The UK Energy Research Centre is Britain's official research center for energy issues. They've got a series of interesting looking reports and I'm currently making my way through one on peak oil.
There was a statement in the introduction that so clearly encapsulates the problem I want to post this for discussion. The report is on the above URL and is hot off the presses having been released on Oct 8, 2009.
First point is there's a distinction between "conventional oil" and "non-conventional oil". Conventional oil is the good stuff that got us all hooked on this potent liquid fuel. You pump it out of the ground and have to do little processing other than sending it through a refinery. It's conventional oil that's heading towards an near term peak in production capacity.
Non-conventional oil is stuff like where they dig up tar sands and process that to create a refinable liquid. Processing tar sands is expensive and energy intensive and has a low energy return on investment. However various reports I've read indicate the powers that be intend to use nuclear power to create the energy (heat, electricity, steam) required to process the tar sands.
The quote I wanted to share is this:
The oil industry must continually invest to replace the decline in production from existing fields. The average rate of decline from fields that are past their peak of production is at least 6.5%/year globally, while the corresponding rate of decline from all currently-producing fields is at least 4%/year. This implies that approximately 3 mb/d of new capacity must be added each year, simply to maintain production at current levels - equivalent to a new Saudi Arabia coming on stream every three years.
Decline rates are on an upward trend as more giant fields enter decline, as production shifts towards smaller, younger and offshore fields and as changing production methods lead to more rapid post-peak decline. As a result, more than two thirds of current crude oil production capacity may need to be replaced by 2030, simply to prevent production from falling. At best, this is likely to prove extremely challenging.
Oil reserves cannot be produced at arbitrarily high rates. There are physical, engineering and economic constraints upon both the rate of depletion of a field or region and the pattern of production over time. For example, the annual production from a region has rarely exceeded 5% of the remaining recoverable resources and most regions have reached their peak well before half of their recoverable resources have been produced. Supply forecasts that assume or imply significant departures from this historical experience are likely to require careful justification.
To keep up the current game of liquid fueled vehicles at the current amount of use ... that's what they're talking about. To keep up that game means adding from somewhere, either conventional or non-conventional or biofuels, 3 mb/day (or equivalent) of production capacity. That's an amount equal to Saudi Arabia's production.
What defines the oil peak is when production capacity begins to decline. Added investment may slow the decline but the decline is the decline.
In any case it's this sort of factoid that's a large part of why I'm interested in electric vehicles. They don't require liquid fuels and EV's give us all much more flexibility because there's so many ways to generate electrons.