“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.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »