Thursday, April 14, 2005

The peak oil tsunami.

Being a believer in the peak oil concept, I've been speculating on how this concept manifests in the real world in terms of the timing, signals, and consequences. For right now, I'm trying to sort out my thoughts on the timing and signals, and of the various scenerios I've come up with, there is one that most stuck in my head.

If you remember the tsunami experienced a few months ago in Asia, you will remember the experience of the people on the beaches:

First - the rumblings of an earthquake far off in the distance. Disturbing yes, but little happened, so people went about their business. Some people recognized what the earthquake might stir up and headed for the hills.

Second - the day seemingly normal, the tide began to recede from the beach and the water in the distance grew murky. Those in the know recognized this for what it might be and now moved to higher ground, those who didn't either variously ignored it, scratched their heads and went about their normal business, or for some, wandered out into the newly exposed beach to see what was up.

Third - after a period of time, the water came back, but with such speed and mass that the people who had ignored the early warning signs were no longer able to get out of it's way, and were unfortunately swamped.

So basically: a stage of early signs, a stage of later and more urgent signs, and then a final stage where things get out of hand quickly and it's too late to do anything to avoid the full consequences. [By the way, I'm not a peak oil pessimist, so I'm limiting the comparison to the way the signs developed.]

Assuming that analogy works, the question then is when and where the early warnings are/were, when and where the urgent warnings are/were, and when and where the "it's here RIGHT NOW" moment is?

There have actually been two oil price spikes in the past few years, one in 1999-2000 and one 2004-2005, so it's possible the first one was the early warning and we're now in the urgent warning phase.

Since prices fell abnormally low in 1998, perhaps the 1999-2000 period was the pendulum simply swinging back, and then it's possible that 2004-5 is the early warning phase.

Finally, there is the possibility that neither of these is a warning, that right now we are just dealing with demand ramping up too quickly and the oil industry not having made investments in production due to the price collapse that occured into 1998.

I'll leave it up to you to speculate whether this analogy might be accurate, and, if so, what phase may have occured when.