Only Five More Years?

Rarely do I find something in the new that makes me want to write, but this morning  a news article on BBC News alarmed me:

“UK Fossil Fuels Gone in Five Years”

Understandably, because I work in Oil and Gas, this was alarming. But also it seemed really wrong. I dug into the research and found it to be a map of “Years Left” based on consumption and discovery. The BBC article states that it’s five years left, so I wanted to know what they had used as figures, but the document (which you can read here) is just a bunch of maps with oddly hard to read colour gradients.


So what does the research say? Well, it says that, according to the map, the UK has something like 2 to 30 years left, as far as I can see:

It is hard to see, so I helped a bit.


So, apparently 2 to 10 years left, which is maybe where the BBC got "five". But is that even right? These numbers are based on 2010's numbers, admitted in the research. I've heard loads of different numbers - 25 to 100 years left. I don't believe them. So I decided to dig out as much as I could to come up with my own numbers.

According to some sources, we have between 12 billion and 24 billion oil and gas expected proven reserves left in the UK North Sea as of 2013. In 2013, even with a 22% decline in production, the UK North Sea produced 1.4 million boepd (that's barrels per day of oil and gas expected).


With the following assumptions:
1) Production declines to 1000 and steadies out, assuming that 22% isn't going to continue.
2) The proven reserves don't decrease or increase, and that we can extract it all (not likely, but let's say we can)
3) We take the lowest estimate, 12 billion barrels left.

We can work out a similar calculation to the calculation mentioned in the research: reserves/consumption:

12 billion / 1 million (lowest reserves / lowest production rate)
= 12000 days of production left
Assume 365 days of production a year (not including shut downs etc)
= 32.9 years.

That's not the same as a headline grabbing 5 years, is it? Without knowing the source of the numbers explicitly, and the assumptions made (both oddly missed out) the calculation is not the easiest to properly defend. However, the actual impact of the research should be lampshaded in a different way - we are running out.

If I take my number, 33 years, and add that to my age of 28 and that takes me to 60 years old, not even my own retirement age. So we have a generation of engineers who won't be even able to retire on what's left. That's how bad it will become.

Also, the "years left" research is weak because the production / reserves calculation is actually asymptotic - it'll tend to infinity. Remember, as reserves go down, so will production. It'll get to near zero, maybe even at some point be zero, but it won't be linear down. Imagine a bucket that's leaking - there's a amount left, and a big hole, but as the bucket empties, the whole gets smaller, and the draining speed slows. That's what's going to happen in the North Sea.

The research is good to show what we have left, but it is slightly undermined by the lack of numbers. Even in the main report from which this map is based, I couldn't find anything to do with years left, only growth based correlations. And the research focuses on other things, such as food, uranium, and fertility - some really interesting research, which is though provoking. The highlighting of oil and gas seems weirdly chosen as a highlight to become the headline.

I don't disagree with the concept of framing the end of oil and gas in this way at all, just that it needs to be dealt with carefully. A thin line exists between scary facts and facts that are damaging to the renewables drive because they're so outlandish and unsubstantiated. I am not attacking the research, just pointing out that numbers can be used to come up with widly different figures, but the end note must always be the same:

We can't depend on oil and gas forever. This is why the Conservative policy of Fracking and Shale Gas is not the way forward, and stripping green energy benefits is seriously short sighted. If we can go back to the bucket analogy, Fracking is just pouring in more water into the bucket with a hole - creating green and renewable replacements for fossil fuels would be like realising that it rains all the time anyway. 

Finally: I will happily change this post if the figures can be pointed out. I am not for bashing this research, just that the headline grabbing nonsense of it makes it harder to take seriously, which we all must do. Immediately.