Key Concept | Peak Oil | Conventional vs. unconventional

Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada. Image: WWF

In Peak Oil article #2 we looked at the history of the concept, as well as some problems and complications. This article will focus on a complication that requires more detail and attention – that of “conventional” and “unconventional” sources of oil.

It’s important to remember first of all that oil is not a single substance but rather a spectrum of substances, from “light oils through a series of increasingly lower grade and difficult-to-extract resources such as extra-heavy oil and tar sands.”

“Conventional” oil is defined by the Energy Watch Group as “oil which can be produced with current technology under present economic conditions.” The UKERC (UK Energy Research Centre) define conventional oil as including “crude oil, condensate and natural gas liquids (NGLs) but to exclude liquid fuels derived from oil sands, oil shale, coal, natural gas and biomass”. 95% of all oil consumed so far in human history has been from conventional sources.

Unconventional (or non-conventional), then, is typically whatever is left out of the definition of conventional. Unconventional oils are at the “heavier end” of the oil spectrum, consisting of products that are increasingly harder to extract and refine such as tar sands or oil shale. David Greene and colleagues writing in Energy Policy also state that “Ultimately, the distinction between conventional and unconventional resources is based on technology and economics” and that “massive development” of these sources will be necessary if society wishes to keep consuming oil. But the issue is still tricky – according to Dr. Colin Campbell in the IPRD report “The Post-Peak World” there is still no “standard definition” for what constitutes conventional or unconventional oil. These definition differences affect which sources of oil we study, and thus can affect calculating the time of peak oil.

The pyramid of oil and gas resource volume versus resource quality. Image: David Hughes, Drill, Baby, Drill: Can Unconventional Fuels Usher in a New Era of Energy Abundance?

So how do the resources stack up? Estimates abound that the peaking of conventional oil has either already happened, or will do so in the near future. Doctor Steve Mohr in his PhD thesis estimates that conventional oil will peak at or before the year 2017. The UKERC are more optimistic, with estimates of the peak ranging from 2009 to 2031, and they state that “forecasts that delay the peak until after 2030 rest upon several assumptions that are at best optimistic and at worst implausible” (similar peak estimates are made by Robert Kaufmann and Laura Shiers). Larry Hughes and Jacinda Rudolph claim that instead of peaking, conventional oil production has recently “reached a plateau“, with production neither rising nor falling for the time being. Even the IEA (International Energy Agency) claims that conventional oil production is “declining at an average annual rate of over 4%“, the equivalent of “47 million barrels per day” or “twice the current Middle East production”, and in its World Energy Outlook 2012 stated that conventional oil is now past peak production. But Dr. Colin Campbell states the peak of conventional oil has already happened, passing us by in 2005.

If we want to continue consuming oil we’ll have to turn towards the remaining unconventional sources. But even these sources, in a best-case scenario, “can only delay the peaking of world oil production by about 25 years” . They are expensive “financially, energetically, politically and especially environmentally“. They will also require huge investments in infrastructure in order to produce and distribute the resources effectively, and require “more than 10% of sustained growth” in production in order to temper the impact of conventional oil production peaking. In short, unconventional sources are no panacea for the peaking of conventional sources.

Next time we’ll look at the murkier waters of how economics and geology affect the timing of the peak, and the role of technology in accelerating production and opening up new resources.

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3 thoughts on “Key Concept | Peak Oil | Conventional vs. unconventional

  1. Pingback: Key Concept | Peak Oil | Economics, Geology, and Technology | Fighting The Biocrisis

  2. Pingback: Key Concept | Peak Oil | Reserves and Resources | Fighting The Biocrisis

  3. Pingback: Key Concept | Peak Oil | Solutions | Fighting The Biocrisis

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