What is the most rational view of Peak Oil and its near term consequences?

post by DavidPlumpton · 2011-09-04T01:51:04.248Z · score: 0 (16 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 61 comments

To me the following points seem hard to argue against:

 

  1. Oil is harder and harder to find every year (we already took the easy stuff, nobody finds super-giant fields anymore)
  2. The peak production year was 2005 with 73.7 million barrels produced
  3. The amount of oil produced each year is declining
  4. The price of oil (and therefore energy) rises
  5. All the alternatives that were supposed to fill the gap are failing to deliver
  6. Even oil that's harder to get (e.g. in deep water) doesn't help much as it is generally produced at a slow rate
  7. Available energy production rate (i.e. power) drops
  8. Since nearly everything needs power to create/mine/produce prices rise
  9. Food for example becomes more expensive as fertilizer prices rise
  10. The average person is mystified as the price of everything seems to rise at once
  11. Business and whole national economies are squeezed by rising prices
  12. As businesses fail unemployment increases
  13. Politicians are powerless, so promise general feel-good nonsense like "energy independence". Nobody even tries to tackle the problem.
  14. Everything continues to get worse, and at an increasing rate
  15. Within the near future the lights start to go out.
Sure there's a possibility that a form of nuclear fusion/thorium/cold fusion/zero point energy that is safe and cheap to build and operate might be invented tomorrow, but given that such things usually take a decade or so from inception to delivery it looks like there's no practical alternative on the horizon. Thermodynamics is a harsh mistress. Work out the energy in 73 million barrels of oil, and figure out how many wind farms are needed to offset a 5% decline. And then another decline the next year. Even uranium prices are rising as demand outstrips supply for just the current set of reactors.
The more we examing the situation the worse it seems to be. Some early wells had a enormous energy return on investment, e.g. for the energy of burning one barrel of oil we could pump 100 barrels from the ground. Now we are pumping wells that produce only about 5 barrels. This is known as EROEI (energy return on energy investment). EROEI is falling everywhere as all the low hanging fruit was plucking decades before, and only the difficult stuff is left. The net result is that it is ever harder to increase production rates.
Civilization runs on the constant supply of power. If that power declines 5% every year we are back to the middle ages before very long, and it's hard to develop a Friendly AI on an abacus.
One thing I've noticed a lot is reports about "Oil Sands", "Oil Shale", "Vast new possibilities of X barrels from biodiesel/microbes/algae/thermal depolymerization" etc. and none of these reports *ever* mention the *rate* of production that is expected (and years later they seem to have delivered nothing). The production rate is far more important than anything else; if the entire Earth was made of oil but we could only pump a million barrels a year for technical reasons then the total amount is pointless.
Please read at least the  Peak Oil Wikipedia article  before commenting. I'd rather not see a bunch of comments about "they don't even look for oil when there's 30 years of supply waiting in the ground".
So... what are my cognitive biases?

61 comments

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comment by christina · 2011-09-04T04:37:39.157Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

You do a fairly good job of presenting a rational argument here, but you do have some arguments that seem firmly rooted in your emotional response, rather than an attempt to explore the facts.

Your especially rational points are 1-4. This is irrespective of whether they are right or wrong--we have some ability to factually verify or disprove these points. In order to explore your biases, you might want to start by linking to some articles supporting your statements and some refuting them and then discussing why you believe one over the other. Choose articles that avoid excessive strident language(when possible) and make numerous factual statements that can be independently verified. Then it might be easier for you and others to determine what parts of your beliefs are strongly biased.

For example(emphasis mine):

  1. Politicians are powerless, so promise general feel-good nonsense like "energy independence".Nobody even tries to tackle the problem.

This statement seems to be more about how you feel about the problem than a statement that can be independently verified. How easy is it to get people to agree what feel-good nonsense even is? Does it predominantly come from those personable people you disagree with? The connotation of this word is going to overshadow any denotation. And how would you evaluate if someone tried to tackle a problem, regardless of whether they succeeded? It's hard enough to get people to agree on facts--it's even harder to get them to agree on emotion-laden statements that are difficult or impossible to verify.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-09-04T02:53:41.775Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Oil is harder and harder to find every year (we already took the easy stuff, nobody finds super-giant fields anymore)

The stuff that was "the easy stuff" forty years ago and the stuff that is "the easy stuff" today are very different things. It is normal that, upon decrease in supply, research is invested into increasing the economically-effective supply. That's how we got steam-injection and CO2-injection into oil-wells, which is why the US still supplies 2/3rds of its own oil resources (as of 2007, at least), despite Hubbards Peak pegging our peak production in the early 1970's.

All the alternatives that were supposed to fill the gap are failing to deliver

Of course they are. Because they were all pipe-dreams. In the meantime we've had a viable 'alternative' -- such that at least one industrialized nation (South Africa) has been relying upon it for years: the Fischer-Tropsch process. It generates liquid hydrocarbons from coal at a rate which is economically feasible with sustained non-futures prices of oil at over ~$80/barrel, with coal at ~$20/ton. (Please note: this simply has not happened yet.)

Even oil that's harder to get (e.g. in deep water) doesn't help much as it is generally produced at a slow rate

Projection fallacy. As I mentioned above; the "harder to get" only stays "harder to get" until it becomes "easier to get". The fallacy here is in thinking that this is a fixed term rather than malleable based on technical prowess. I again mention steam-injection and the fact that it revitalized the Californian oil industry from essentially total death to viability.

The average person is mystified as the price of everything seems to rise at once

This is a "and then magic happens" statement. Please don't take past fears regarding food availability as viable indicators of the future. We already grow far more than enough food to feed the entire world... and there are plenty of techniques available to increase agricultural output that we just haven't implemented very much yet. Everything from genetically-engineered nitrogen-fixing plants/bacteria to terra preta.

Business and whole national economies are squeezed by rising prices

Increased prices result in increased ingenuity for discovering alternative means to the same ends. Fundamentally the 'function' of technology can be said to be the increase in the fungibility of a given resource. Back in the day we used whale blubber for a broad array of things. When the whales started getting scarce, we switched to coal and coal-gas. Then we switched to oil because it was a better hydrocarbon and we could get at it cheaply. (Though really, we still use coal for MOST of our energy needs. And the stuff we use oil for we could substitute coal for. Or even charred woody-plants 'torrefied lignocellulosic stocks' grown in agriculture.)

One thing I've noticed a lot is reports about "Oil Sands", "Oil Shale", "Vast new possibilities of X barrels from biodiesel/microbes/algae/thermal depolymerization" etc. and none of these reports ever mention the rate of production that is expected (and years later they seem to have delivered nothing).

"seem" is the key term here. North Dakota is enjoying an oil-boom due to active extraction of shale-oil. Biodiesel in its various forms is not a viable hydrocarbon resource today, although there is at least one commercial plant selling to the US Military (at absurd costs.)

Civilization runs on the constant supply of power. If that power declines 5% every year we are back to the middle ages before very long, and it's hard to develop a Friendly AI on an abacus.

If, sure. But it's just not going to happen.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2011-09-04T07:13:55.651Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

the Fischer-Tropsch process. It generates liquid hydrocarbons from coal at a rate which is economically feasible with sustained non-futures prices of oil at over ~$80/barrel, with coal at ~$20/ton.

Where do you get those numbers?

Traditional plants are 10% efficient. The Chinese plant is 20% efficient. The numbers I've seen suggest that the operating costs aren't much more than materials. A ton is about 6 barrels, so if coal/ton is about the same as oil/barrel, the Chinese plant is profitable. Indeed, those prices have been the same for the past ten years. However, the capital expense was about $1000 per annual ton of capacity, which is an awful lot to pay off. At the prices you mentioned, there's $60 of annual profit. I guess this matches your claim of long-term viability, though I haven't taken into account the years of delay in the construction.

A traditional plant would never have been profitable, even in 2007 when coal was $40/ton and oil $60/bbl. I think its capital expense is about $200 per annual ton of capacity, a much smaller risk. If prices ever did touch those you mention, you could use the highly liquid futures market to buy coal and sell oil 5 to 10 years in the future, spend 5 years building the plant and make a profit. So I think your "sustained non-futures prices" disclaimer is not necessary.

Coal liquefaction only makes sense if the price of oil/coal rises. But it hasn't changed much in the past decade. So rising prices are not special to oil and thus do not indicate peak oil.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-09-04T23:08:02.150Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Where do you get those numbers?

Previous research on the topic. I don't know where you're getting that 10%/20% "efficient" thing from; F-T conversion of coal into liquid hydrocarbons requires roughly 4x the amount of hydrogen that coal has. That's the reason why CO2 output is so high for F-T process, unless you somehow include large quantities of external hydrogen to the mix, which would bring down the costs of the product significantly (assuming a sufficiently cheap source of hydrogen.)

A traditional plant would never have been profitable, even in 2007 when coal was $40/ton and oil $60/bbl.

"even" ? Sir, you just suggested a patently abysmal set of circumstances for the viability of coal to oil conversion via F-T process. With coal at $40/ton, oil would need to be almost 3x the price you listed before F-T would be economically viable.

So I think your "sustained non-futures prices" disclaimer is not necessary.

It's entirely necessary because we're talking about current deliverables. F-T 'oil' products would also have to face a futures market as well, as their output would be fungible to oil. The futures market, furthermore, is extremely volatile whereas the fixed deliverable isn't nearly so much so.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-09-04T03:11:52.999Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Some of these seem like valid criticisms others less so.

Projection fallacy. As I mentioned above; the "harder to get" only stays "harder to get" until it becomes "easier to get". The fallacy here is in thinking that this is a fixed term rather than malleable based on technical prowess. I again mention steam-injection and the fact that it revitalized the Californian oil industry from essentially total death to viability.

First a nitpick. That's not generally what the term projection fallacy means although your meaning is clear. But there's a fundamental problem with this: even as the technology does get more expensive, the total amount of oil does go down, and the harder to extract oil does cost more than the nice easy oil. Moreover, the argument that you are making that this is an overly naive projection of what will happen doesn't seem to be accurate. If one looks at a graph of world oil production one can see the general rough pattern. Since the last 40 years have included technological improvements that projection allows us to make guess about what technology will do. We have no reason to expect that the technology will suddenly become much better. Similarly, inflation adjusted price of oil has gone up over time.

Your point about the long-term use of coal substitutes seems to be a valid one which should for some time help deal with some but not all of the energy problems. Coal does have its own problems. (deaths from mining, environmental damage from mining and release of obnoxious radioactives are all issues). Moreover, coal prices have also been going up faster than inflation.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-09-04T03:46:17.431Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

First a nitpick. That's not generally what the term projection fallacy means although your meaning is clear.

How not? I'm stating that he's assuming that the people of tomorrow/yesterday shared his same beliefs as to what "easily accessible" or "hard to reach" meant in the arena of oil production. In other words; he was saying that "hard to access" is a fixed point rather than simply being his current belief.

But there's a fundamental problem with this: even as the technology does get more expensive, the total amount of oil does go down,

No, that's not a fundamental problem. I wasn't pretending that my statement somehow abrogated the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. When people talk about "Peak Oil" what they're talking about is a catastrophic scenario where the production of oil-related energy reaches a crescendo and declines at exactly or analogously similar rate to which it ramped up. THAT, and nothing else, is "Peak Oil".

Similarly, inflation adjusted price of oil has gone up over time.

Certainly, but that's just not a criticism of my position.

Coal does have its own problems.

Certainly. But those aren't problems, mainly, related to existential risks to civilization related to energy supply, so much as they are to moral quandaries related to specific choices of energy production.

Moreover, coal prices have also been going up faster than inflation.

I'm sure. Coal has stayed extremely cheap comparatively speaking. But it's also in a similar -- if far longer-term -- situation as oil; there's a fixed amount of it and we're getting better at harvesting it, so the supply will inevitably dwindle. That's why, furthermore, I mentioned torrefied lignocellulosics. With just a bit of tweaking and expertise, switchgrass can be grown at (potentially) as little as $15/ton. That, after torrefaction, makes it ball-parkish to coal.

Another viable criticism, by the way, of the F-T process is its environmental impact due to CO2 offgassing. (F-T has a large CO2 footprint).

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-09-04T13:56:21.986Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm stating that he's assuming that the people of tomorrow/yesterday shared his same beliefs as to what "easily accessible" or "hard to reach" meant in the arena of oil production. In other words; he was saying that "hard to access" is a fixed point rather than simply being his current belief.

Oh. I see I misinterpreted what you meant since I interpreted what he was saying differently. It seemed like you were talking about projection growth and difficulty into the future, and it seemed to me that he was talking about the difficulty of obtaining oil comparatively (that is some oil is more difficult to extract than other oil and even with research that will still be true, it is just then less difficult.)

When people talk about "Peak Oil" what they're talking about is a catastrophic scenario where the production of oil-related energy reaches a crescendo and declines at exactly or analogously similar rate to which it ramped up. THAT, and nothing else, is "Peak Oil".

Arguing over definitions is not useful. Maybe distinguish between two distinct notions of Peak Oil, Peak Oil(1), in which there will be a peak and then a rapid decline and Peak Oil(2) which makes no strong claim about the decline rate? Note that from an economic growth standpoint definition 2 might still be a cause for worry even if one doesn't think that there will be a definition 1 type of issue

But those aren't problems, mainly, related to existential risks to civilization related to energy supply, so much as they are to moral quandaries related to specific choices of energy production.

I would see them more as economic rather than moral concerns but I agree that they don't substantially impact existential risk.

Another viable criticism, by the way, of the F-T process is its environmental impact due to CO2 offgassing. (F-T has a large CO2 footprint)

Yes, but my impression is that it should allow for comparatively easy carbon sequestration although not much direct research has been done on this matter. So I'm not sure that this is too much of a concern.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-09-04T23:13:19.128Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Arguing over definitions is not useful.

Arguing over definitions is foundationally necessary to discourse. If we cannot agree on what terms mean, communication is impossible.

Maybe distinguish between two distinct notions of Peak Oil,

When you capitalize Peak Oil you are invoking the body of rhetoric, lore, and history associated with the term. That term has a specific meaning, which invokes a catastrophic economic failure scenario derived from discussions of Hubbard's Peak.

Note that from an economic growth standpoint definition 2 might still be a cause for worry even if one doesn't think that there will be a definition 1 type of issue

Hardly. Economic growth under sufficiently stable conditions is inevitable. Furthermore; that oil production will decline over time is inevitable. The only question is whether it will do so sharply and in a vacuum of other solutions, or if it will do so as a part of a pattern of transition to other avenues of energy production once it ceases to be the most viable source of energy production (which, honestly, it isn't even that; coal is. Which is why we burn coal for electricity and not oil, but I digress.) The answer to that question is unequivocably that there won't be a catastrophe.

So "Peak Oil" is nonsense. That oil will peak and production will fall is insufficient to proclaiming "Peak Oil".

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-09-04T23:51:02.924Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Arguing over definitions is foundationally necessary to discourse. If we cannot agree on what terms mean, communication is impossible.

Agreeing on definitions is foundationally necessary. Arguing over them is almost always avoidable.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-09-05T00:42:43.500Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It is impossible to reach agreement on definitions without first arguing on them.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-09-05T00:47:05.338Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

No definition is intrinsically correct. When in doubt (either from vagueness of a definition, connotation v. denotation issues, or others) it is helpful to use either multiple numbered definitions or to simply taboo the term wholesale. Arguing over definitions is not helpful.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-09-05T01:00:49.384Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

... those items you're talking about ARE the process of arguing over definitions. Or, at least, one variation of the process. It's not even the most productive. You cannot get out of the point that arguing over definitions is foundationally necessary to discourse simply by proclaiming "arguing over definitions is not helpful" -- no matter how many times you iterate it, it just isn't truthful.

Especially since definitions themselves do not progress over time without such argumentation.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-09-05T05:20:57.577Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It seems that this is an argument about the definition of "argument", and hence it is unnecessary ;).

comment by Logos01 · 2011-09-05T11:25:18.475Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It seems that this is an argument about the definition of "argument", and hence it is unnecessary ;).

It saddens me that it took someone other than JoshuaZ to point out what I was doing.

comment by DavidPlumpton · 2011-09-04T04:34:56.212Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I can see that I'm not convincing you, but I find your counterpoints very unconvincing. Where is any plant in the world today (or even in the near future) turning out significant amounts of energy from an "alternate" source? It's just not happening in significant amounts.

Starvation rates in the third world rose significantly following food price rises in 2007-2008. It's not something that won't happen; it's already happening.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-09-04T04:42:43.141Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It's just not happening in significant amounts.

Of course not. People do not typically engage in business practices that would be economically ruinous to attempt. That being said -- a single F-T plant operated by the South African company Sasol currently has a production capacity of 150,000 barrels per day. If that's not a "significant amount" for an otherwise non-economically-competitive energy production process... I just don't know what is.

Starvation rates in the third world rose significantly following food price rises in 2007-2008. It's not something that won't happen; it's already happening.

Ironically those actually came about from the corn-ethanol push. Dropping that ended the food riots in most of the world. Furthermore, global hunger is really more of a political problem than a supply one. Which is part of at least one Kenyan economist has become internationally famous for saying of foreign aid to Africa, "for God's sake, just stop."

I can see that I'm not convincing you, but I find your counterpoints very unconvincing.

I can only suggest that one or the other of us is currently suffering from a problem of allowing his convictions to bias him against the reception of new facts that contradict our current position.

comment by christina · 2011-09-04T05:38:31.730Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted since you put forth a pretty good argument for your case here, although I would prefer more citations. I still disagree that this post supports your other post or vice versa.

comment by billswift · 2011-09-04T11:34:54.672Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not really in favor of citations (unless it is a direct quote) in blog comments - a clear, well-reasoned argument is better and most peoples attention and interest is limited and therefore so is the length of post they are likely to read in the first place. If a comment piques your interest, or simply your curiosity, Google Scholar can provide support (or disproof) readily and to a much greater, and especially more broad ranging, extent than is possible in a comment.

ADDED: Thinking about this comment, I realized I could be taken as arguing against citations in general which wasn't what I intended. I just don't think requests for citations by replying commenters is worthwhile.

comment by christina · 2011-09-04T18:18:36.449Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Fair enough. However, your preferences may simply be different than mine. I highly appreciate it when a person takes the effort to provide links to some of their sources for various facts, which don't necessarily have to be from Google Scholar (although that can be a plus). Obviously there is a limited amount of evidence than can be included in a comment, and most comments are not going to be able to provide enough evidence to exhaustively prove their claim. But to me some is better than none (where applicable--some responses don't lend themselves to citations, but I felt the one I replied to did). Also, I feel the link is the most important part of the citation, although it's sometimes better if the post takes the time to give it sufficient context so I know what parts of, say, a 30 page document are being used to support an argument.

The purpose of my comment wasn't only or primarily to request citations, but primarily to give my impressions of what I thought was good and what could be improved. Admittedly it is a bit short, and could probably convey the info about what I liked in greater specifics.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-09-04T02:56:10.566Z · score: -1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Posted as a sub-comment for brevity-of-discourse:

What is the most rational view of Peak Oil and its near term consequences?

That it's fear-mongering, being exploited by an array of political and social agencies with sometimes conflicting agendas in order to exploit the 'risability' of the common person to fear in order to achieve their various goals through persuading the population.

comment by christina · 2011-09-04T03:55:44.328Z · score: 10 (14 votes) · LW · GW

Downvoted as I disagree that this answer is the most rational view, Logos, nor does this kind of response encourage rational discussion. This is irrespective of whether I agree or disagree with your argument that peak oil hasn't occurred. Your first response sought to refute the specific statements the article made, and in general you did a fairly good job of putting up a rational argument (once again irrespective of whether the refutations are correct or incorrect). When your arguments are factual, they can be verified or refuted.

On the other hand, when your arguments contain no specific information that can be verified or refuted, and instead contain words designed to maximize for emotional effect rather than informational value, they cannot be called rational. Please see below for the words here that I feel especially stand out in this regard(emphasis mine):

That it's fear-mongering, being exploited by an array of political and social agencies with sometimes conflicting agendas in order to exploit the 'risability' of the common person to fear in order to achieve their various goals through persuading the population.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-09-04T04:25:43.630Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I reject and abjure the notion that topics of emotion are somehow irrational simply because the topic itself is emotional. If a person stands before me, raising his voice, using harsh language, displaying aggressive body language and conducting himself hostilely, it is rational to say, "This man is angry." The mere use of emotionally-charged terminology does not inherently relegate a statement irrational. Their context does that. I posted my 'answer' to the question not as a top-post but as a 'response' to my own as an indicator that it was contingent upon my top-level post.

I stand by my assertion that my statement regarding the use of 'catastrophic' Peak Oil is nothing more than fear-mongering, is itself a factual statement.

Had I made that statement 'ex nihilo' -- that is, as a top-level post and not as what amounts to a "too long; didn't read" version -- I would be more than happy to concede your position. As it stands, the statement that my arguments "contain no specific information that can be verified or refuted, and instead contain words designed to maximize for emotional effect rather than informational value", is one I cannot accept as valid. Please do not mistake the statement that something is an attempt to produce emotionally-charged irrational behavior for that statement itself being an attempt to produce emotionally-charged irrational behavior.

"Peak Oil" is fear-mongering. It is being exploited by an array of political and social agencies with sometimes conflicting agendas (and frankly your accusation of the term "agenda" of being emotionally charged I find to be without merit, by the way). And those various disparate and non-colluding groups are attempting to exploit the 'risability' of the so-called 'common person' to fear (i.e.; fear-mongering) in order to achieve their goals.

Fear-mongering and fear-driven politics is so common I find it rather surprising that it should be taken as a non-ordinary claim. Based on my top-level comment, which itself was in response to a question of a fearful nature regarding the topic, I can't see how it's even viable to call it 'unverified'.

At worst I could see a position calling my 'sub-comment' disrespectful, insulting, or condescending. It wasn't meant that way, but I could see that accusation being made and I would have to consider it seriously.

comment by christina · 2011-09-04T05:35:47.757Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I do not believe emotional comments are inherently irrational. As all of us experience emotion, almost any comment we make is emotional, in that it elicits certain emotions from both ourselves and others. However, not all emotional comments are rational. I still do not believe that your last comment on what to think of peak oil was rational ( I also disagree that the term agenda used in that context is not emotionally charged, but this topic may be more subjective than the other and is less central to my point, so I won't discuss it further here).

Your last comment about peak oil being fear-mongering is not supported by your previous statements. Your previous statements support peak oil not being true. Your last statement has nothing to do with this, as far as I'm concerned, and is considerably more complex to work out the truth or falsehood of. The idea of a political or social institution saying that peak oil is true because they wish to exploit common people for their own disparate agendas has nothing to do with whether or not peak oil is true. Consider:

  1. Peak oil is true and political and social institutions say that it is true, because they a.) believe it is true, b.) want to exploit other people, or c.) both.

  2. Peak oil is false and political and social institutions say that it is true, because they a.) believe it is true, b.) want to exploit other people, or c.) both.

I assume you are asserting 2b with your statement about fear-mongering, whereas your previous post put forth arguments that only support the statement in 2 that 'Peak oil is false'. I also feel that the connotation for fear-mongering used in such contexts is likely to produce either rapid agreement or disagreement.

My question is--which is more important to you, proving that peak oil is false, or proving what the motivations of various unrelated politicians and social organizations are? Do not mistake my criticism of your statement for a belief that fear is never used in politics. I just don't see how it at all helps your attempt to prove that peak oil is not true. See statements 1 and 2 above for my reasoning of why the first does not necessarily follow from the second. I think a more rational statement made after giving supporting arguments that peak oil is false would be something along the lines of 'don't worry about it and show others it is not true so they can devote their resources to solving things that are actually problems'.

EDIT: changed some erratic capitalizations and one 'denotation for fear-mongering' to 'connotation for fear-mongering' to more correctly express my meaning in that part.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-09-04T05:57:09.951Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This comment is fantastic.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-09-04T23:00:27.797Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Your last comment about Peak Oil being fear-mongering is not supported by your previous statements.

How not? I demonstrated that it isn't, in my view, a legitimate concern; that there exists at least one viable solution already being practically implemented. How can the topic -- which is expressed as a 'serious problem' -- remaining a concern for discussion possibly exist except through the agency of various groups attempting to drive up fear levels amongst the public in order to achieve their specific goals? ("specific goals" being synonymous with "agendas". You really need to get over that emotionally-charged thing for the word "agenda".)

I assume you are asserting 2b with your statement about fear-mongering,

Unfortunately that is an inacurrate assumption. I made no differentiation between whether the agencies' agendas were true or genuinely believed. Your view of the term "agenda" being emotionally charged necessarily resulted, I feel, in this being your stance though so I find myself too limited to the task of explaining my position to you.

I just don't see how it at all helps your attempt to prove that peak oil is not true.

It's not meant to. It was a conclusion/summary statement, not an argument towards a conclusion. Conclusions should never be used as arguments to support themselves.

My question is--which is more important to you, proving that peak oil is false, or proving what the motivations of various unrelated politicians and social organizations are?

I have no horse in the latter race. I have never implied I do. Why then do you insist I do?

comment by christina · 2011-09-19T23:38:24.898Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you for explaining your intent in more detail. However, the fact that I see a logical problem with your argument still exists. I will try to clarify the issue.

How can the topic -- which is expressed as a 'serious problem' -- remaining a concern for discussion possibly exist except through the agency of various groups attempting to drive up fear levels amongst the public in order to achieve their specific goals?

If people are concerned about something untrue, then this may very well be because various groups are attempting to drive up fear levels. It may also be because the various individuals involved looked at the incomplete and often ambiguous data available to them and came to the conclusion that it is true, regardless of whether or not that was the conclusion some group wanted them to come to, and regardless of whether or not any groups involved wanted to drive up fear levels, or create a sense of fatalism, or thought this news would somehow cheer people up. I think there really is a lot one could say about how humans act on their beliefs and why.

But that was not what your main arguments were discussing. Let me try to summarize what you have said so far:

  1. Giving various arguments supporting the idea that peak oil is false.
  2. Concluding with the idea that some people say peak oil is true for various specific motivations that you have clarified are irrelevant to you, but one of their motivations for saying it is true is to drive up fear levels.

It doesn't make sense to me to discuss people and their motivations (which you've said you don't care about) at the very end of talking about whether a certain state of the world is true. It would make sense to end with a conclusion distilling the essence of what you argued (eg. 'technology is already advanced enough to prevent this from being a problem' or 'we won't be running out of oil anytime soon'). It might also make sense to summarize the various points you argued. However, since you didn't talk about how peak oil being false causes people to say it is true, I think there is something missing here. Perhaps you want to discuss something about human nature as well, as it pertains to what people say or do, or what people believe. That is where I think the ending you gave might belong, not as a conclusion to arguments discussing whether or not peak oil is true.

If there is something you think I am missing here, I hope you will elaborate.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-09-20T05:21:40.478Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It may also be because the various individuals involved looked at the incomplete and often ambiguous data available to them and came to the conclusion that it is true,

The trouble with this position is that the falsification of the issue has been available since before it became an issue. A more-than-cursory examination reveals this -- as I have done. This means that there needs to be active suppression of this information to preserve the levels of fear we now see.

It doesn't make sense to me to discuss people and their motivations (which you've said you don't care about)

Ahh... no, I never said that. I said I didn't make any presumptions about what their motivations in specific were. That's not the same as saying that I "don't care" about them.

However, since you didn't talk about how peak oil being false causes people to say it is true, I think there is something missing here.

Someone has been raising the issue. I haven't made any presumptions about who or why -- only that it has been happening. I then described the act of raising a false fear as 'fearmongering'. They might not know they're doing it. They might honestly believe it.

That they honestly believe a false fear to be valid doesn't change the fact that they are promoting a false fear.

comment by christina · 2011-09-24T09:04:08.017Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There are several things I would like to address, taking into account the additional information you have now supplied.

The trouble with this position is that the falsification of the issue has been available since before it became an issue. A more-than-cursory examination reveals this I disagree with this statement,since I think determining the truth or falsehood of most statements tends to be rather more complicated than it might intuitively seem, but this is the type of statement that would be relevant to supporting your original conclusion.

there needs to be active suppression...

As opposed to something like confirmation bias? What specific kinds of actions does active suppression entail? Are you saying that this is the only possibility because you have evidence to dismiss all others, or because you intend this statement to refer to a large number of types of behavior that encompass all or most possible types of reactions?

It doesn't make sense to me to discuss people and their motivations (which you've said you don't care about)

Ahh... no, I never said that. I said I didn't make any presumptions about what their motivations in specific were. That's not the same as saying that I "don't care" about them.

Okay, after considering them some more, I agree that your statements don't indicate that you don't care about the motivations (apologies for the double negative).

In regards to presumptions of specific motivations, I have examined the statement in question:

That it's fear-mongering, being exploited by an array of political and social agencies with sometimes conflicting agendas in order to exploit the 'risability' of the common person to fear in order to achieve their various goals through persuading the population.

I observe that I interpret all of the 'in order to's here as 'with the intent of'. If you intended them to perhaps mean something more along the lines of merely 'with the effect of', then I will not interpret 'exploiting the risibility of the common person' as a statement about their specific motivations. Otherwise, even if this motivation is not a terminal motivation, it still seems to be a specific one.

However, since you didn't talk about how peak oil being false causes people to say it is true, I think there is something missing here.

Someone has been raising the issue. I haven't made any presumptions about who or why -- only that it has been happening. I then described the act of raising a false fear as 'fearmongering'. They might not know they're doing it. They might honestly believe it.

That they honestly believe a false fear to be valid doesn't change the fact that they are promoting a false fear.

This clarification of your original statement increases my estimate of it's probability of being true, but only by making it more generalized than I originally thought it was. Do you agree that the more possible outcomes a statement applies to, the fewer things its truthfulness can be used to predict? If I have three types of card in a shuffled deck: red, green, and blue, and I say the card on the top is red and I am right, is that more or less predictive than if I say the card on top is red or blue and I am right?

Even with the more general meaning you have applied to your statement, I still don't think after presenting evidence that X is false, One can conclude that people act in way Y whenever they state that X is true. The only conclusion that follows from giving evidence that X is false is that X is false. If you want to convince others that people act in way Y when they say that X is true, it is not directly relevant evidence to simply say that X is false (though this might be used to support a sub-argument if X being true corresponds to different behavior). Instead, discussion of the causes of people's mental states, and how their mental states affect their behavior, is necessary. Your conclusion does not directly follow from your original argument. This was, and still is, my largest objection to the conclusion you supplied.

comment by DavidPlumpton · 2011-09-04T04:23:16.808Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Can you cite any evidence that is clearer than the geological evidence that oil is being exhausted just enough for production rates to begin declining?

comment by Logos01 · 2011-09-04T04:47:13.846Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Can you cite any evidence that is clearer than the geological evidence that oil is being exhausted just enough for production rates to begin declining?

Evidence for what, exactly? And exactly what is it you are claiming this geological evidence to be evidence of?

comment by jsalvatier · 2011-09-04T03:41:33.621Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

This post does not even mention efficient markets. You cannot discuss oil markets or oil supply without discussing financial market economics.

Also, a couple of your 'points' seem dubious (11,12, 14, 15). They also seem like they are part of a timeline which is confusing. Also specific scenarios are not conducive to accurate forecasting.

comment by satt · 2011-09-04T05:10:00.162Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The Wikipedia article you link asserts that

the efficient-market hypothesis requires that agents have rational expectations; that on average the population is correct (even if no one person is) and whenever new relevant information appears, the agents update their expectations appropriately. Note that it is not required that the agents be rational. [...] All that is required by the EMH is that investors' reactions be random and follow a normal distribution pattern so that the net effect on market prices cannot be reliably exploited to make an abnormal profit, especially when considering transaction costs (including commissions and spreads).

It's unclear to me why these preconditions for the EMH would hold for oil markets. Is Wikipedia wrong about the EMH's prerequisites? If not I'd infer that the EMH is false for oil markets and as such wouldn't be very relevant.

comment by jsalvatier · 2011-09-04T05:21:41.001Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Wikipedia is wrong (marginal traders are the ones that exert the most influence, and I don't even know what they're thinking bring normality into it). Those are sufficient but not necessary conditions.

In any case, financial markets are almost certainly not literally efficient, but are definitely close to efficient (you are only allowed to doubt this if you are a multi-billionaire or have an exceptionally clever theory). Thus, expectations about future demand and supply should be key determinants of current oil prices.

Here's EY on the topic.

comment by satt · 2011-09-04T05:38:00.499Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I see! Thanks.

comment by DavidPlumpton · 2011-09-04T04:07:55.112Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think we are in trouble even if the markets are very efficient (although inefficient markets would be even worse). If all forms of energy were to increase in cost the markets can't do much to save us. So the real questions to me are still unchanged.

comment by jsalvatier · 2011-09-04T04:38:43.139Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Oops, there's the illusion of transparency. I meant that efficient markets take into account the expected future price of oil (if oil becomes very scarce the price will be high). Thus, current prices (which are not astronomical) strongly suggest that oil will not be super scarce in the medium term future. Any good discussion of future oil scarcity should take this seriously. Perhaps there are reasons why this doesn't quite apply, but you would have to introduce and discuss those reasons.

comment by DavidPlumpton · 2011-09-04T20:27:18.729Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Oil does not need to become super scare to cause major problems. Right now the total supply and demand are quite closely matched. Reduce the supply just 10% and big problems happen.

comment by jsalvatier · 2011-09-04T22:10:51.571Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Again the illusion of transparency, I meant that not in the sense of a set quantity of oil but in the traditional economic sense of becoming more limited in supply relative to demand for it.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-09-04T06:02:26.109Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Also, a couple of your 'points' seem dubious (11,12, 14, 15).

Not 9, 10, and 13, and to a lesser extent 5 and 6 for their ignoring markets?

comment by knb · 2011-09-04T21:58:53.088Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I won't speculate about cognitive biases, but you have some things wrong here. You mention that food will become more expensive as fuel prices and fertilizer prices rise. But the commodity price of food (i.e. wheat or pigs or whatever) is a very small percentage of the retail price of the food we buy in stores (even more so for restaurant meals). Commodity price increases of orders of magnitude become increases of degrees at retail price levels.

As for the idea of lights going out due to energy shortages, only a very small fraction of our electricity is generated by oil. In United States, the overwhelming majority of our electricity is produced by coal, nukes, nat. gas, hydro, etc.

Synthetic fertilizer and other chemicals can be produced using other kerogen rich feedstocks. Transportation is the industry which faces the biggest shock, but I think there is good reason to believe people are flexible enough to prevent transportation problems from ending civilization and returning us to the stone age. For example, in Japan in WW2, there was virtually no available oil in the last months. All available fuel was being saved for the military. Yet people found still found creative ways to get around: on motorcycles powered by turpentine.

ETA: Are you investing heavily in oil futures, or stocking up on canned goods and ammunition? If not, why not?

comment by satt · 2011-09-04T03:59:18.146Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

2. The peak production year was 2005 with 73.7 million barrels produced

This is a little out of date. I have an old data file that supports your 73.7 megabarrel/day estimate for 2005, and that is the highest annual crude oil production recorded in the file — but my file only runs to 2009. When I check newer EIA data (scroll to the bottom of this table) that run through 2010, it turns out that 2010 (74.06 megabarrel/day) beats 2005 (73.80 megabarrel/day).

A similar pattern holds for the total oil supply (as opposed to crude oil supply) too: a bumpy plateau from 2005 (which had 84.60 megabarrel/day) to 2009, then a slight jump in 2010 (86.84 megabarrel/day).

3. The amount of oil produced each year is declining

I would've disagreed with this even before I surprised myself with the 2010 data! I would've said that production generally increased from the mid-1980s until it hit a plateau in 2005 and remained about constant since. I would've expected 2010's production to be much the same, but it actually seems quite a bit higher when I include all sources of oil production.

4. The price of oil (and therefore energy) rises

Supply no doubt influences price but it can't be this simple. As far as I know, oil production was pretty well constant from 2005 through 2009 but during that time oil's price rose massively, then crashed, then began rapidly rising again.

If you felt these three points "seem[ed] hard to argue against" I'd guess you're overconfident on the rest of your points too.

(Disclaimer: I didn't read the Wikipedia article like you asked; it seemed unnecessary for checking a few numbers.)

comment by Nic_Smith · 2011-09-04T06:19:47.338Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't read the Wikipedia article like you asked; it seemed unnecessary for checking a few numbers

There is some brief discussion on the Wikipedia talk page asking why the article is full of projections from 2005 that haven't been updated. I've removed the contradicted EIA statement from Wikipedia since it'd be strange for someone to claim that the EIA in early 2010 had a better estimate of 2010 production than it did in 2011, and put an update tag at the top for the rest.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-09-04T02:53:22.863Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Most of your points seem approximately accurate. Some of them are more questionable. 14 is an excellent example. As of right now, adjusting for inflation gasoline prices are not that high compared to historic levels.

Also some technologies are definitely improving. Solar power is becoming much more functional, efficient and reliable. I don't think that things are heading in that bad a direction, quite the opposite.

nuclear fusion/thorium/cold fusion/zero point energy

Two of these are not like the others. The first two are plausible and have had a lot of research. For the first two we know that the physics works, the issues remaining are essentially engineering. The last two are very different in that regard.

Even uranium prices are rising as demand outstrips supply for just the current set of reactors.

Uranium is really common. U-235, the specific isotope of uranium used in reactors is less common. However, the general market seems to be just for unenriched uranium oxide. Looking at those prices there's been a spike a few years ago and the price has then been steadily declining since then but still not down to the pre-spike levels. I don't know what caused that increase. Can someone who knows more about the uranium economics comment?

One other issue related to peak oil that is also worth discussing due to Nick Bostrom which was discussed on another thread today is that the more fossil fuels we consume the more difficult it will be if a largescale catastrophe occurs. To get to our current tech level we consumed a large amount of fossil fuels. It isn't obvious that one can get to this tech level without such access. So if we consume a lot of fossil fuels it may be that we won't be able to recover from a societal collapse.

The other good news is that a lot of smart people are thinking very hard about energy issues. I'm not therefore sure that we are likely to do much that is helpful from thinking about them. The diminishing marginal returns may be small.

Now, I'm going to discuss cognitive biases but with a warning that in this particular context it is difficult to do so without touching upon mind-killing issues. In the current situation the existence and severity of peak oil have become wrapped up in a variety of places especially in the United States with certain political groups. In particular, some "conservatives" believe that peak oil either has not happened or is not an issue. In contrast "liberals" or "progressives" are much more likely to believe that peak oil has occurred or is a near event and are more likely to believe that this is a really bad thing. Therefore, if your general politics are progressive, I would be worried if I were in your position that your conclusions about peak oil are due in part to tribal allegiance. I don't know what to do about that.

Edit: You are from New Zealand yes? I don't know much about the history of New Zealand politics but my impression is that this is less of a tribal issue there. In that context the obvious cognitive bias should be less of an issue.

comment by DuncanS · 2011-09-04T22:28:23.447Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The main thing you're arguably missing is the response of a global market economy to the increase in price of one of its commodities. There are three significant responses. The first is simple economisation in the use of the resource - but this tends to drive down output. The second response is that of increased investment in extraction of the commodity in short supply - the higher price makes more money available as profits for existing providers, and acts as a strong draw to investors of capital who wish to increase the supply. The third reaction is substitution - replacing the commodity in short supply with a new supply of something else.

All of these operate over both the short and long term. Let's look at strategy 1 - economisation. In the short run, you can simply drive less. You can turn down the thermostat on your central heating. You can skip the expensive foreign holiday on the gas-guzzling airliner.

In the long run you can go further - much further - with the first strategy. You can build houses and businesses that don't need to be heated. You can make cars with far better gas mileage. You can make compact cities that don't need cars.

But we still have two strategies to go. We can increase our investment in finding more oil. Resources that used to be uneconomic become viable with higher prices, so we can dig up Canada's oil sands. You can use the new shale gas that's coming on stream, and convert that into oil. You can even convert coal into oil using well-known chemical processes. We can use new recovery technologies on existing fields. All of this increases the supply of oil - probably to the point where the main reason we can't burn it is the CO2 rather than the lack of supply.

All of this depends on the price. Higher prices allow more complex and expensive recovery processes. This is why your list of technologies that never developed exists - they were never profitable at the present price. The price of oil isn't high enough to make those activities worthwhile - at least at our current level of expertise.

And finally you have substitution - and this is far and away the most powerful strategy. We can of course substitute telecommunications for travel already. But there are other reactions. Maybe battery vehicles, or less exotically, electrified highways. High speed trains instead of airplanes. Uranium nuclear. Fast breeder nuclear. Thorium nuclear. Solar thermal. Solar photovoltaic. Long distance DC electrical transmission. All backed up with the general theme of manufacturing these days - everything gets cheaper every year. The approach of the singularity is not merely seen in microchips - it's also seen in the steady, remorseless decrease in the cost of anything manufactured.

These are just the accomodations we can make with the technology we already know about. Who knows what else we might come up with on top of this?

My own expectation is that in 40 years time, energy will be cleaner, much more abundant, much cheaper, and much more efficiently used than today. Just like the last 40 years, only more so.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-04T16:16:03.790Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Your projection of the future as written involves fifteen conjunctions. Well, actually, the first few points look more like verifiable empirical facts about the present day world, so those might be okay, but beyond that what you have is a long winded extrapolation leading to catastrophe. And unless each of those steps is nailed down by overwhelming evidence, chances are that the specific scenario you are worried about is a lot less likely than you think.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-09-04T16:54:34.979Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

fifteen conjunctions.

14 conjunctions. Fifteen statements connected by ands uses fourteen conjuncitons. E.g. "A and B and C" has two uses of "and".

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-09-06T22:57:35.117Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Fifteen conjuncts, then :).

But, to be fair, some are all-but logical consequences of others. E.g., Points 3 and 5 all-but logically imply Point 7. That is, if the amount of oil produced declines (point 3) and all the alternatives fail to fill the gap (point 5), then the available energy production rate will drop (point 7). (It's not quite a logical implication because we might find a way to extract more energy from a given amount oil.)

comment by KPier · 2011-09-04T03:37:29.162Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Additional details weigh down hypotheses. The more steps your argument requires, the less probable it's correct. None of your 15 things seem obviously objectionable to me, but any argument that requires 15 steps to be correct is unlikely.

As for whether it's rational to be concerned... peak oil has been discussed pretty thoroughly. I doubt the marginal utility of you specifically worrying about it is greater than the marginal utility of worrying about FAI, or any other neglected existential risk.

comment by Mercurial · 2011-09-04T17:34:57.363Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted for this comment:

Additional details weigh down hypotheses. The more steps your argument requires, the less probable it's correct. None of your 15 things seem obviously objectionable to me, but any argument that requires 15 steps to be correct is unlikely.

I've been a bit concerned about Peak Oil for a while now and, as with many politically hot topics, it's hard to find objective facts or rational analyses in the din of Greens and Blues screaming at each other. I very much appreciate you (and others!) stepping in to point out what a rational analysis requires rather than specifically arguing for one side versus another.

I disagree with the second comment on pragmatic grounds, though:

I doubt the marginal utility of you specifically worrying about it is greater than the marginal utility of worrying about FAI, or any other neglected existential risk.

I'm not aware that the Peak Oil debate has really been resolved for rationalists. That makes it a neglected existential risk (specifically a "crunch") in my mind.

If Peak Oil really turns out to be a problem, there won't be an FAI crisis. There won't be enough power to run any computer that can go FOOM. Even if there's some possible alternative energy source that might be able to replace oil in theory, part of the concern with Peak Oil is that we've already run out of time to replace the energy infrastructure. I honestly don't know if this is true, but I don't know that it's false either and I'm not aware of anyone who has conclusively answered this concern from a rational point of view.

The main concern of Peak Oil doesn't need so many hypotheses to point out a source of concern (noting that I don't know how true each of these points are):

  • The production pattern of individual oil fields, and the rate of oil field discovery, makes it reasonable to conclude that there should be a global peak in oil production (or maybe a bumpy plateau, but there should still be a decline at the other end wherein we have basically exhausted usable oil).
  • We either have passed that midpoint or will do so very soon (i.e., within the next few years). (Note: Most people who are concerned about this seem to think we already passed it around 2005 to 2007.)
  • Practically everything in our modern world is driven by oil - sometimes literally (e.g., gas-powered vehicles), but in many ways not (e.g., fertilizer, lubricant for machines). Were oil to vanish fairly abruptly, some Very Bad Things would happen (akin to mass starvation, places like LA and Las Vegas becoming totally unlivable, breakdowns in transportation and communication across long distances, etc.).
  • Oil is so energy-dense that nearly all alternatives fall short of being realistic replacements. Most of them don't produce energy quickly enough, and even if there are some that do it's still debatable whether we have enough energy left to replace our energy infrastructure to maintain our current level of civilization.
  • Our main source of electricity is coal rather than oil, but coal is going through a similar peaking problem. (Note: Many people screaming about Peak Oil miss this point.)

Again, I don't know if any of these points are true. But they strike me as individually reasonable, and together they hint at a crunch. I think many of DavidPlumpton's other points are perhaps unnecessarily specific (e.g., the nature of the resulting food crisis) in the same way that specifying a paperclip-maximizer (as opposed to, say, a GAI Roomba) is unnecessarily detailed to point out the FAI problem. The point is that if Peak Oil is a real concern, then by some mechanism our heavy reliance on vast amounts of energy is going to cause a general collapse in civilization from which we may very well not recover for several million years.

We might not agree with whether DavidPlumpton's presentation of the problem (or mine, for that matter) is the most rational. However, I do think that it's important to recognize this as a viable existential risk, and at least from where I stand there does seem to be reason to take it at least as seriously as we do the FAI problem. At the very least, I think it's worthwhile for us to rationally work out at least the rough likelihood of Peak Oil being a problem since we're one of the painfully few communities who are likely to do so (as most others are obsessed with just shouting out applause lights on this topic).

comment by KPier · 2011-09-04T17:56:13.063Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that a data-driven discussion on Peak Oil from a rationalist perspective would be a very good thing, although I don't think the data supports your concerns (see here and here). If I did a lot more research and spoke to some people I know in the energy forecasting business, would an article about peak oil as existential risk be something people would want on LessWrong?

comment by Mercurial · 2011-09-06T22:21:51.575Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that a data-driven discussion on Peak Oil from a rationalist perspective would be a very good thing, although I don't think the data supports your concerns (see here and here).

I actually don't know what the data say. I've encountered gobs of blatantly contradictory information about this topic, much of which claims to be objective data. Most of the debate about whether Peak Oil is really a problem seems to come down to name-calling. I've personally found truth to be insanely opaque when a debate reaches that point.

That said, I would love it if the concerns I mentioned turned out to be balderdash! But that makes me inclined to be a little extra-careful of evidence that just happens to make my wishes seem more true.

If I did a lot more research and spoke to some people I know in the energy forecasting business, would an article about peak oil as existential risk be something people would want on LessWrong?

Yes! I would love that. Please!

comment by Mercurial · 2011-09-06T22:23:01.097Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think this was downvoted. Would whoever downvoted this please explain why?

comment by DavidPlumpton · 2011-09-04T04:30:55.472Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I understand the point about more details lowering the probability, but I just can't see how we can get halfway down the list and have it turn into "and we all lived happily ever after". The greatest sources of uncertainty in the probabilities seem to be can we invent some new technology, can we reduce energy needs for a few years without collapsing too much, etc. Everything else has a probability of very close to 1 if the earlier steps are agreed.

comment by gwern · 2011-09-04T14:07:08.102Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Step 13 to step 14 is a non sequitur. It does not follow from forever increasing prices or unemployment that everything will fall apart. For example, they could be forever increasing but the infinite series converge on a well-defined limit of 8% unemployment.

To show that unemployment or whatever will increase to an arbitrary level, or even a particular level, you need to do a lot more heavy analysis. And I say heavy, because there are a ton of feedback loops at every step in your argument, none of which may change the sign of the results, but which strongly affect the magnitude, which is what is now the question.

(Or to put it another way, you may have shown there is a problem - that the sign is negative - but you have yet to show that it is not a small problem which may essentially solve itself or be acceptable collateral damage while we work on more important things - that the magnitude is greater than a certain point we care about.)

comment by lessdazed · 2011-09-04T01:57:07.804Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Food for example becomes more expensive as fertilizer prices rise

I would think food prices more dependent on meat consumption.

Everything continues to get worse, and at an increasing rate

Come on, you can do better than that.

To me the following points seem hard to argue against:

1...

...

15...

15 steps? A scenario requiring so many questionable steps is not likely.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-09-04T21:39:25.115Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Those aren't fifteen independent predictions. Except for the last one, they are statements of purported fact. They are assertions that are alleged to be true of the present day. What is questionable is the implicit prediction that they will all continue to be the case.

ETA: I now believe that this comment was in error.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-09-04T23:01:42.390Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't want to talk past each other, let's see if we're really in disagreement. I'll try to clarify some things:

1) I think burdensomeness of details applies whether things are predictions about the future or claims about the present.

2) By "steps" I meant to include both predictions and statements of purported fact. I see many of the fifteen as predictions rather than statements. Step 15 wouldn't follow if some of the statements about the present, particularly step 5 but to a greater or lesser extent the rest, aren't predictions about the future despite their literal wording. Step 2 is a statement of fact dependent on future conditions, and is salient among the first 14 steps for being semantically tied to the future in the way the rest implicitly are for the argument to be valid.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-09-04T23:44:53.931Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

On reflection, you are right that the points aren't just statements of present fact. The OP is predicting that they will continue to be true. Contrary to what I wrote above, it's not an "implicit prediction", but rather the central point of the OP.

comment by AlanCrowe · 2011-09-04T20:50:28.348Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The issue of energy return on energy investment (EROEI) requires careful handling.

First one thinks that difficult resources, such as tar sands, greatly increase the amount of oil available. One realises that they need a lot of energy to extract the oil. Knowing the history of the industrial revolution, one recalls that the early steam engines, that were used for pumping water out of coal mines, were terribly inefficient, but that didn't matter very much because they were located at the pit head and had cheap access to the coal that they were helping to mine. So one brushes off concerns about needing to use a lot of oil to extract oil from tar sands.

On second thoughts one sees a potential problem. Where do you get the oil that you use to help you get more oil? If the EROEI is reasonably high this is a minor adjustment. If it takes 1 barrel to extract 10 barrels, you don't get to ship 10 barrels out of the oil field. You have to replace the barrel you used. You ship 9 barrels for every 10 extracted, a minor correction. Once the EROEI falls to 1.1 your oil industry is in deep trouble. It is taking you 10 barrels to extract 11. What you extract barely covers what you burned to extract it. You only ship 11-10=1 barrel. Extracting 11 barrels to get one is going to push the price up eleven fold and deplete the resource eleven times as fast as you were expecting.

On first thoughts any EROEI above zero is useful. On second thoughts the lower limit is at an EROEI of 1 and actually one needs to be well above that.

On third thoughts one notices that there are other sources of energy than oil. While oil is cheap, it gets used as a general purpose source of energy, but it is only really essential as a transport fuel. France gets 80% of its electricity from nuclear power. I suspect that they are cooking the books and subsidizing nuclear electricity. But notice that countries can only give big, misleading subsidies to minority components of their industrial base. They still have to have viable industries from which wealth can be transferred. If the French government were giving a big subsidy to nuclear power, such that it is misleading about the financial viability of nuclear power, the country would be noticeably impoverished by the economic distortion. It isn't.

So, on third thoughts, as oil prices rise one moves to getting the energy for extracting oil from other sources. An EROEI of 0.5 implies using 2 Joules of electricity from nuclear fission to get 1 Joule's worth of oil for transport fuel. On that basis people will continue to drive cars and fly in airplanes, although it gets a lot dearer. Maybe people actually switch to batteries for wheeled transport and save flying for special occasions. The point is that EROEI = 1 doesn't mark the end of civilisation. It marks the point at which oil stops being a source of energy and becomes an energy storage medium, in direct competition with batteries. It is still available for transport applications which need very high density energy storage for, for example, transatlantic flights.

comment by Craig_Heldreth · 2011-09-04T13:17:51.920Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Jon Claerbout (Stanford U.) has a review of Matthew Simmons' book on the production peak in the Saudi Arabia oil fields on his web page. To me it embodies one of the most rational views toward the issue of "Peak Oil" and the consequences for our foreseeable future:

The decline of Saudi Arabian Oil Fields.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-09-07T03:43:10.185Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

An excellent abstraction of the use of natural resources here.