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Energy Myths and Realities

Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate

By Vaclav Smil
  • Read in 12 minutes
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Energy Myths and Realities by Vaclav Smil

These blinks provide an objective, science-based look into the global energy debate that is so often dominated by the misleading rhetoric of politicians, industry leaders and activists.

Key idea 1 of 7

Civilization is not nearing its end. Peak oil theories claiming so are unsupported by evidence.

In the 1990s, a group of retired geologists, in conjunction with the scientist Richard Duncan put forth a radical new theory known as peak oil.

According to this theory, humanity was depleting the world’s oil supplies at such a rate that a drastic shortage of oil was imminent. They also argued that the end of the oil era would be a turning point for humanity, prompting the end of industrial civilization as soon as 2025!

But in fact, these claims are completely unfounded and unjustified:

A big part of the problem in peak oil theories is that they are overly focused on the supply side of the equation, meaning global oil production, neglecting the demand side and how it is influenced by oil prices. They believe that progressively lower oil production we’ve seen over the years is indicative of a physical shortage of oil, when in fact it’s merely due to a decrease in demand. This phenomenon was evident after the oil price hikes of 1978 and 2004, for example.

What’s more, our future need for oil will likely decrease thanks to our increasing use of alternative fuels as well as technological innovations, efficiency improvements and better resource management.

So while humanity will eventually transition away from oil due to depleted supplies and the rising cost of its extraction, our reduction in crude oil usage will not mean the end of civilization, rather just a gradual transition to something else.

Peak oil theories are also unjustified in claiming to know how much oil is left in the ground, but really the amount of this estimated ultimately recoverable (EUR) oil remains uncertain.

Recent assessments show there are still significant untapped oil resources, and global EUR oil is estimated at 400 billion barrels – almost triple what most peak oil theories claim. And this figure does not even include unconventional oil reserves like tar sands or bitumen, which further add to the potential reserves.

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