Review: Hirsch on Peak Oil

Robert L. Hirsch has worked both on the US fusion energy program and for a major oil company (ARCO, now part of BP); he's now "senior energy analyst" for SAIC, a major US defense contractor. Last summer, Hirsch seems to have put together a presentation Peaking of World Oil Production - What Are We Willing to Risk? that provides a useful comparison of predictions and reality, and what we can really expect. 

[Updated March 7, 2005] The presentation has recently been extended into a full report: Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management, prepared for the Dept. of Energy. This report extends the arguments of last year's presentation to argue for action on specific mitigation strategies: fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks could have the most impact, pushing a switch to diesel and hybrid vehicles, but the US transportation sector represents $2 trillion in capital stock and normally would require 25-30 years to replace. See below for a few more details from the more recent report.

In the June 2004 presentation, two very interesting pieces of the analysis are Hirsch's summary of the prospects for unconventional oil (Canadian and Venezuelan tar), which he predicts would add less than a decade to the timing of peak production, and his discussion of the impact of improved technology and higher prices on production.

Hirsch graphs crude oil production in the lower 48 states against oil prices and timing of oilfield technology improvements, and pretty clearly shows that neither of those things had any lasting significant impact to raise production above what would be expected from a steady fall after the peak. There seems little reason to expect that will be different for the world oil peak.

When will the peak happen? Hirsch notes a variety of predictions:

Hirsch notes that "This is a LIQUID FUELS PROBLEM, not an "energy problem."" - nevertheless he sees a risk of considerable upheaval when the peak is reached. Mitigation steps - turning to new fuels, new energy sources, conservation, etc. - take decades to be effective. He closes with the question 'What are we willing to risk?'; to reduce those risks, we need to act now.

In the February 2005 Dept. of Energy report, Hirsch and colleagues analyze potential substitutes for oil along with demand reduction strategies. They don't find much that's promising. On biofuels, they state "there are no developed biomass-to-fuels technologies that are now near cost competitive." though an appendix on biofuels seems more positive. Electric passenger and rail vehicles could help, but they find the prospects for electric cars dependent on unpredictable public preferences (barring some technology improvements).

On hydrogen they quote the NRC study, "Because of the need for unpredictable inventions in fuel cells, as well as viable means for on-board hydrogen storage, the introduction of commercial hydrogen vehicles cannot be predicted."

A final section looks at several mitigation scenarios, determined by how far in advance action is taken. The analysis is based on "delayed wedges", which seem to bear some relation to the TW-scale wedges of Pacala and Socolow, though Hirsch and colleages take the wedges as literal linearly growing displacement of oil demand, after some time-delay offset for technology preparation.

The five "wedges" that seem to meet their criteria of near-practical implementation are:

  1. Fuel efficient transportation,
  2. Heavy oil/Oil sands,
  3. Coal liquefaction,
  4. Enhanced oil recovery,
  5. Gas-to-liquids.
In the analysis here, heavy oil has the greatest impact, with coal liquefaction second, starting to make a significant difference 3-4 years after "crash program initiation". Other than fuel efficiency improvements, these "wedges" do nothing to help with the greenhouse problem of course...

As the authors state, "The world has never confronted a problem like this, and the failure to act on a timely basis could have debilitating impacts on the world economy. Risk minimization requires the implementation of mitigation measures well prior to peaking. Since it is uncertain when peaking will occur, the challenge is indeed significant."

Created: 2005-03-07 16:51:44 by Arthur Smith
Modified: 2005-03-07 21:07:38 by Arthur Smith