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.
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.
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.
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.