Source: 22 June 2009. David Murphy. The Net Hubbert Curve: What Does It Mean? theoildrum.
This is the scariest chart I’ve ever seen. And also the most important. I put it on my refrigerator to remind myself what the future will be, even though I can’t believe it’s true — life is so good. But it clearly shows that civilization is likely to crash within the next 20 years.
For many years I had assumed the oil depletion curve would be symmetric, this chart reveals it’s more likely to be a cliff.
What appears to be a reassuring “symmetric” blue is the remaining gross half of the oil left.
But the gray represents the actual net energy we will have once you subtract out the much higher amount of energy needed to get the remaining nasty, gunky, remote oil. We’ve already gotten the easy, sweet, shallow, easy-flowing oil. What’s left is deep sea oil with billion dollar platforms, arctic oil, tarsands (more like mining), and shale oil (much less of this than is touted in the press). These remaining kinds of oil (and natural gas and coal) take so much energy to find, drill, and refine, you actually only have the net grey area left to grow the economy or maintain what you’ve already got.
And clearly you won’t be growing the economy! Or even maintaining it — our infrastructure is falling apart.
So even though half the gross amount of oil is left, it takes much more energy to get it, leaving less Net Energy for society to use.
Another way of looking at this is what systems ecologists call Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI). In the USA in 1930 an “investment” of the energy in 1 barrel of oil produced another 100 barrels of oil, or an EROEI of 100:1. By 1970 it was down to 30:1 and in 2000 it was 11:1. Once it is 1:1 (as much energy expended to get a barrel of oil as is contained in that barrel of oil), then there’s no point in drilling.
Or think of this chart as what you owe Luigi, the Mafia loan shark who lent you money at 200% interest per day. The blue is the increasing amount you owe him as you fall behind on your payments, the gray is the diminishing amount of money you have left over now that Luigi gets most of what you earn.
Because we got the easy oil first, we have used up 73% of the NET energy that will ever be available. The remaining half requires so much energy to extract, that the 10 billion people in the future will have half the energy we did.
Of course, there can’t possibly every be 10 billion humans in the future — this graph also represents a Malthusian dieoff. Exponential human population growth and exponential energy growth curves match each other exactly. The gray down slope x axis could be relabeled and scaled to represent human population.
Worse yet, there are other reasons why the cliff may even be steeper:
It’s not our oil. Nearly all of the good, high quality, cheap sweet oil is in the Middle East. Most of the remaining oil will need vast amounts of fresh water to get it out, but there is very limited fresh water. The refineries and other extraction infrastructure are easy targets to damage or destroy.
Export Land Model: Oil producing countries are using more and more of their own (declining) oil as population and industry grows, and more and more to get at their difficult oil. This results in a similar chart to the net energy cliff — suddenly there will hardly be any oil to buy on the world markets. See Jeffrey Brown’s article “The Export Capacity Index” (one of his statistics is that at the current rate of increasing imports of oil in India and China, these 2 countries alone would be importing 100% of available oil within 18 years).
Technology. As we improve our technology to get at the remaining oil, we make the cliff on the other side even steeper as we get oil now that would have been available to future generations.
Investments won’t be made because the payback times will lengthen. Since what remains is increasingly difficult and expensive to find, develop and extract, investment payback periods lengthen, eventually to impossibly long periods, or to periods that approach the useful life of the capital investment (effectively the same limit in the financial dimension as is an EROEI of 1). Which means it doesn’t matter how much might theoretically be underground, the only thing that matters is how much is actually going to be economically feasible to recover, and that is going to be considerably less than 100% of what might be theoretically and technically possible to recover.
Exponential growth of population. This makes whatever oil we have left last even less long.
Less oil obtained than could have been. Projects maximize a return on investment over a return of every last drop of possible oil.
Likely 8% or higher decline rate. Many energy company CEO’s and other experts the average rate of decline world-wide to be 8%. If the 8% decline starts at 30 billion barrels in 2015, we’d have only half as much oil in 8 years. That’s too fast for most societies to cope with.
- 2016 = 27.6
- 2017 = 25.4
- 2018 = 23.4
- 2019 = 21.5
- 2020 = 19.8
- 2021 = 18.2
- 2022 = 16.7
- 2023 = 15.4 (half of what we had 8 years ago!)
- 2024 = 14
Wars, cyber-attacks, nuclear war, social chaos. By 2024, if not sooner, the unequal distribution of the remaining oil, starvation generated riots and pillaging, and collapsing economies have triggered war(s), massive migrations, and social chaos.
If any of these wars involve nuclear bombs, then at least a billion people will die.
The unrest has certainly curtailed the ability of oil companies to drill.
Even farmers may stop growing crops once city residents and roaming militias harvest whatever is grown (i.e. Africa as described in Parenti’s “Tropic of Chaos: Climate change and the new geography of violence).
Cyberattacks from China, Russia, and elsewhere have brought the electric grid down in the USA to prevent US military forces for trying to grab the remaining Saudi and Iraqi oil –the armed forces will be too busy trying to maintain order in the USA to venture abroad — nor could they go even if they wanted to, because Chinese and Russian drone attacks will have destroyed all of the United State oil refineries, and we have retaliated against them, so they won’t be able to refine oil either). We’ve also cyberattacked their electric grids. Most major cities have no sewage treatment or clean water. Nuclear power plants are melting down.
The only way I can see this being prevented or the end of oil delayed a few years, is if a government has already developed effective bio-weapons and doesn’t care if their own population suffers as well.
I feel crazy to have just written this very dire paragraph with just a few of the potential consequences, but the “shark-fin” curve made me do it!
Even though I’ve been reading and writing about peak everything since 2001, and the rise and fall of civilizations for 40 years, it is hard for me to believe a crash could happen so fast. It is hard to believe there could ever be a time that isn’t just like now. That there could ever be a time when I can’t hop into my car and drive 10,000 miles.
I can imagine the future all too well, but it is so hard to believe it.