Peak oil for visual thinkers

Some people think that any discussion of peak oil must involve peer reviewed papers and complicated mathematical analyses like the “multicyclic Hubbert model.”  Even the non-modelers love to toss around tables of numbers with units of “million barrels per day” or “tons of oil equivalent.”

But there’s another way of explaining and understanding our global oil predicament that doesn’t require a graduate degree in math or science. Instead, it uses pictures to explain things because, for most people, seeing is believing.

The eyes have it

It is surprising how many people don’t know when the US reached its own maximum rate of oil production. Ask around and you’re likely to get answers ranging from 1990 – 2030. You could whip out tables of numbers showing the actual year was 1970, but most people don’t have a visceral reaction to that factoid — numbers and units are simply too abstract and most folks will just zone out.

A million, a billion, a zillion. Gallons, barrels, tons. Per day, per month, per year. Production, consumption, percentage change.

It’s all too complicated.

But show a picture like the chart below from the Energy Information Administration and folks begin to understand what’s meant by peak oil.

U.S. Field Production of Crude Oil (Thousand Barrels)

Now that’s a pretty nice chart.  The mountainous shape definitely gets across the idea that the United States had a peak in oil production and it makes visual sense to say we’re now on the downward slope of ready oil.

Knowledgeable folks will also point out that the primary peak in 1972 was followed by a short-lived secondary peak in the early 1980s from production on the North Slope of Alaska.  So there’s some history in this plot as well. Even so, the overall effect of the chart isn’t quite as attention-grabbing as we’d like.

While the story in the graphic above may be interesting, even exciting to geologists or petroleum engineers, regular people prefer stories about … well … regular people. And especially the interactions between them. Think Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

In order to use visuals to tell a compelling story about peak oil, we need to include data on the habits of ordinary people. Luckily, this data is at hand — it’s called “demand” or “consumption” which in peak oil lingo, mean the same thing.

Consumption tallies up the energy habits of ordinary people at the national scale while interactions between nations are called either energy exports or energy import. And we can put all this handy dandy data together in a single chart that now has much richer stories to tell.  (Data are from the British Petroleum Statistical Review and begin in 1965.)

The chart above shows annual production levels in gray (how much we’re pumping) while figures for annual consumption (how much we’re using up) are seen in the black line on top.  If we subtract consumption from production we end up with the amount left over, called net exports (the cookies you actually serve to guests after eating half the dough).

In the case of the US, this number is negative. Whoops. We politely call this net imports. (We love cookies!)  What it means is we use more than we have, by far.

Production, consumption and net exports all share the same units and scale. Wonky fans of Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information will note that this graphic cleverly uses color to highlight something important — our increasing dependence on imported oil — while generally minimizing chart junk, making the whole thing a lot easier to understand right from the get go.

We can see a lot of US history in the chart above.  The pride and prejudice of American consumers and politicians is all there. The production peak of 1970 was followed by the first major oil shock — ouch, the 1973 oil crisis.  This is seen in the drop in consumption after 1973.  We also see that consumption only just started returning to its previous levels when the 1979 oil crisis hit. Ouch number two.

The early 1980s recession makes an appearance in the chart as a drop in oil consumption at that time. Since the mid 90s everything seemed to be running well even as our level of imports increased. That changed only recently with the economic debacle of 2008 and 2009 in the last two years in this dataset when we imported a little less because we just weren’t using as much during the recession.

The value of any data visuals is determined by the variety and quality of stories that can be told with it — by the understanding of events that it can communicate. As we have seen, powerful stories from our nation’s history are clearly evident in this presentation of the data.

Pattern recognition

One of the reasons to present data visually is that it allows humans to do what they do best. While most educated Americans have learned their basic math, very few people balance their checkbook without the help of a calculator. We’re just not that good with numeric details. And anyway, why bother?

However, when it comes to pattern recognition, our abilities are unmatched. Just try playing the game SET to check this out.

When data are presented visually, our species’ unique ability to recognize patterns allows us to convert what we see in good data graphics into a deeper understanding. And couldn’t we all use a little more understanding?

Let’s test our pattern recognition skills by taking a look at another nation that went through a period of declining production and rising consumption:  Indonesia.

Without going into any historic detail, our eyes are drawn to the pattern formed by the rising black line, the falling gray background and the transition from green (exports) to red (imports).

Even if you knew nothing about Indonesia, it should be obvious why they left OPEC in 2008:  since 2004 they had ceased to be a Petroleum Exporting Country. The story is so simple when the data are presented visually. Rising consumption meets falling production. Exporters turn into importers. No numbers or units or math or models are needed to understand what is going on.

When you look a number of charts like these you quickly realize that Indonesia is not the only country exhibiting this pattern of falling exports. Charts for major and minor exporters like Mexico, the UK , Egypt and Malaysia all fit this pattern. Some, like China, have evolved from exporters to world-class importers even while their production continues to rise. They’re just that hungry for more oil.

Graphical representation of the data in this way gives a visual, visceral understanding of what’s going on with respect to petroleum in the far flung corners of the world. And frankly, it’s not a pretty picture.

Empowering the curious

For anyone intrigued by the stories in these charts there are plenty more.  They all come from an on-line tool called the Energy Export databrowser.  Using data from the British Petroleum Statistical Review, this tool provides a simple user interface that allows anyone to generate charts like those above for every major oil producing or consuming nation. A tour through the data gives users a clear sense of who’s producing, who’s consuming, and where the existing trends are taking us. Best of all, these charts don’t require any particular or esoteric knowledge.

Two eyes and a brain are all you need.

If you’re curious by nature and want to improve your knowledge of our energy predicament and how it’s playing out through the world, this might be a good place to start. Flipping through all the charts on oil might take 15 minutes and is surprisingly fun. It can even be a great way to get kids talking about oil production, consumption, and depletion, a topic covered on far too few earth science papers.

In our experience, people enjoy looking at info graphics when the barrier to creating them is low. When this happens, your own human gifts of pattern recognition and story telling allow you to disregard some of the biased information from “experts” and come to your own data-driven understanding of what’s been going on in the world of oil, where we currently stand, and what the future is likely to hold.

Nothing is more empowering in uncertain times than feeling like you understand what’s going on around you. And then you can put it on mugs and t-shirts and start your own Transition business. Just send me my ten percent finders fee.

– Jonathan Callahan, Transition Voice

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