Hubbert’s Peak: are we running out of oil?

In 1956, the brilliant maverick oil geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that oil production in the United States would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970, and world oil production would peak in about 50 years—that is, sometime around 2006.

M. King Hubbert's 1956 prediction of world oil

He extrapolated the rate of growth in oil production and the rate of discovery of new oil reserves, and based his prediction on when new discoveries failed to keep up with growth.   His chart of the rise and fall of oil production is called Hubbert’s Peak.  He had another chart, showing how nuclear energy could be a source of energy for many centuries.  You could call that Hubbert’s Plateau.

Hubbert’s prediction was accurate in regard to the United States.  Oil production in the Lower 48 states did peak around 1970 or so.  Many smart people believe that oil production in the Middle East has peaked or is about to peak.  But, as Daniel Yergin pointed out in his recent book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World, worldwide production of liquid fuels continues to increase.

Actual world oil production

What Hubbert failed to take into account, Yergin wrote, were two things—(1) price and (2) technology.  The world gets its oil from sources that were unavailable in 1956, and uses liquid fuels other than oil.   Energy companies drill for oil deep in the ocean.  “Tight oil” and “tight gas” are extracted through hydraulic fracturing of shale deep within the earth.  Oil can be extracted from Canada’s tar sands.  More than four-fifths of liquid fuels—and, according to Yergin, you have to speak of liquid fuels rather than just crude oil—are extracted by advanced techniques that were unknown in Hubbert’s day.  The increase in world oil production probably owes more to chemical engineers than it goes to oil geologists.

In a way, Hubbert was right.  Production of the easy-to-get oil has peaked.  What Yergin calls the “unconventional” sources are available if you are willing to pay a high enough price—a price not only in dollars, but in the risk to the human environment, and in the amount of energy it takes to extract the new energy.

Hubbert's Plateau: nuclear energy as the solution

Yergin says there are enough reserves of “unconventional” energy to last for centuries at (here’s the problem) current rates of use.  The problem is not so much that someday the world have have used up more than half its supply of fossil fuels, as that if the rate of consumption of fossil fuels continues to increase year by year, it will someday catch up with production.  Yergin is aware of that, and is a strong advocate of energy conservation and development of renewable resources.

I don’t claim to have a good answer as to what should be done.  I think that it is amazing that deep water oil drilling or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas are possible at all, without expecting they can be carried out with 100 percent reliability and zero damage.  My inclination is to postpone use of potentially harmful processes as long as possible, in the hope that better technology will reduce risk and in the expectation that future generations will need these resources more than my generation does.

At the same time, I drive a car powered by gasoline and I heat my house with natural gas.  I wouldn’t like to try to get along without the first, and I don’t know how I would get along without the latter.  This is more important to me than the hazards and costs of energy development.

Click on What’s Wrong With Peak Oil for an article by Daniel Yergin in the Wall Street Journal.

Click on Is Yergin Correct About Oil Supply? (an opinion the Wall Street Journal did not run) for a rebuttal to Yergin by Gail Tverberg on her Our Finite World web log.

Click on The Oil Drum for a web log devoted to peak oil and energy issues.

Below are some maps (not taken from Daniel Yergin’s book) indicating where future oil and natural gas may come from.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge.

Click on The Bakken Boom – A Modern Day Gold Rush for an interesting article comparing the shale oil boom in North Dakota and Montana to the California gold rush.

Click on Shale Basins, Unconventional Gas Reserves for the source of the top map with background information.

Click on Global deepwater oil drilling for the source of the middle map.

Click on Oil and Natural Gas Resources Map of the Arctic Ocean for the source of the bottom map with background information.

All other things being equal, I would prefer not to have hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, deep water drilling for oil or, for that matter, mountaintop removal for coal.  But if we want to enjoy the blessings of industrial civilization, we have to consider these things, or else figure out how to make up the difference with conservation and renewable energy sources.

Click on ASPO-USA for the home page of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas USA.

Click on Channeling Hubbert and Tribute to M. King Hubbert for web sites devoted to Hubbert’s ideas.

Click on One Town Square and Exploring Hydrocarbon Depletion for more web logs devoted to peak oil and energy issues.

Click on The Oil Reserve Fallacy for an argument that oil and gas reserves are abundant and Peak Oil is a fallacy.

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2 Responses to “Hubbert’s Peak: are we running out of oil?”

  1. informationforager Says:

    When we think of oil, we picture the gas tank analogy. When the needle reaches E for empty is when we are in trouble. The world does in fact have a trillion barrels of oil left to produce. The real analogy is like a Pearl Harbor reconnaissance plane flying its mission over the ocean. The plane flies as far as it can for as high as it can. The pilot fulfils the mission of aerial photography of enemy positions. At a certain point though the pilot knows he must turn around at the HALF WAY point of the gas gauge to make it back home. When the needle reaches at half the tank the pilot MUST RETREAT and DESCEND to make it back to base. When the world has produced as much oil as it ever can in one day (peaked), when it has flown as far as it can for as high as it can the world economy MUST RETREAT and DESCEND.

    • philebersole Says:

      As a matter of logic, what you’re saying is undeniable. The problem is a lack of an accurate gas gauge, as shown by the difference between Hubbert’s prediction and the actual liquid fuels production.

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