“It’s not the size of the tank which matters, but the size of the tap.”
29 Oct 2011
This quote* from Dr. Jean-Marie Bourdaire, former director of both the International Energy Agency and the World Energy Council, captures something crucial about “unconventional oil,” like tar sands, oil shale, shale oil, and more. It’s something crucial, but often overlooked.
Although there are vast amounts of this unconventional oil, it all takes a lot of effort and money to turn it into something useable. And that means that it’s difficult to produce it at a high rate. Even if there are trillions of barrels worth of it in the ground, it may be that we will only manage to produce it at a certain rate that’s not as high as some hope—say, only 10 million barrels a day, or 20 million.
The point being, it may never be able to ramp up to replace the 75 million barrels a day of conventional crude we use today. That may mean that while there’s a lot of resources in the ground, the total liquid fuels we produce each year may start to decline in the next decade or two. We won’t be “running out of oil” (as Daniel Yergin tends to misrepresent the notion of peak oil), but the amount of oil available each year would be shrinking.
And even if it did ramp up to that level, it wouldn’t really be a replacement for conventional oil, because the unconventional stuff has a much lower energy return on investment (but that’s a whole other story).
*Note: I got this quote from Chris Nelder’s informative book Profit from the Peak.