Its the end of the world as we know it, part 23

One of the advantages of being obsessed with the Cold War is finding little gems like this: Britain planned chicken-powered nuclear land mines called Blue Peacock. You couldn’t make it up.

Anyway, for the Peak Oil people predicting the imminent end of civilisation, here’s a little something from the 1860s. Yes folks, its Peak Coal!

we cannot long continue our present rate of progress“, said the respected economist, William Stanley Jevons.

On coal’s use:
the rate of multiplication is in recent years many times as great as during preceding centuries, and is rapidly advancing

On the supplies of coal:
And, of course, when Mr. Vivian asserts that South Wales can supply all England for 500 years, he means at the present rate of consumption, which is quite beside the question. The question is, how long will South Wales supply us at the present price with the present growing demand?

On substitutes for coal:
No possible concentration of windmills, again, would supply the force required in large factories or iron works.

Complete text at Dieoff… oops, no sorry, here instead. But the oil crash people really need to read this stuff.

12 thoughts on “Its the end of the world as we know it, part 23

  1. Oil Discovered 1858

    The irony is that poor bassid was right. Coal would have peaked but something derailed that train. Oil was discovered in 1858. Its easier to handle than coal and more energy dense. Soon, everything went to oil burning instead of coal burning. Coal became less useful and demand dropped off. Here in America, we still have coal fired powerplants in the eastern states but the west coast plants run on oil, hydroelectric (most in CA are tasked to pumping water to Los Angeles), or more commonly natural gas.

    Natural gas in N. America is expected to run out this fall. Natural gas doesn’t give warnings, it just stops. Lots of work is being done towards importing it, however nobody wants a natural gas shipping terminal in their port because they explode and kill everyone for miles.

    As oil production fails to keep up with demand, demand-side economics cause the price to rise. A year ago gas was about $1.50/gal. It is currently $2.61/gal. Commodities brokers predict $105/barrel by Xmas instead of the $30/barrel it was a year ago. It is currently hovering around $57/bbl. Demand in India and China are the main reason for price rising, however it is becoming more widely accepted that the Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia is in decline. Many petroleum geologists believe it has been overproduced and is collapsed because of it. That means that some of the oil there will not be recovered any time soon. Ghawar is the biggest oilfield in the world. The Saudis can’t keep up with demand. The statistical probability of finding a giant field is very low and even that would take ten years to develop and its oil would only supply energy needs for a few months at current rates of consumption. Nevermind that more and more people want cars and energy. Unintented consequences of improved standards of living for the average world citizen.

    If you’re curious about what is going on in the oil world, consider visiting since they’re basically reposting energy news. Its far less biased than freakshow websites like

    1. Re: Oil Discovered 1858

      That’s an interesting link, thanks.

      Jevons was wrong. Our use of coal has continued to increase since 1860s, its still huge and still growing, because coal is still the cheapest way to produce electricity.

      Everything didn’t go to burning oil. Demand didn’t drop off. We use four billion tonnes of it per year. The world gets 23% of its energy from coal.

      So Jevons seriously missed the plot, because he didn’t understand how good mining technology would get.

      But on to Peak Oil. Its not going to happen.

      Yes, some fields are going to be depleted but that’s been happening since we started using oil. Our response is to look for oil in fields that are harder to get at. This would push up supply costs, but the technology of oil extraction pushes down those costs at the same time. There are plenty of locations we’ve not even looked. The furthest offshore platforms are around a hundred miles off shore. Compare that with the size of the Atlantic and Pacific.

      And so what if the price does go up? Economic growth slows from 2% to 1.5% per year. That’s hardly the end of civilisation.

      If oil remains at $50/barrel, then it becomes economic to turn coal into liquid fuels, as we’ve been able to do since the 1970s. If the price stays higher than that, then it becomes profitable to use oil shales, oil sands and methane ices. There’s an astounding amount carbon-based fossil fuels that we can profitably burn, there’s more oil in oil shales alone than there ever was in liquid oil reserves.

      And as our ability to extract it increases, the supply costs come down. Potentially, carbon-based fuels will remain cheaper than renewables, for the predictable future.

      And this is the real problem. If we burn all that carbon, and the carbon dioxide ends up in the atmosphere, then the climate is truely screwed. And then we far more fucked, as a species, than if oil runs out.

      Peak Oil is a distraction from the real problem, and an annoying one at that.

      sorry for the rant, but I’m off to a meeting on this shortly and I’m working out what I’m going to say.

      1. Re: Oil Discovered 1858

        I know you mean well, but I’m educated as a geologist and spent the last year researching this problem. Apples are not oranges. There is no free lunch.

        Let me say that again:

        There is no free lunch.

        The oil really does run out. Claims that X will save us are nothing more than wishful thinking. Yes, there are interesting alternative sources like the oil sands of Alberta and the oil shales in Colorado and Wyoming, but recovery is a lot more difficult than you think. They’re a freaking nightmare to extract and have a much lower yield than conventional oil. You have to use energy to get energy. The return on investment is low compared to normal oil wells. This means that the supply won’t meet the demand so only the wealthy have fuel. That means the 3rd world suffers. Wars come from that.

        We are still going to run out and our food supply is based on petrochemical based fertilizers and pesticides. 1.5 billion people rely on American grain to stay alive. The aquifer used to water all that grain is nearly empty and the pumps used to bring water to the surface are powered by oil. Even if you go to electrical pumps, the aquifer won’t refill for another 2 million years. That’s lost farmland. Agribusiness doesn’t know how to grow organically and they are going to find it hard to replace all those tractors and combines with stoop labor. That means low harvest and starvation for about 2-3 billion people. Can I be any clearer?

        Yes, in time, after several billion people die of starvation, the situation will relax, the survivors will know how to farm, and technology will recover. If we’re very lucky this starvation will take many years. We will need to be very lucky.

        Global warming is insignificant compared to the Peak Oil problem. Global warming is a natural event that is part of our planet. Human impact on climate is neglible. Mt. Pinatubo released more greenhouse gasses than the last 4 million years of human history combined. It raised temps 3 degrees for 5 years. BFD. The entire Jurassic period was hotter and drier than now. All life is not destroyed by higher global temperatures. That’s infantile nonsense.

        Renewable energy IS expensive, but it is better than no energy at all. Organic farming takes lots of effort but it is better than not eating. I am strongly opposed to pretending magic solutions to energy depletion will take care of our stupid society.

        sorry for my rant but ignorant rhetoric makes me angry. Please take the time to educate yourself on the reality.

        1. Re: Oil Discovered 1858

          Firstly, please don’t base your arguments on your personal qualifications. The ‘my PhD is shinier than yours’ game is not one that you want to play with me. And ultimately, this argument is as much about economics as geology.

          > Yes, there are interesting alternative sources like the oil sands of Alberta and the oil shales in Colorado and Wyoming, but recovery is a lot more difficult than you think.

          Let’s go back 50 years. The recovery of oil from beneath the North Sea was a pipe dream, far too expensive to be contemplated. Now its common practise. If the price of oil rises, then the alternative sources become more viable. At the prices we see now, some of them are already viable. Oil shales and gassification/liquification of coal start to work at around $50. Oil sands and methane clathydrates cost more, at the moment, but give it 20 years. Even assuming the worst increases in consumption, each of those sources will happily do us for many decades, if not hundreds of years.

          > The return on investment is low compared to normal oil wells.

          So what? If you mean the return on capital, then that depends on the price of the oil, so if the price goes up, then the ROI increases. If you mean the energy that you have to put in to get energy out, provided its above one, then that just decreases the return on capital, but if the price of oil is enough, it still ends up profitable. It does reduce the total amount of oil recoverable, by reducing the efficiency of the overall system, but that just means that the life of your alternative source is shortened.

          Again, so what?

          I have no doubt that there is a finite amount of carbon-based fuels on the Earth, purely because the crust is finite. That amount is many times more than the amount of easily-recoverable oil. Yes, there may come a day when that all of that is used. Seeing as coal reserves are orders of magnitude greater than oil, that’s not going to happen quickly.

          Its not a Peak Oil question, its a Peak Carbon Fuels question.

          And as for your view on global warming… wow. You’re calling me ignorant?

          1. Re: Oil Discovered 1858

            The Methane Hydrates are difficult and physically dangerous to disturb, nevermind extract. I do hope they figure out a way to extract them because they are an enormous potential resource, capable of providing lots of energy, on the order of our previous natural gas wells and coal combined.

            Coal is no picnic. The amount that can be removed is limited by the physical structure of the overburden. In most cases much of the coal must be left behind to prevent collapse. What makes coal particularly bad to work with is the presence of Iron Pyrite which will oxidize in the presence of water, can ignite, and light the coal on fire. There are many underground coal fires in TN and KY in the USA. There’s one in PA that’s been burning since the 1960’s.

            As for deep ocean oil I feel the need to explain about the Oil Window. Oil is made from lignite, a carbon rich sediment (even coal) that gets heated to a certain range of temp and pressure for a certain amount of time, varying with each variable, nature’s refinery. If you cook it too long the molecules break down and become natural gas. This is why we don’t have oil wells on the Oregon Coast, the Eastern Seaboard.

            You can learn details of the science of the Oil Window in Kenneth Deffeyes book “Hubberts Peak”. Its very science oriented because he was a professor of Petroleum Geology at Princeton Univ after working 20 odd years for Shell under M. King Hubbert, the father of Peak Oil theory. Since Hubbert pegged the peak of US oil dead on and predicted the peak of world oil production using science and economics, his arguments are compelling and based on solid science that I respect. He also spells out exactly the kind of locations that can hold oil and the statistics of oil finds placing the possiblity of another Prudhoe Bay (a giant find long since peaked) very very slim. At current consumption rates Prudhoe Bay only lasts a few weeks.

            The biggest point of economics about Peak Oil is not that it will run out, but that supply will not keep up with demand. This causes the price to rise until it is priced beyond the reach of the poor. This will also cause inflation since much of the world’s production is directly linked to oil, particularly things like food, plastics, electricity, computers, pharmaceuticals, transportation of goods. Yes, much of that will have to go to other sources however it is also a question of time. Unfortunately, people assume they have time 4x when it could really only be time 1x or x/2.

            Those who hold oil have little reason for honesty about their reserves since the more they pump the more they make, particularly back in the 1980’s. If there is any conspiracy about Peak Oil it is lying about reserve numbers. Geologists who reviewed the original reserve estimates predict peak was reached in 2000-2004 and we are currently in the Plateau phase which comes right before production decline. We’re now seeing the decline from Ghawar field in Saudi and that was the last field with any spare production capacity. The North Sea peaked in 1999 and the British have already gone to being a Petroleum Importing country again. That’s why the British have released a bunch of movies etc about blackouts and food riots as a warning to their public. These were on the BBC and stirred some attention though they never got over here to the States.

            And global warming? Well, there’s an entire branch of geology dedicated to historic climates. It was a painful course to take as there was a lot of detail required but suffice it to say that the Jurassic wasn’t the only time the earth got Hot and Dry. There was still plenty of life around. Sea Levels rise and fall. It’s not the end of the world, just a population movement issue.

        2. Re: Oil Discovered 1858

          *smiles quietly*

          Heretic, meet Happy. Happy, meet heretic. I’m so glad you finally met. I look forward to hours of educationaly entertainment.

          1. Re: Play nicely with each other!

            Is this the part where we compete for the ladies’ favour, in the manner of jousting knights?

            I should warn you, sir, that I shall demand satisfaction.

          2. Re: Play nicely with each other!

            I should warn you that I am a direct descendant of William Marshall, the Horatio Alger of Jousting. Went from Squire to Knight to Earl of Pembroke (Wales) to Regent of England over his 70 year life back in the 1100’s. He never lost. Still, he and his sons managed to play with the Welsh ladies quite a bit so there are quite a few of us around despite the “official English version” that his line died out with his sons and daughter. Heh.

            I think we can keep this clean as long as we don’t lose our tempers.

            Let there be education!

          3. Re: Play nicely with each other!

            And I should warn you, sir, that I am a mongrel through and through, and that my ancestors, unencumbered by name or expectation, have prospered through means both fair and foul, to their advantage.

          4. Re: Play nicely with each other!

            Excellent. Have you read through ? I find simple news articles less biased than ranting websites, which are an unfortunate aspect of Peak Oil. There are just too many crazies interested in it, to the point they obscure the scientists trying to explain the significance as well as opportunities for remediation. “Head for the Hills!” tends to drown out “raise minimum fuel economy standards”.

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