Net Energy an Increasing Problem with Oil

by Val Germann

The Oil Drum website has taken up the net energy problem with a vengeance this week, getting my attention with some very dramatic information in this area. This problem has been reported on before here at Star Phoenix Base and it is no doubt going to grow in importance as the new millennium gains speed.

In a nutshell the problem is two-fold. First, a lot of material now called “oil” really isn’t, and isn’t as BTU efficient as petroleum. Second, the petroleum being pumped these days is increasingly more energy intensive to get and less BTU efficient when we get it. Together these two effects are putting a double-whammy on the world and its energy supply. Yes, we have oil, but it’s not oil like it used to be.

Let’s take a quick look at three illustrations cribbed off The Oil Drum site. The first two show the standard EIA production situation through mid-2006, but in two different ways:

worldoilnetvsgross01a.JPGworldoilnetvsgross02a.JPG

The graph on the left is the standard EIA example while the one on the right has been adusted for the relative energy content of “all liquids” counted as petroleum today. It’s a fact, the world is not getting the BTUs out of “oil” that it thinks its getting, and that situation is worsening every year as the production of those other liquids rises. But that’s not all.

The graph below depicts an estimate of the “net energy” we’ll get from BTU-adjusted petroleum, due to the increasing problems with the world’s largest fields and the rush to tar sands and shale.

iea-gross-vs-net-sensitivity.JPG

No, it probably won’t be this bad but something like it will take place, and sooner than any of us would like to think. That is, the net energy from petroleum will be declining soon and must begin to sink rapidly toward zero, on average, within a generation or so. Impossible? I don’t think so, and you have to peruse The Oil Drum’s recent articles to get a more thorough picture.

Every week, no, every day, brings another piece of information pointing to severe energy problems just ahead. Will humanity be able to meet the challenge these problems will pose? This is very much an open question.

About Val

I am a long-time teacher of science and astronomy with a strong interest in resource conservation and the environment.
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