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What After Peak Oil: Oil, Lithium Batteries, Fuel Cells, Or All Of Them?

In a blog published more than four-and-a-half years ago, I argued that global oil production may have already peaked (or will do so in a couple of years). I then contended that peak oil, together with global warming, will force most countries to reduce both their demand for oil in response to an ever-diminishing supply and their carbon dioxide emissions to avoid climate change. This will only be possible – I said – through a major transformation in the global automotive industry: the transition to electric propulsion.

After General Motors’ (GM) announcement in January and June 2007 to launch by 2010 the first mass-produced plugged-in hybrid cars with lithium-ion batteries, I sustained that all major car producers in the world were engaged in a furious competition for a share of this promising market. In this connection, lithium, a mineral with countless applications in different industrial sectors, may become a key factor for the emergence of a new techno-economic paradigm. Surprisingly, the main thrust of my original argument appeared almost ten months later in a Merrill Lynch report entitled “The Sixth-Revolution: The Coming of Cleantech” authored by Steven Milunovich.

In recent months, some analysts have questioned the peak oil hypothesis. In an article entitled “Sustainable Energy Development (May 2011) with some Game-Changers” available online in November 2011 in the leading journal Energy, Noam Lior, for example, speaks of the apparent postponement of the threat of fossil fuel depletion. This view is consistent with the main conclusions of a more recent Harvard study. Take note that following this publication, one analyst has indicated: “We were wrong about peak oil: There’s enough in the ground to deep-fry the planet.” And another one has wondered whether this finding will “kill development of alternatives to oil.”

New discoveries and exploitation technologies of large amounts of “unconventional fuels” (i.e. tar or oil sands, extra heavy crude oil, coal bed natural gas, tight gas, shale oil and natural gas, and methane hydrates) seem to explain why this may be the case.

In a recent article published on Seeking Alpha, I have concluded that the apparent abundance of oil deriving from the discovery and development of new shale oil and gas deposits particularly in the United States does not explain why oil prices went up so much in the last seven years or so, leaving the peak oil hypothesis intact. Furthermore, the increased production of oil may have to do with the new definition of oil, which includes not only crude oil but also natural gas plant liquids (NGPL) (mainly, ethane, propane, butane and pentane) and biofuels. However, as argued in the previously mentioned article, there are limits to using different types of NGPL as equivalent to oil.

True, Lior does acknowledge that there are two factors conspiring against any possible emergence of unconventional fuels as substitutes for conventional oil: Higher beneficiation costs (between $75 and $100) because alternative fuels are in general much more difficult to develop, and negative environmental impacts because by and large they happen to be dirtier sources of energy. Nevertheless, his prescriptions (proper technology; and environmental regulation) to take care of them are not very convincing.

Indeed, use of appropriate technology is likely to increase exploitation costs of some of these new energy options exerting pressure over oil prices and paving the way for the consolidation of oil substitutes, particularly in the automotive sector. This may in turn tend to disincentivize investments in new oil fields and only further aggravate a possible energy crisis as the demand for fuel continues to grow in the most important emerging economies (i.e. China and India) in the years ahead. As argued in a recent article, we may now in fact be witnessing the end of an era of cheap oil in the world.


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