"It took 150 million years to make this stuff and we will have used it all in 200." Oil playwright Ella Hickson speaking to The Times.
Whilst researching her latest play, Ella spoke to retired petroleum geologist Colin Campbell to get an insight into the world's most valuable resource - and when it's going to run out. A leading expert in the theory of 'Peak Oil', we caught up with Colin to discuss how we're using oil and our options for the future.
Could you give us a brief overview behind the theory of 'Peak Oil'?
I spent my career in the oil business, first of all as an explorer and then as an executive. I started to become aware of the concept many years ago when analysing countries in South America - I could see that Columbia had good prospects, east of the Andes was a new province that hadn’t yet been developed. But most of the other basins in the area had already been found, and there wasn’t much oil left in them. And then I ended up working in Norway, and found it was the same story. So that gave me the insight into this situation, and as I pursued it I found that the same pattern applied everywhere. Basically the simple answer is that oil is a finite resource, formed in the geological past, under now well-understood processes. That means it’s subject to depletion. It’s a finite stuff and it’s got to deplete. That generality is beyond dispute really.
But when you look at the details it gets very complicated - first of all there are many different categories of oil. Heavy oil, fracking, tight oil, polar oil, deep water oil... there’s different categories and there’s no standard classification which is a cause of much confusion in the public data. So for my theory, I define it my way and have what I call ‘regular conventional oil’ and it peaked in 2005. I don’t think there is too much dispute about that anymore.
And that's the most common type of oil we encounter?
Yes, that’s right. It’s all the oil fields, produced in early years through conventional processes of exploiting them. I don’t think there is much dispute about that. Of course there are all these other categories. It’s very difficult to analyse exactly the process but my own best guess is that the peak was passed last year actually. But I could well be wrong; it may go for another year or two. But this argument about the date of peak really misses the point, because what matters is the vision of the long decline that comes into sight on the other side of it. That’s the essential aspect of all of this.
When one looks at the consequences of this, well the modern world runs on oil. This has been a remarkable chapter in history when a flood of easy and cheap oil-based energy had a major impact on the world. Social structures have changed as people in all walks of life increased their consumption of goods and services. They also came to assume that their living conditions were set to improve over time, and became resentful if there were delays or reversals. The energy delivered by oil has triggered the economic expansion of the past century – it allowed the population to grow enormously, seven fold in fact since the 'oil age' began. I think the logic is that the second half of the age of oil will be marked by a corresponding contraction because there just won't be the easy oil and therefore the easy energy yielded from oil in the past.
Would you say that we are approaching the second half of the oil age now?
You can argue in detail as to whether it’s this year or next year… but despite the uncertainties of detail, there can be no doubt that we now face the dawn of the Second Half of the Oil Age, when the production of this critical supply of energy declines from natural depletion.
So there’s going to be a radical change of historical proportions. Although really if you look back there’s nothing unusual about this situation… empires have waxed and waned through history. Communities prospered and then they cut down their trees, then they became extinct or had to move somewhere else. This is quite a normal pattern actually. But it’s a very fascinating subject and it’s very difficult for governments to come to terms with this, because in democracies people only get elected by telling people what they want to hear. So this change affecting the entire future of Homosapians is a very difficult one for governments to get their heads around or do anything that needs to be done. It’s not simple what needs to be done either.
Do you think the relatively low price is having an effect on production?
Well, the peak of 'regular conventional oil' in 2005 helped trigger the oil price shock in 2008 which saw prices surge to around $150 per barrel. The radical increase caused the onset of an economic recession and financial crisis that cut demand and led to the failure of several major banks. The high prices also prompted a surge in the production of Non-Conventional categories of oil and gas, especially Tight Oil and Gas in the United States. But now it’s edging up again, around $50 per barrel in the past few days.
I mean fracking is only really commercially viable at about $70 per barrel so that’s facing a big setback. Investments are not being made and many big oil companies are facing problems – in Norway the whole industry is in deep recession, there are about 5000 unemployed people in Stavanger which used to be the oil capital of Norway. So it’s having a huge impact yes.
Do you see any of the renewable energies we have now being primary contenders to replace oil?
Obviously the future depends on renewable energy of some kind, and it’s the right direction to go. But it’s very difficult of course when it competes with cheap, easy energy coming from the first half of the oil age. I think tidal energy is a major source for the future because there’s a lot of energy you could capture from the tides. But these supplies cannot match the easy oil-based energy of the past. Many have low net energy yields, such for example as an offshore wind farm that takes a lot of energy to build and service.
Agriculture has been described as a process that turns oil into food, as it has come to depend heavily on this resource to plough and harvest the fields, transport the food to markets and provide synthetic nutrients. As a result, it seems logical to suggest that the world will be able to support no more than about half its current population by the end of the century. It is significant that both Europe and the United States face increasing immigration pressures as people in other lands find life unsupportable.
Serious political unrest has already broken out in the Middle East - significantly, it holds about half of the world's remaining Regular Conventional Oil, giving it a special global importance. The countries are relatively barren lands with little else in the way of natural resources to support their populations save for oil-related wealth.
I think there is gradually an awareness as this whole situation is unfolding. Whole societies face a radical change and it’s not easy. It is however not necessarily a doomsday message as there is much that people and their governments can do to adapt to the changing circumstances once they come to realise and accept what they are.
But I think the main thrust is we can’t match the oil supply of the past, we'll have to change the way we live and have to go back to more local communities who can live on what that particular area can support.
Playwright Ella Hickson and Director Carrie Cracknell make their Almeida debuts with the World Premiere of Oil, an explosive new play which drills deep into the world's relationship with this finite resource, running from 7 October - 26 November.