Thursday, January 27, 2005

Liars Figure

I usually make a point of scanning the headlines at Science Daily at least once per day. Today, I was annoyed to see that they've posted a thoroughly unscientific article by the deranged PR flack Alan Caruba, whose intolerably smug "debunking" of alternative energy relies primarily on unsubstantiated claims by such like-minded fanatics as Ben Lieberman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Like most members of the anti-environmental goon squad, Caruba fancies himself a formidable ironist...a modern-day Swift who wields a goosequill dipped in venom. In other words, he relies on the sort of grueling, leaden sarcasm that most of us grew out of (or had beaten out of us) by late adolescence.

That's by the by, though. His larger problem is that he's pathologically dishonest:

And surely the world is running out of oil, right? Wrong! The world has plenty of oil, enough says the US Geological Survey to last for at least the next several hundred years or longer. Worldwide, there are 14,000 billion barrels of crude oil reserves. In its "World Petroleum Assessment 2000" report, the global reserves of crude oil were estimated to be some 3,000 billion barrels.
Let's go over this carefully. Caruba declares that the USGS says we have at least "several hundreds of years" of oil left. Then, he states categorically that there are "14,000 billion barrels of crude oil reserves." A moment later, he says that in 2000, the USGS estimated reserves at a mere 3,000 billion, implying (apparently) that they've since revised the number upwards. (They haven't.) I've seen no evidence that the USGS has ever said that there are several hundred years of oil left. Also, the USGS calculates on a probabilistic basis, settling on a mean figure between maximum and minimum estimates of discoverability and recoverability. Some experts think the maximum figure is utterly implausible, which, if true, would obviously affect the mean figure.

The world consumes roughly 30 billion barrels of oil per year. If Caruba's higher, but unsourced, figure is correct (and please bear in mind that he presents this figure as though it represents proven global reserves), we're looking at about 500 hundred more years of oil, assuming - as I'm sure no good conservative actually would - that there will be no oil-intensive growth over the next century. (Just for the record, China's demand for crude oil grew by a whopping 30 percent in 2003 alone.) We must also assume that there will be no periods of exceptionally high demand, like...hmmm, let's see...wars, for instance.

But where did this figure of 14,000 billion barrels come from, and does it actually refer to proven supplies? If you Google the figure, you get a couple pages' worth of largely unsourced cut-and-paste newsgroup posting by wingnuts, most of which use roughly the same language, as thus: "Oil shales, for example, could easily be as large as 14,000 billion barrels." In other words, Caruba's talking about an estimate, not a fact.

It's worse than that. The prospective figure of 14,000 barrels of oil has been fervently disseminated by David Deming of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a far right think-tank funded by the usual big-business suspects. Deming sources the figure to a 1995 American Petroleum Institute policy paper by senior API analyst Ed Porter. The figure, however, refers to unconventional oil with high environmental and financial extraction costs, not to conventionally exploitable crude reserves. Thus, when Caruba says that there are literally 14,000 billion barrels of crude oil reserves in the world, he's being dishonest.

Not everyone finds Porter's logic compelling, either. For instance, geologist Dr. Colin J. Campbell wrote an open letter to Mr. Porter, which is worth quoting at some length:
I started reading your paper thinking that here we would have an authoritative statement of this important subject. I began to jot down notes and comments on points of detail, but by the time I was about half way through, the penny dropped. I realized that it was not an objective and analytical study as it appeared to be, but a "lobbying" document to deliver a predetermined message and discredit any counter arguments. In some ways, it reminds me of a trial in which counsel tries to undermine the evidence by subtle innuendo and inference. I will comment only on the main flaws in the logic.
Among the "flaws in the logic" uncovered by Dr. Campbell is a rather flexible interpretation of what "reserves" means:
Proved Reserves have a high probability of occurrence (90-95%) whereas that the USGS "Identified" reserves have a low probability (5-10%), being notional geological amounts unconstrained by economic, technological or timing factors. "Reserve Growth" is treated as if it were a dynamic akin to discovery, when it is mainly an artifact of the reporting process.
Dr. Campbell goes on to say that technically speaking, we're not running out of oil; we're merely running out of reserves that are cheap and abundant enough to support us in the style to which we've become accustomed. In the case of unconventional reserves like those trumpeted by Caruba, it may take more energy to extract the oil than is actually recovered. There's no reason to assume that the cost of such oil will be sufficiently low to run a civilization anything like ours.

All in all, I find it extremely disturbing that Science Daily would post Caruba's bad-faith, demonstrably dishonest op-ed piece. Scientifically illiterate shills for energy companies churn out these cookie-cutter opinion pieces constantly; there's nothing about Caruba's that makes it worthy of special consideration.

(By the way, I'm not an expert on this subject, but I know that a couple of people who read this site are. If I've misrepresented the facts here, I hope you'll be kind enough to correct me!)


JMS said...

I think you are accurate, but I am no more than a concerned layman myself.

Caruba is a professional PR guy, so it is weird to me that his article was referenced at all by Science Daily (although it looks like they use an google style auto-collector for news, not a human editor)

Peak Oil / Energy is a very complex subject. It takes a lot of time and effort for people to understand it. If you pick the wrong experts to listen to, they'll lead you down the garden path.

Dr. Campbell is a retired Oil Geologist, worked for real oil companies, and has endured a lot of criticism starting back from his '97 SCIAM article.

I'll take the word of of an expert in his field who has no entanglements with industry over a pro flack like Caruba any day.

Some people probably can't tell the difference.

Aquaria said...

Argh! Argh argh argh!

These people who confuse identified reserves with proved reserves drive me absolutely bananas!

Bush himself is pretty much a textbook example of what happens in the oil business to those who bank on the "identified" reserves. Arbusto kept drilling where they thought the oil might be (identified reserves), only to come up with dirt. Hell, I had more luck pegging identifiables that would produce than Bush did. And I was just the fiance of a Big Oil geophysicist, not an actual driller.

The problem with identifiable reserves is that being there doesn't mean they're usable as fuel. Sometimes, it's simply too hard to separate from the shale and all that. If it's there, it will have to be filtered from dirt. And that's such an expensive and time consuming process that it's not worth bothering with, unless the money guys are willing to make that investment. Thus far they aren't. For now. Desperation might make them re-think this. But don't hold your breath.

BTW, 14 trillion barrels is NOTHING. It really is, considering that we don't just use oil for fuel anymore. It's in so many things that we don't even think about. Heck, in the 30s, we had an oil field in Texas with over 30 billion barrels of oil. Of that, only 600 million barrels, of "identifiable" reserves have remained since the 60s. Still, 30 billion barrels of oil. From one field. Gone, in 30 years. When we weren't driving so much, nor using oil to make so many things. For the record, nobody has gotten a decent amount of oil out of the identifiables since 1960. But they keep trying... I can provide some laughable examples.

@whut said...

Good digging.

The Wall Street Journal just had a commentary by vulture capitalists Peter Gruber & Mark Mills on the potential of unconventional oil reserves.

Must be the mighty wurlitzer starting up because they echo: "To pick just one example among many, finding costs are essentially zero for the 3.5 trillion barrels of oil that soak the clay in the Orinoco basin in Venezuela, and the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Yes, that's trillion -- over a century's worth of global supply, at the current 30-billion-barrel-a-year rate of consumption."