American Oil Boom?

If this is for real, it’s the biggest news I’ve heard for a long time:

Two years ago, America was importing about two thirds of its oil. Today, according to the Energy Information Administration, it imports less than half. And by 2017, investment bank Goldman Sachs predicts the US could be poised to pass Saudi Arabia and overtake Russia as the world’s largest oil producer.

This is from:

New boom reshapes oil world, rocks North Dakota, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 25 September, 2011.

The new boom is due to technologies like fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) and directional drilling. According to an estimate in this article, in the last few years advances in these technologies have made available up to 11 billion barrels of oil in the Bakken formation under North Dakota and Montana. There’s also a lot under the Canadian side of the border:

This map is from:

• Jerry Langton, Bakken Formation: Will it fuel Canada’s oil industry?, CBC News, 27 June 2008.

How big is this boom going to be? What will it mean? The National Public Radio story says this:

Amy Myers Jaffe of Rice University says in the next decade, new oil in the US, Canada and South America could change the center of gravity of the entire global energy supply.

“Some are now saying, in five or 10 years’ time, we’re a major oil-producing region, where our production is going up,” she says.

The US, Jaffe says, could have 2 trillion barrels of oil waiting to be drilled. South America could hold another 2 trillion. And Canada? 2.4 trillion. That’s compared to just 1.2 trillion in the Middle East and north Africa.

Jaffe says those new oil reserves, combined with growing turmoil in the Middle East, will “absolutely propel more and more investment into the energy resources in the Americas.”

Russia is already feeling the growth of American energy, Jaffe says. As the U.S. produces more of its own natural gas, Europe is free to purchase liquefied natural gas the US is no longer buying.

“They’re buying less natural gas from Russia,” Jaffe says. “So Russia would only supply 10 percent of European natural gas demand by 2030. That means the Russians are no longer powerful.”

The American energy boom, Jaffe says, could endanger many green-energy initiatives that have gained popularity in recent years. But royalties and revenue from U.S. production of oil and natural gas, she adds, could be used to invest in improving green technology.

What do you know about this news? Is it for real, is it being hyped? What do the smartest of the ‘peak oil’ crowd say?

I’ve read about the environmental impacts of fracking, and the consequences for global warming are evident. Since ‘carbon is forever’, to reduce carbon dioxide levels we need to either stop burning carbon or figure out a way to sequester CO2. A new oil boom won’t help us with that. And in the long run, we’ll still run out.

But the short run could last decades. Suppose people go ahead, ignore the dangers, and ‘drill, baby, drill’. How will geopolitics, the world economy, and the environment be affected?

Opinions are fine—everyone’s got one—but facts are better… and facts with references are the best.

46 Responses to American Oil Boom?

  1. jrshipley says:

    Skimmed a few things that anyone will see on an initial googling. Here’s an overall impression. Maybe “peak” oil is wrong but there will be more of a plateau. I gather the Bakken and other reserves have higher extraction cost than drilling through Saudi sand. The economics of going for that oil presuppose high oil prices to justify the extraction cost. So we wouldn’t really expect to see them tapped at a rate that brings down oil prices significantly unless the costs of these new drilling technologies comes down. Generally, you can’t just look at estimates of the size of the reserve. You have to know what’s recoverable at a cost that makes it economically feasible given what you can get for a barrel of oil, and the guys drilling through sand can always price you out of business by opening the spigot temporarily.

    Incidentally, maybe you could structure a carbon tax in a way that BOTH made high extraction cost domestic resources more economically feasible AND gave consumers incentive to conserve; i.e., in a way that effectively set a price floor. I don’t know. Surely that’s an idea that will make a lot of economists nervous, but it’s a thought.

    • John Baez says:

      Thanks for the info!

      Of course disliking global warming I have no desire for lower oil prices. I’d be happiest with a hefty carbon tax, with that money funding various useful things.

  2. Rod Carvalho says:

    Related: The Americas, not the Middle East, will be the world capital of Energy (August 2011). An excerpt:

    For half a century, the global energy supply’s center of gravity has been the Middle East. This fact has had self-evidently enormous implications for the world we live in — and it’s about to change. By the 2020s, the capital of energy will likely have shifted back to the Western Hemisphere, where it was prior to the ascendancy of Middle Eastern megasuppliers such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the 1960s. The reasons for this shift are partly technological and partly political. Geologists have long known that the Americas are home to plentiful hydrocarbons trapped in hard-to-reach offshore deposits, on-land shale rock, oil sands, and heavy oil formations. The U.S. endowment of unconventional oil is more than 2 trillion barrels, with another 2.4 trillion in Canada and 2 trillion-plus in South America — compared with conventional Middle Eastern and North African oil resources of 1.2 trillion. The problem was always how to unlock them economically. But since the early 2000s, the energy industry has largely solved that problem. With the help of horizontal drilling and other innovations, shale gas production in the United States has skyrocketed from virtually nothing to 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. natural gas supply in less than a decade. By 2040, it could account for more than half of it. This tremendous change in volume has turned the conversation in the U.S. natural gas industry on its head; where Americans once fretted about meeting the country’s natural gas needs, they now worry about finding potential buyers for the country’s surplus.

    • John Baez says:

      Informative quote, Rod!

      … where Americans once fretted about meeting the country’s natural gas needs, they now worry about finding potential buyers for the country’s surplus.

      The funny thing is, I haven’t met any Americans worrying about this. I’ve also never heard anyone talk about ‘the coming American oil boom’. Maybe I don’t hang with the right crowd?

  3. Giampiero Campa says:

    So we are talking about 6.4 Trillion barrel (max) added to the world resources. How long would they last at the current world consumption rate ? In other words, if that’s true, how many (more) years would it buy us exactly ?

    • John Baez says:

      Good question, Giampiero! Of course the main potential ‘big effects’ I see are a shift in political power away from Russia and the Middle East towards the Americas, and maybe a way for the US to keep from going broke for another decade. That’s not any sort of ‘solution’ to the world’s big problems! But when you’re a drug addict, there’s nothing more exciting than finding a big stash when you thought you’d almost run out.

      Still, yours is a good question. I’m in a bit of a rush now, so here’s some data:

      • Index Mundi, World crude oil consumption by year.

      and maybe someone else can do the necessary calculation. This graph shows world crude oil consumption in thousands of barrels per day, so you need to multiply by 365. It would be good to compare this data to another source, too!

    • Giampiero Campa says:

      So i have found on wikipedia that in 2007 the consumption rate was 85.6 million barrels (13,610,000 m3) per day.

      85 × 365 = 31025 so it’s 31 Billion barrel/year = 0.031 Trillion barrels/year

      6.4/0.031 = 206 years

      Now the hard(er) question is, if all of this gets burned, how much would the percentage of carbon in the atmosphere increase (leaving aside effects like melting permafrost for a first guess)?

      • John Baez says:

        Giampiero wrote:

        Now the hard(er) question is, if all of this gets burned, how much would the percentage of carbon in the atmosphere increase (leaving aside effects like melting permafrost for a first guess)?

        That question would indeed take work. All I can easily do is point you to some projections based on scenarios where people go ahead and burn all the carbon they can find.

        If you’re really impatient, just look at the graphs.

        Nordhaus’ DICE model assumes we burn all the carbon we can find:

        • Nordhaus, W. D. 2007. The challenge of global warming: Economic models and environmental policy, Technical report, accessed May 2, 2007, model version:

        • William D. Nordhaus, A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008.

        On page 127 of A Question of Balance, Nordhaus estimates that a total of 6±1.2 trillion metric tons of carbon are available to be burnt. Currently we’ve burnt about 0.54 trillion tons, and people are wringing their hands about the trillionth ton, with some estimating it will be burnt by around 2044.

        I talked about Nordhaus’ model with Nathan Urban in “week305”. He said:

        Here we’re concentrating on just the climate uncertainty, and are hoping to get an idea of bounds, so we used something close to a worst-case economic scenario. In this scenario carbon emissions peak around 2150 at about 23 gigatons carbon per year (84 gigatons CO2). By 2300 they’ve tapered off to about 4 GtC (15 GtCO2).


        We considered a worst-case “business as usual” scenario in which we continue to burn fossil fuels at an accelerating rate until we start to run out of them, and eventually burn the maximum amount of fossil fuels we think there might be remaining (about 5000 gigatons worth of of carbon, compared to the roughly 500 gigatons we’ve emitted so far). This assumes we get desperate for cheap energy and extract all the hard-to-get fossil resources in oil shales and tar sands, all the remaining coal, etc. It doesn’t necessarily preclude the use of non-fossil energy; it just assumes that our appetite for energy grows so rapidly that there’s no incentive to slow down fossil fuel extraction. We used a simple economic model to estimate how fast we might do this, if the world economy continues to grow at a similar rate to the last few decades.

        Here’s the graph from his paper:

        Nathan later said:

        I should also point people toward the "Representative Concentration Pathway" (RCP) scenarios (overview here), which is what the IPCC will be using in its next assessment report.

        You can view (preliminary versions of?) these scenarios with this browser. The emissions projections go out to 2100, and they have “extension scenarios” (ECPs) for CO2 concentrations (not emissions) out to 2300.

        Their BAU scenario is called RCP8.5, and it is based on (but not identical to?) work in this paper, which outlines growth scenarios. (They don’t explicitly discuss fossil carbon constraints because in this scenario they implicitly assume that there is enough carbon to avoid peaking before 2100, the last date they consider.)

        All the other RCP scenarios are “stabilization” or mitigation scenarios where society opts to stabilize at below-BAU CO2 concentrations, or reduce emissions even further.

        The RCPs and ECPs look like this:

        RCP8.5 appears to have a slightly larger and sooner peak than the DICE BAU scenario, but is fairly comparable. Looking at the ECP concentrations, they seem to be assuming a similar total fossil resource constraint (~5000 GtC). The other ECPs assume stabilization at some CO2 concentration around 2150, or even a decline.

        I don’t know that I personally believe that we will go after ever last scrap of carbon we think may be in the ground. As I said in the interview, we intentionally considered a “worst case” scenario.

        I do think there’s a serious risk that we’ll extract, say, half that amount, and reach quadrupled (from pre-industrial) CO2 levels some time in the century after this one. That would require extracting what are currently low grade and unprofitable reserves, but they will become more profitable as other sources are depleted.

      • Giampiero Campa says:

        So since we seem to burn 0.008 Tt/year, we have

        0.008* 206 = 1.648 Tt

        (i know, i know, a lot of hidden assumptions here).

        I am going to use John’s line of reasoning in this post

        So, naively, we can estimate 200 ppm of carbon dioxide per teraton of carbon burnt. If we burn 4.8 teratons by 2300, we’ll then have 960 ppm carbon dioxide in addition to the original 290, for a total of 1250 ppm.

        so 1.6 Tt more gives a 200*1.6 = 330 ppm increase, resulting in

        1250+330=1580 ppm

        which (very roughly) looks like half a degree increase (with on a scale 3*log(ppm/290)/log(2)

        Now this is just America, so adding other continents could mean 3 or four times the additional 330 ppm, which will lead to basically a 9C increase over preindustrial levels. Not counting the many effects that could make things worst and (the few that could make things better).

        I don’t know how much it makes sense. You guys are the experts here, so let me know.

        By the way i know that the numbers given by Nathan in his reply here suggest 470ppm but i am using just burned carbon in my reasoning here, not the carbon that actually stays in the atmosphere …

        • Giampiero Campa says:

          Our posts crossed again :-)

          I am not sure if these new reserves available are to be considered as part of the “6±1.2 trillion metric tons of carbon are available to be burnt” or additional ones though …

  4. John Baez says:

    Over on Google+, Tad Thurston points out this National Public Radio story and writes:

    I hope this turns out to be at least mostly right. While I’m very concerned about our influence on global climate, in my opinion it is even more important (and provides one of the greatest influences on national security) to be energy-self-sufficient. To be energy exporters is even better. So to me it’s critical to exploit these resources in as short a term as possible and also, as the article suggests, invest heavily in cleaner long-term (nuclear, solar) solutions.

    I replied: “To be energy exporters is even better.” Really?

    • Michael Lewin Ross, Does oil hinder democracy?, World Politics Volume 53, Number 3, April 2001, pp. 325-361

    Some scholars suggest that the Middle East’s oil wealth helps explain its failure to democratize. This article examines three aspects of this “oil impedes democracy” claim. First, is it true? Does oil have a consistently antidemocratic effect on states, once other factors are accounted for? Second, can this claim be generalized? Is it true only in the Middle East or elsewhere as well? Is it true for other types of mineral wealth and other types of commodity wealth or only for oil? Finally, if oil does have antidemocratic properties, what is the causal mechanism?

    The author uses pooled time-series cross-national data from 113 states between 1971 and 1997 to show that oil exports are strongly associated with authoritarian rule; that this effect is not limited to the Middle East; and that other types of mineral exports have a similar antidemocratic effect, while other types of commodity exports do not.

    Given the already astounding gap between the rich and the poor in the US:

    and the remarkably low taxes on corporations (caused by the takeover of the democratic process by lobbyists and millionaire politicians):

    maybe this oil boom will leave the US looking more like an oil-rich third world country in another few decades. I’m not saying it’s inevitable, but it’s a possibility.

    • John Baez says:

      …maybe this oil boom will leave the US looking more like an oil-rich third world country in another few decades.

      That may seem like an extreme statement, but consider this, and project forwards pessimistically a few decades, imagining that the US manufacturing base keeps getting hollowed out and the economy is kept afloat mainly by resource extraction:

      Let’s hope things turn around! But let’s not count on it happening automatically, as if by magic.

      • Todd Trimble says:

        I’m just curious where you got this chart from, John, and how the measurements were conducted. Some of the categories refer to clearly verifiable facts (life expectancy, infant survival rate, prison population); others seem a lot more nebulous and tricky to quantify (democracy, freedom of the press, lack of corruption, scientific literacy). It’s also not terribly clear how these are to be ranked in importance (is a plenitude of mobile phones an unmitigated good?). Not that I vehemently question any of these facts or factoids, just the quality of “science” as it were.

        • John Baez says:

          Click on the chart! I have a policy on this blog of making data easy to trace back to its source… so whenever I have a chart or picture without an obvious reference, I try to make it a ‘clickable link’.

          It’s indeed difficult to estimate all these quantities in an unarguable way… but it seems like the people who made this chart at least tried to get data from reputable sources. We could have fun taking one and seeing if it’s really believable.

        • Nathan Urban says:

          I spot checked the “freedom of press” one. It cames from “Reporters Without Borders”. The data are from their 2008 ranking, but in their table Taiwan and the U.S. are tied for 36th with four other countries, and Macedonia is 42th, so already there’s a problem with the chart.

          The U.S. jumped from 36th to 20th in 2009 largely from the election of Obama, which makes me suspicious about their methodology. How did his election “free the press” in the U.S.? Was this change in ranking based on new administration policies, or just its promises – or their own hopes?

          Looking at their methodology, they send a questionnaire to their own correspondents as well as to “journalists, researchers, jurists, and human right activists”. It asks them to score the country on many fronts (physical violence to or imprisonment of journalists, support for non-government media, business interference in journalism, media “self-censorship”, etc.)

          Here is there 2010 report on the U.S.. (The U.S. is still 20th.) Unfortunately I can’t find the 2009 and 2008 reports which might explain the jump in rankings between those two years.

        • Todd Trimble says:

          Thanks, guys. The articles linked by Nathan were interesting; apparently the jump from 36 to 20 is attributable to this: “Barack Obama’s election as president and the fact that he has a less hawkish approach than his predecessor have had a lot to do with this.” Which all by itself is not impressive testimony to sweeping changes in how the press conducts itself or is treated; I’d be more impressed by numbers on reporters on the job who were held in detention, removed from public spaces, etc.

        • John Baez says:

          Todd wrote:

          The articles linked by Nathan were interesting; apparently the jump from 36 to 20 is attributable to this: “Barack Obama’s election as president and the fact that he has a less hawkish approach than his predecessor have had a lot to do with this.”

          Is this supposed to be a summary explanation of some more detailed ‘calculation’, or did someone just sit down and say “Hmm, now that Obama is president, let’s jack the rating up from 36 to 20”? Or—as so often the case—is it hard to tell?

        • Todd Trimble says:

          I think it’s hard to tell. It could be a very condensed summary based on the results of the questionnaire (hence based on some sort of ‘calculation’). I somewhat doubt it’s just someone making stuff up or jacking up the rating just because.

          Just for kicks, I tried following up on ‘democracy’. There’s a Democracy Index put out by The Economist; the following document gives information on the methodology of how they rate democracy. Click, around pages 8-9 they give the methodology and questionnaire. I didn’t check to see *who* gets the questionnaire.

  5. The blog Next Big Future often has coverage of oil related topics and the Bakken production figures.

    I would say, based on what I’ve read, these facts and projections are realistic. Personally, it gives me hope that civilization won’t crash from oil running out before we have time to put in place an alternative to oil (largely solar and hopefully fusion).

    Is warming the main problem with CO2 in the atmosphere? I mean, suppose we found a way to cool the earth by reflecting off some incoming sunlight that was a lot cheaper than moving to a lower carbon economy. Would that solve the main problems? Because that sounds like a plausible development to me.

    • John Baez says:

      Hi, Douglas! Someday I may actually meet you in person. (For those not in the know, Douglas’ brother Mike Stay is a grad student of mine, currently working at Google and writing a thesis on applications of 2-categories to computer science.)

      Is warming the main problem with CO2 in the atmosphere?

      It’s a major problem… but unfortunately not the only major problem. The other big problem is ocean acidification. So far, about 1/3 of our excess CO2 has wound up dissolved in the ocean. This makes the ocean more acidic, and as this proceeds, many sea creatures with calcium carbonate shells are finding it harder to survive.

      This effect is becoming noticeable in coral reefs, which are also suffering from higher ocean temperatures. Some predict that even without further warming, coral reefs will go extinct by the end of the 21st century, purely from the effects of ocean acidification:

      An international team of marine biologists recently traveled to Papua New Guinea where excess CO2 released from volcanic activity has already decreased local ocean pH to the levels that are expected globally by 2100. In this area, they found that more than 90 percent of the region’s coral reef species were lost. The study provided a glimpse of how oceans might one day change around the world and serves as a warning that we must curb carbon emissions as quickly as possible.

      Of course, it’s entirely possible that people will continue to emit CO2, resort to geoengineering to keep the temperature down, and accept the extinction of coral reefs and certain other calcareous sea organisms (foraminifera, coccolithophores, molluscs, etcetera). I don’t know how much this would destabilize the overall biosphere.

      • John Baez says:

        Coccolithophores are tiny algae and other sea creatures that have calcium carbonate shells:

        While they’re hard to see and you might never have heard of them, there are lots of them, so they’re important both for creating oxygen and as food for other ocean life.

        There’s been some interesting work on the effect of ocean acidification on coccolithophores… and the effect of dying coccolithophores on the climate:

        • Jacqueline Ruttiman, Sick seas, Nature 442 (2006), 978-980.

        A quote:

        In a fjord in southwest Norway, Riebesell has set up an outdoor laboratory consisting of a raft with what look like giant milk cartons moored to it. The containers, known as ‘mesocosms’, are 50-litre vessels filled with coccolithophores—photosynthesizing plankton, or phytoplankton, with carbonate coverings. Riebesell immerses the coccolithophores into tanks that are aerated with the projected levels of carbon dioxide in the next 50 and 100 years. He calls them “the oceans of the future”.

        The coccolithophores’ outer casings—tiny hubcaps known as coccoliths — are made of the carbonate mineral calcite. Riebesell found that exposing coccolithophores to three times the present-day atmospheric level of carbon dioxide caused nearly half of their protective coating to disintegrate.

        Such changes don’t bode well for one of the ocean’s most abundant types of phytoplankton bad for the food webs they sustain. By aggregating on the surface of waste from the upper levels of the ocean (mainly fish droppings), the coccoliths help it to sink down to the seabed communities, which recycle its nutrients into the ocean. Weakening the coccoliths could have knock-on effects on nutrient cycling.


        With more attention on the problem, a new possibility has raised its head. Ocean acidification might not just run in parallel with global warming—it could amplify it. The chalky coccolithophores, when blooming, lighten the surface of the oceans, which means more sunlight is reflected into space. Reduce their number and even if other phytoplankton take their place, that lightness will be gone.

        Coccolithophores are also responsible for many of the clouds over oceans. They produce a lot of dimethylsulphide, which accounts for much of the aerosolized sulphate in the atmosphere above the oceans. Sulphate particles act as ‘seeds’ around which cloud droplets grow. Remove them, and you could remove a significant fraction of the world’s clouds, warming the planet yet further.

    • Roger Witte says:

      Even if we can cool the atmosphere otherwise, oil is a wonderful feedstock for manufacturing useful molecules like plastics. However we persist in simply burning off our remaining supply :S

    • Nathan Urban says:

      Cooling the Earth by reflecting incoming sunlight is often called “climate geoengineering”. It would indeed reduce surface temperatures. John mentions that this policy can cause cooling but does nothing to prevent ocean acidification. However, there are other problems or potential problems with this approach.

      First, the most commonly proposed approach (because it’s the cheapest/easiest) is to modify the aerosol loading of the atmosphere, e.g. by injecting sulfates, or other particulates that affect cloud formation. But this is short-lived: the aerosols precipitate out of the atmosphere in a matter of weeks to years. This means that once you start geoengineering you have to keep doing it, essentially “forever”, since CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a very long time. If you fail to keep it going for some reason (money, war, politics, unexpected side effects, …), then all the warming you’ve been suppressing (maybe for centuries) can return within a decade – much faster than the warming otherwise would have occurred.

      In addition, there is the problem of imperfect cancellation. If you don’t distribute the reflecting particles in the right way, then they won’t cancel the greenhouse surface warming everywhere. More fundamentally, reflecting incoming shortwave radiation isn’t the same physical process as absorbing outgoing longwave radiation (greenhouse effect), so while you may tune the process to reduce surface temperatures, there are inevitably other radiative and thermodynamic changes elsewhere in the atmospheric column. This can lead to other large changes in climate, such as in precipitation.

      Another issue is potential unilateral use or weaponization. What happens if one country wants to alter its own regional climate, which affects its neighbors in ways they do not desire? Or if one country wants to geoengineer the world climate, and other countries do not? Or if it wants to alter some enemy’s climate? These scenarios may become more prevalent once the technology is widely developed. Perhaps they could be solved with the proper international governance framework, perhaps not.

      Some articles which discuss some potential drawbacks of geoengineering are Wikipedia, Matthews and Caldeira (2007), Trenberth and Dai (2007) Robock (2008), Ban-Weiss and Caldeira (2010), Goes et al. (2011), and Gardiner (in prep.).

  6. Wow, what a thorough response! The loss of the coral reefs and other damage to the oceans is such a tragedy.

    • John Baez says:

      Part of why I wrote a thorough response is that I’ve been meaning to add this information to the Azimuth Project pages Coral reef and Ocean acidification. It’s easier to get motivated to write nice blog comments when I know I’m putting the information onto this wiki for long-term reference. Conversely, it’s easier to write wiki articles a bit at a time, in answer to questions on this blog! It’s more fun writing when you have at least one living breathing reader.

  7. John Baez says:

    Over on Google+, Tad Thurston replied to my comment expressing doubt that “to be energy exporters is even better.”

    Interesting article — I don’t need much convincing that there are potential corrupting concerns, and the wealth gap is already such a significant problem in my view that we should undertake immediate (though moderate) redistributive schemes; however, I’ll still take my chances with the possibly unknown future dangers in a present democracy over the known present danger in funding current non-democratic monarchies and theocracies.

    I replied:

    Agreed. I was just saying that while energy self-sufficiency has good points, perhaps being an energy exporter is not “even better”. I would like very much for the US to stop funding the big oil-exporting countries, which include quite a pack of rascals. Ideally we’d do it by decarbonizing our economy. Doing it by becoming a big oil-exporting country ourselves… that will be irresistable if it’s possible, but it will bring a pack of problems.

    He replied:

    Ah, I was probably clumsy and hasty — I was thinking “better” as compared to importing energy resources but wrote poorly. Perhaps being self-sufficient and exporting technologies rather than the resources themselves is the way to go. Another competing effect at that point is a possible moral hazard with perverse incentives to export as much fossil fuel as possible, at odds with domestic efforts to conserve and invest in cleaner sources as well as environmental concerns. People may act differently where immediate profit and economic surplus are concerned rather than trying to cut back to decrease demand. It’s the rare wealthy person who continues to drive cheap, functional, and efficient cars.

    I replied:

    Thanks for clarifying, Tad. Yes, I think we more or less agree. I think one example of a society that’s managed an oil boom rather wisely is Norway. I hope someone looks carefully at what they’ve done.

    Separately, Thomas Vaughn wrote:

    Did you guys see this report on NPR from late last month?

    Norway’s oil finds shield It from economic gloom, Associated Press, 30 August 2011.

    I heard on the radio a related report about how Norway managed to keep its society and government functioning properly during an oil boom.

    As to some of the other remarks above, my opinion is that the failure of democracy in one or another place is likely not so much to do with whether money is available or not as to do with the underlying culture of the people. In particular, there must be a serious commitment to the dignity of every human person and to the natural rights entailed by intrinsic human dignity. What worries me is that the U.S. might lose the underlying culture that made democracy work here for the first couple of hundred years.

  8. WebHubTel says:

    Amy Myers Jaffe has worked directly for the oil industry as a lobbyist, and likely works indirectly now. If you follow the cast of characters the same ones continue to show up, Yergin, Lynch, and a few others. Some of the estimates the lobbyists are making are getting to the 10 trillion barrel level.

    • John Baez says:

      WebHubTel wrote:

      Amy Myers Jaffe has worked directly for the oil industry as a lobbyist, and likely works indirectly now.

      Okay, thanks—if so, that’s good to know! You’ve got to watch the sources in this sort of business, and keep an eye out for potential biases. In case anyone isn’t paying careful attention, she’s the one who said:

      Amy Myers Jaffe of Rice University says in the next decade, new oil in the US, Canada and South America could change the center of gravity of the entire global energy supply.

      “Some are now saying, in five or 10 years’ time, we’re a major oil-producing region, where our production is going up,” she says.

      The US, Jaffe says, could have 2 trillion barrels of oil waiting to be drilled. South America could hold another 2 trillion. And Canada? 2.4 trillion. That’s compared to just 1.2 trillion in the Middle East and north Africa.

      Jaffe says those new oil reserves, combined with growing turmoil in the Middle East, will “absolutely propel more and more investment into the energy resources in the Americas.”

      On Wikipedia it says:

      Amy Myers Jaffe is the Wallace S. Wilson Fellow in Energy Studies at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

      Jaffe holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in Near Eastern Studies and Arabic from Princeton University. She is often interviewed by the media and gives lectures to groups such as the Women’s Energy Network (WEN) of Houston.

      Jaffe’s research focuses on oil geopolitics, strategic energy policy, and energy economics. She is widely published in academic journals and is a frequent keynote speaker at major energy industry conferences. Jaffe is a widely quoted commentator on oil and energy policy in the international media and has provided testimony on Capitol Hill on energy matters. She appears regularly on a variety of television news stations and programs.

      Jaffe served as member of the reconstruction and economy working group of the Baker/Hamilton Iraq Study Group and was a major contributor to the recent joint Baker Institute/CFR task force on Guiding Principles for U.S. Post-Conflict Policy in Iraq . She has also served as an advisor to the U.S. National Intelligence Council Study on Energy to 2015, as project director for the Baker Institute/CFR task force on Strategic Energy Policy, and as a principal advisor to USAID’s project on Options for Developing a Long Term Sustainable Iraqi Oil Industry. She is currently serving as a strategic advisor to the American Automobile Association (AAA) of the United States helping the motor club fashion a voice for the American motorist in the U.S. energy policy debate.

      So, are you saying she’s motivated to exaggerate the size and impact of this ‘American oil boom’? What do the people you trust say about it?

      • Giampiero Campa says:

        Honestly the fact that she has a Bachelor of Arts, but is a fellow for ENERGY studies, at an university institution, albeit private university, is deeply depressing to me.

        • Todd Trimble says:

          I’m not exactly sure why. Is it the fact that she doesn’t have a doctorate? (Certainly there was a time when many competent faculty members at universities did not have a doctorate.) Or the fact that it’s a Bachelor of Arts? (My own baccalaureate degree is a B.A. — in mathematics.) Or what?

        • Giampiero Campa says:

          You are right, i assumed that BA was a nontechnical degree (well, Arts, I guess that also shows i did not get my degrees in the US :), but i now i see that i might be wrong about it. So thanks for clarifying.

          Still a MS in energy-related disciplines would be desirable, but no, my main concern was that her degree had nothing to do with energy, physics or math.

          Also, I realize that this might be a bias on my part, because a degree does not really guarantee anything, and one could very well learn skills on the job. But at the same time when you go to a Doctor it’s nice to know that she/he holds an MD. That was my reasoning.

        • Todd Trimble says:

          (Just to be clear, I am not defending the individual in question. It may very well be the case the she isn’t qualified for the position; I just don’t know.)

        • John Baez says:

          I have a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics. I found that deeply depressing too, at first.

  9. I hang out on Climate Etc where I ran into a geophysicist working for the oil industry trying to sell Bakken shale oil as a long-term cure. This is how I responded to his points.

    Horizontal drilling with mile long extensions and multistage fracs allows production from these horizontal fractures at economic rates exceeding 1000bbls/day.

    How long will that rate last? According to the North Dakota Dept. Mineral Resources,, slide 17, a typical rig will drop from 1000 barrels per day down to 200 barrels per day in 2 years. That is the nature of these reservoirs, in comparison to a longer-lived traditional reservoir.

    If you do the math 2000 such wells would replace all the oil imported by the US from Saudi Arabia.

    OK, it will for one (1) year.

    The USA consumes like 20,000,000 barrels per day. So we need 20,000 of these that might average 1000 barrels per day drilled to match our current consumption. And then 20,000 new ones will have to be drilled again every 2 years, and so on, ad nauseum.
    But, the actual plan is to create only 20,000 new wells in the next 10-20 years, so at best it will cover only 5-10% of our oil consumption at any one time, and 2000 new ones will have to be drilled every two years to meet demand. That is not considering how much liquid and other energy will be required during the extraction.

    When people use the term “you people in the oil industry” they immediately expose the fact that they know nothing about oil, geology, geophysics, engineering or science in general but in spite of their lack of first hand knowledge write books based on misconceptions.

    We do it because you people in the industry won’t. The oil business can’t stand to see the truth spoken. They just keep on deceiving us with marketing blurbs.

    For your information there is no GHG theory because there is no such scientifically defined term as GHG a term that was introduced by Hansen in his 1988 paper which excluded water vapour and ozone the only two gases in the atmosphere other than CO2 which have any sort of measurable effect on the Earth’s radiative spectrum.

    I then told him based on his deception in revealing the actual oil outlook, how can I even begin to listen to what he says about climate change.

    BTW, Amy Myers Jaffe is a lobbyist for industry and works at a policy think tank within Rice so you have to take what she says with a grain of salt. All the numbers are manipulable and unless we understand the stochastic flow rates and distributions and do a full probability and statistical mathematical treatment, the industry will send their people out putting their own spin on the situation and continue to deceive us.

    An example:

    “The point is you can’t force a technology that’s not commercial. Rather than subsidize things that are not going to be competitive, we need to actually use that money to do R&D to create technologies — the same way that the industries created these technologies to produce natural gas and it turned out so commercially successful.”

    Fracturing has been known for decades! It’s just that the average energy price has increased enough that the cost of fracturing is now worth it.

  10. teddy says:

    My skeptical nature forces me to search for background. here is what I find:

    the 2008 USGS estimate is a few billion barrels of recoverable oil in the Bakken. The new report will take two years to update that number.
    This is very different from the numbers in the NPR story. The story relies on Amy Myers Jaffe for the big estimates. I searched her name and found this.

    The 1990s had oil prices in the teens of dollars a barrel. In this Feb. 2000 article, Jaffe writes that $25-$30 a barrel is a price shock and that “The next two decades will witness a prolonged surplus of oil, which will tamp prices down”. And she speculates on the shift in global power. Eleven years later she is still singing the same song. And oil prices are up, not down as she predicts.

    The NPR story should have cited the USGS estimate.

  11. Jeff Tansley says:

    When I read stuff like this I get just a little sceptical especially when I compare it with Gail the Actuary and her cohorts. See for example: They would contend that the Bakken formation will contribute little to providing serious energy supply for any length of time.

    Now most of the contributors on this site are not category theory physicists so what they say must be suspect but for the life of me I haven’t been able fathom just where they are wrong. My own thinking is that they are generally rather too optimistic much like many climate scientists.

    • John Baez says:

      What upsets me is that fairly respectable people—people who get interviewed on NPR, at least— can make such radically different statements about things that’ll have such a huge impact on our future. In the case of human-caused global warming we have the vast majority of climate scientists who say one thing, and the bloggers and talk radio show hosts who say another, and one can sort of guess who is more likely to be right, even before doing any research oneself. But in the case of ‘peak oil’ it seems like more of a murky mess. I will need to dig into these questions more deeply, and that’s annoying: we shouldn’t all need to become experts on this stuff, there’s too much else that needs to be done. But oh well.

    • Frederik De Roo says:

      Jeff Tansley wrote:

      Now most of the contributors on this site are not category theory physicists so what they say must be suspect

      Why do you think you? Are you a category theory physicist by profession? I wouldn’t trust them any more than anyone else.

      I admit that people who are talking about their own field, may sometimes have personal interests to represent their field in a false manner (I think this applies to category theorists too when talking about category theory…) but – without good evidence – trusting people who are talking about something they haven’t necessarily studied doesn’t seem a better solution.

    • Oil depletion theory is very murky indeed. The number of scientists that you will find that actively study this is inconsequential in comparison to the number that study climate science.

      I don’t know why this is and its actually one of the reasons that I have been investigating it on my own the last 6 years. I figured I could make some progress in a relatively uncrowded field and find something of interest occasionally. Nothing has really changed in the interim other than people are getting a better intuitive feel for what’s happening. The math and statistics that the analysts use is still primitive and it’s hard for me to find a toe-hold anywhere for advocating some better approaches. The entire field is still really applied heuristics instead of applied math.

      The recent trending arguments are in terms of grades of fossil fuels and what kind of energy returns we can expect without completely ruining the environment. It really gets murky when you realize the European low-countries used up their peat for fuel centuries ago, according to a recent post on The Oil Drum. The Netherlands was filled with huge peat bogs at one time! What’s in store for us with respect to the tar sands, etc I can only imagine.

      Recently I have started branching out more into the climate science area and especially where the domains intersect, particularly CO2 accounting. Blogs and climate science analysts are a dime a dozen and you can find competing theories at any level of abstraction you can imagine. Getting mathematical discussions going there is brutal; instead of the apathy of peak oil, its more a matter of being able to take the incessant hammering of the skeptics. The climate scientists themselves seem to have become jaded based on the abuse they take. I can see how this happens.

      John, you have it pegged as usual.

      • Jeff Tansley says:

        I am not so sure that its oil depletion theory that is the source of murkiness but economic theory. The principle tenet of modern economic theory is an infinite supply of substitutable (energy) resources. Not without costs but essentially infinite. The first serious criticism of this notion I know was by W.S. Jevons. It’s worth a look if you don’t know it:

        The Coal Question, Wikipedia.

        In 1956 M.K. Hubbert did the same thing for oil. In 1971 Meadows et al generalised the concept with ‘Limits to Growth’ pulling together resource, consumption and pollution. These ideas have been resoundingly rubbished by the good and great as it seriously undermines our current socio-economic system. Nevertheless recent studies on LtG give it considerable credence. See:

        • Graham Turner, A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with thirty years of reality, 2008.

        • Matthew R Simmons, Revising Limits to Growth: Could the Club of Rome been right after all?, 2000.

        My concern is that in the general scheme of things climate change might not matter. By the time we face the more extreme consequences—rising sea levels, changes in thermohaline circulation, melting permafrost and continual bought’s of smog, acid rains, hurricanes, tornados, heat waves, cold waves, drought, and floods and so on—we will be close to running out of the resources. By run out I mean a world deficit by many orders of magnitude of most resources needed to satisfy material wealth and structural well-being now expected and demanded by an increasing proportion of the world population. Instead of the assumed infinite supply there will be very limited quantities of oil, natural gas, coal, mineral ores, trees, fish stocks and farmed foods and so on—all the things we need to combat climate change.

        The math and statistics that the analysts use is still primitive and it’s hard for me to find a toe-hold anywhere for advocating some better approaches. The entire field is still really applied heuristics instead of applied math.

        Not completely—take for example the LtG model and simulation. This based on system dynamics of differential equations. However the approach is rather coarse grained. Not that I think this is wrong but it gives sceptics the opportunity to nit-pick detail which an uncomprehending media love to exploit. An alternative is to use process algebra (a development of pi calculus for example) but the scale of the problem is such with the compute power at our disposal we can only go so far. What might be useful is economic equivalent of the kind of work relating process algebras to differential equations that Cardelli, Phillips and others have done for biological systems.

        This might provide both an analytic and a mixed level modelling and simulation paradigm that could give clearer less questionable predictions.

        • Roger Witte says:

          I have always wondered why economists have been so reluctant to develop the work of the founding father of the field, Thomas Malthus.

          His observation that unbounded population growth would be exponential is certainly true.

          His assumption that unbounded resource growth is linear fails because innovation can result in resources going further. However, so long as resources are bounded, his conclusion that there will eventually be very unpleasant consequences to population growth still holds.

          I have also noticed that advocates of free markets are picky about which bits of Adam Smith’s theories they quote.

          It is hard to escape the conclusion that economics is not a science since the criterion for rejecting or accepting theories is political palatability as at least as much as fit to observation.

        • The problem with the Systems Dynamics (LtG=Limits to Growth) models is that they don’t treat the stochastic behavior seriously. Where do they account for the huge variation in reservoir sizes and the fat tail statistics in rates that we must include to get the quantitative predictions correct?
          IMO, all the nit-picking goes away if we can do the analysis in the correct super-statistical framework. Coarse-graining is perfectly fine if the statistics act to smear out all the fine-grained detail that averages out in the end.

          Seriously if you want to see where I am going with this, check out my on-line document called The Oil Conundrum. This is all worked out as a first pass.

          Otherwise, I agree with most of your points.

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