Stanford researchers say 'peak oil' concerns should ease

Jul 10, 2013 by Mark Golden
A pumpjack in Texas. Image: Wikipedia.

Fears of depleting the Earth's supply of oil are unwarranted, according to new research, which concludes that the demand for oil – as opposed to the supply – will reach its own peak and then decline.

"Peak oil" prognosticators have painted pictures of everything from a calm development of alternatives to calamitous shortages, panic and even social as the world reaches its peak of – and then supplies fall.

But according to the study by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California-Santa Cruz, those scenarios assume that an increasingly wealthy world will use all of the oil pumped out of the ground.

Instead, the historical connection between and oil use is breaking down – and will continue to do so – because of limits on consumption by the wealthy, better fuel efficiency, lower priced and the world's rapidly urbanizing population.

"There is an overabundance of concern about oil depletion and not enough attention focused on the substitutes for and other possibilities for reducing our dependence on oil," said study co-author Adam Brandt, assistant professor of engineering at Stanford's School of Earth Sciences.

The study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, describes a variety of mechanisms that could cause society's need for oil to begin declining by 2035. Several earlier studies have suggested that passenger land travel has already plateaued in industrialized countries and is no longer hitched to economic growth. Passenger land travel now accounts for about half of the global transportation energy demand.

Even in developing countries, economic growth has been less oil-intensive than was seen in the West during the past century. China, for example, sells 20 million electric scooters to its citizens each year as part of the government's policy to reduce air pollution. That exceeds total U.S. passenger vehicle sales annually.

"We've seen explosive growth in car ownership in countries such as China," said co-author Adam Millard-Ball, an assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Department at UC-Santa Cruz. "However, those cars will be more efficient than those of the past, and travel demand will eventually saturate as it has in rich countries such as the United States."

Lower oil dependence

Freight and air travel have shown no such break from economic growth. Rich people may not drive more beyond a certain income level, but they do fly more and buy more belongings, as do people moving out of poverty. Even in air travel and freight, though, energy efficiency has begun to improve after decades of stagnation, lowering oil dependence, according to the new study.

"A major uncertainty is whether demand to move goods around the world will eventually saturate, as we've seen in the case of passenger transport," said Millard-Ball.

Price-competitive alternatives to conventional oil are another factor behind the peak in demand. Competition comes from increasing quantities of fuel from oil sands, liquid fuels from coal, natural gas, biofuels, hydrogen and electricity generated from renewable sources.

Technological advances and the high price of oil are helping most such alternatives compete on price. In 2010, the world produced 1.8 million barrels a day of biofuels, six times the amount in 2000. In Argentina, natural gas fuels 15 percent of all cars, due to policies meant to favor the domestic natural gas industry.

The researchers did not try to forecast peak demand's impact on oil prices. But even if oil prices spend much time above the historical upper range of $140 a barrel, the peak in demand will only come sooner than they forecast.

"If prices rise above their current levels for an extended period, we're likely to see even more efforts to improve efficiency and exploit alternatives to conventional oil," said Millard-Ball. "That would hasten the onset of a demand-driven peak."

Impacts of alternatives

The new research, though encouraging, does not describe a transportation future free of worry. Instead, the researchers recommend a shift in attention to the various alternatives to conventional oil.

Policymakers should not rely on oil scarcity to constrain damage to the world's climate. The alternatives to conventional oil emit varying amounts of greenhouse gases, while large-scale production of biofuels could have a disruptive impact on food prices and on local ecosystems where the plants are grown.

"If you care about the environment, you should care about where we are getting these fuels, whether we use the oil sands or biofuels," said Brandt. "Our study is agnostic on what mix of oil substitutes emerges, but we do know that if we don't manage them well, there will be big consequences."

The study forecasts global demand through 2100 under a variety of scenarios for economic growth, population, efficiency gains and fuel substitution. Interested parties can use the study's model, inputting their own set of assumptions at http://pangea.stanford.edu/researchgroups/eao/research/oil-substitution-and-decline-conventional-oil.

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freethinking
2 / 5 (16) Jul 10, 2013
Environmental Alarmists have been yelling about Peak Oil for a long time. Does it now mean sanity with Peak Oil has arrived?
shavera
3.7 / 5 (6) Jul 10, 2013
This seems like a bit of tautological argument here. As we've become more aware of depleting finite resources, we've done more to seek alternatives to those resources. Thus demand also has a peak and fall too. It doesn't mean that the resources aren't finite, or that it's more costly to extract them (compare early day "gushers" to the modern "fracking" where we have to practically wring rock dry of fossil fuels to have anything of worth)
VendicarE
3.1 / 5 (14) Jul 10, 2013
"Environmental Alarmists have been yelling about Peak Oil for a long time." - FreeTard

You fools have been whining that we were about to hit a wall for decades, now that I have changed our direction due to your whining we are no longer going to hit.

See how stupid you were?
unconvinced
2.8 / 5 (8) Jul 10, 2013
Wonder how much the oil companies and !% paid this guy to write this?
cantdrive85
1.9 / 5 (14) Jul 11, 2013
Peak oil is another control paradigm bugaboo. Oil and other hydrocarbons are created within the Earth on a continual basis. "Fossil fuel" is a myth, a marketing campaign of duplicitous origin. Whether or not we use more per day than the Earth produces is not knowable, but it is not a "finite" resource. It may cost more and be more difficult to extract, but it will be found with new technology.

http://www.usnews...xploring
Sinister1811
2.6 / 5 (10) Jul 11, 2013
Oil and other hydrocarbons are created within the Earth on a continual basis.


That may be true, but it takes millions of years to replenish. It doesn't just happen overnight.
cantdrive85
1.6 / 5 (13) Jul 11, 2013
Oil and other hydrocarbons are created within the Earth on a continual basis.


That may be true, but it takes millions of years to replenish. It doesn't just happen overnight.

Why? That's just a declaration such as, nuh uh! The report about the well (in linked article above) that suddenly increased production and grew by 400% suggest that claim may not be accurate.
cantdrive85
1.6 / 5 (13) Jul 11, 2013
The truly sad thing, is all this necessary at all?

"Ere many generations pass, our machinery will be driven by a power obtainable at any point of the universe. This idea is not novel. Men have been led to it long ago by instinct or reason; it has been expressed in many ways, and in many places, in the history of old and new. We find it in the delightful myth of Antheus, who derives power from the earth; we find it among the subtle speculations of one of your splendid mathematicians (Maxwell?) and in many hints and statements of thinkers of the present time. Throughout space there is energy. Is this energy static or kinetic! If static our hopes are in vain; if kinetic — and this we know it is, for certain — then it is a mere question of time when men will succeed in attaching their machinery to the very wheelwork of nature." Nikola Tesla
msharp
4.2 / 5 (5) Jul 11, 2013
Most geologists agree that the abiotic petroleum proposed in the various incarnations of your above linked theory, over the past century, are so far scientifically unsupported. But that's not even what this article is about. It still says oil is a finite resource at the rate we are using, otherwise we wouldn't be spending billions more on deep sea drills, or destroying the water table with fracking. The gushers in texas aren't refilling themselves. The end of the article indicates that we cant rely on oil and need to switch to alternative energy... but think about this, even as the supply and demand of oil starts to decline in the next 20 years, it wont be any cheaper to obtain. How much is exxon mobile willing to spend to drill oil for things like water bottles, basketballs, lipstick, speakers, detergent, or crayons? And how do we replace the immense industry based around plastics and petroleum products?
cantdrive85
2.2 / 5 (11) Jul 11, 2013
And how do we replace the immense industry based around plastics and petroleum products?

Tens of thousands of small family farms growing hemp.
ScottyB
2.1 / 5 (7) Jul 11, 2013
The truly sad thing, is all this necessary at all?
Nikola Tesla
- So much of his ideas and technology is hidden from us, we may never know what his ideas may have sprug
geokstr
1.4 / 5 (9) Jul 11, 2013
And how do we replace the immense industry based around plastics and petroleum products?

Tens of thousands of small family farms growing hemp.

I think we already have that in California and Mexico, non?

:-)

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