below from Table 3.4 in the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2012 (click for larger image). Apologies for the lack of a link since the report needs to be ordered and is not freely available on the web.
As can easily be seen, traditional conventional crude oil is making up an ever smaller share of total liquids in percentage terms, falling from 88.8% in 1990 to 63.1% in 2035 under the IEA’s Current Policies scenario (basically business as usual).
This would be irrelevant if all liquids are perfectly substitutable amongst themselves; i.e., they are fungible. Unfortunately, they are not. The EIA released a great graphic yesterday showing two key determinants of fungibility (there are others): energy content per unit volume and energy content per unit weight here (click for larger image):
On Wednesday I attended a Cafe Scientifique talk in my home town of Henley. The presentation was on peak oil theory and given by Professor Chris Rhodes (who blogs at Energy Balance).
While the talk was of interest itself, what jumped out at me the most was one of the questions within the Q&A session. It went along the lines:
We have seen forecasts of future resource scarcity before, but in reality technology and the market have shown such forecasts to have been ridiculous. Didn’t the Club of Rome predict that the oil would run out 50 years ago?
At the mention of the Club of Rome, there was a general nodding of heads and murmur of approval.
At this point, I need to give a bit of an explanation of what Cafe Scientifique does and the kind of people attending (for those unfamiliar with the organisation). Its aim is to foster debate on the scientific and technological issues of the day within a non-academic context. Cafe Scientifique, and its sister organisation Skeptics in the Pub, attract a certain kind of person: highly educated, numerate and questioning. Many of them view themselves as “skeptics” (or “sceptics” if you like) in the original sense of the word (before the rise of the “climate skeptic”); that is, individuals who will not accept a proposition as a fact until it is subject to analytically robust evidence-based testing. Accordingly, I believe that few in the room didn’t have a science or numerate-based degree, and many had advanced degrees.
With this is mind, the statement within the Q&A session that the Club of Rome had predicted the world would soon run out of oil and other resources appeared to be taken as a fact by all those highly educated and very “skeptical” people. Except, of course, it isn’t a fact—it is pure fiction. Continue reading