Sunday, July 17, 2016

M. King Hubbert and the future of peak oil

Almost synonymous with the term "peak oil" is M. King Hubbert, perhaps the foremost geophysicist of the 20th century, who first theorized about the eventual decline of oil production in the 1930s. Hubbert and his work have once again come into the public eye as a result of the 2008 oil price spike and the highest ever daily average prices for oil from 2011 through 2014. His life has now been chronicled by science writer Mason Inman in a new biography entitled The Oracle of Oil.

Depending upon whom you speak with, peak oil is either a catastrophe waiting to happen or a far-off concern that has already been solved or will be soon. Frequently, peak oil is referred to as a myth. What you rarely hear is that peak oil is an empirical fact having already occurred in more than two dozen oil-producing countries. Making the list are names that will surprise many including Iran, Venezuela, and Russia, three of the world's top oil exporters.

The term "peak oil" simply means that crude oil production for any field, region or country eventually reaches a peak or plateau from which it inexorably declines. Because the amount of oil in the Earth's crust is finite, it is logical to assume that one day peak oil production will occur worldwide. The concern is that we as a global society are so accustomed to rising oil production that we have built an entire world around that assumption. Will we be ready when oil production begins to decline?

To shed some light on that and other questions author Inman takes us from Hubbert's early days at the University of Chicago to his famous speech in 1956 (in which he predicted a peak in U.S. crude oil production no later than 1970) to his days in Washington, D.C. working for the U.S. Geological Survey and his fights there concerning the timing of a U.S. oil production peak.

In the course of the story Inman puts to rest misconceptions about Hubbert and about peak oil. First and foremost, peak does NOT mean running out. As explained above it means the trend of rising oil production reverses into a decline. When this reversal occurs worldwide, it could pose challenges for a society that has yet to find a cheap, widely available substitute for petroleum to fuel its transportation system. Electric vehicles are still in their infancy and would require huge infrastructure investments. And, petrochemicals made from oil are the basis for a wide variety of clothing, medicines, lubricants, pesticides, and industrial chemicals. Oil is embedded practically everywhere in our lives, and finding substitutes won't be easy in many cases.

Second, forecasting peak oil is NOT tantamount to forecasting disaster. Hubbert himself believed that society could make a successful transition away from petroleum and other fossil fuels to a nuclear- and solar-powered world so long as we started early enough. Far from being a pessimist, Inman tells us, Hubbert was a utopian who believed an efficiently run technocratic society with plenty for all was possible if only we would take the necessary steps.

In fact, Hubbert foresaw some technological advances we now take for granted, for example, that postal mail would be largely replaced by "signals sent by wire" which we, of course, call email. He believed that energy efficiency in the form of thick insulation for homes would become increasingly common. We now see that development in weatherization programs for homeowners and the spread of Passive House technology which reduces heating and cooling needs by 80 to 90 percent.

Third, Hubbert was NOT anti-oil. In fact, he worked for Shell Oil Company for 20 years in production research. Hubbert understood deeply the benefits of oil to human society, and he wanted those benefits to continue. But he believed they would not continue unless new sources of energy were deployed before fossil fuel production began its inevitable decline.

Fourth, contrary to what his critics say, Hubbert did take technological improvements into account when calculating his forecasts for peak. He was aware of unconventional sources of oil such as tar sands, oil shale, and coal-to-liquids technology. But he realized that these sources would be challenging and expensive to exploit.

It turns out he was right. Operators in the Canadian tar sands today are having a difficult time simply maintaining production in the current low-price environment for oil. As for oil shale, despite more than 30 years of research and development including pilot plants, there is no commercial production of oil from oil shale in the United States (which has by far the largest deposits) and very limited production in Estonia (where oil shale is mostly burned directly to produce electricity). It's not clear that standalone facilities that would produce only oil from oil shale would be economical given the American experience.

Coal-to-liquids technology continues to be too expensive to deploy worldwide though it does have a foothold in South Africa. South Africa built these expensive and environmentally dirty facilities during the apartheid period when the country's leaders feared an embargo might curtail oil shipments to South Africa.

There is, of course, the question of just how oracular the "oracle of oil" was. As it turns out, Hubbert's prediction of a peak in U.S. production (which at that time covered the lower 48 states) was right on the money. U.S. crude oil production fell starting in 1970 and continued to fall (with a short respite when Alaskan oil began to flow) until 2008. Then, the advent of a new kind of hydraulic fracturing or fracking (as it is popularly called) made possible the extraction of previously difficult-to-get oil from deep shale deposits (not to be confused with oil shale mentioned above).

U.S. production last year came close to eclipsing the 1970 number, but has fallen back as low prices have forced deep reductions in drilling. Meanwhile, non-shale production continues to fall. A rise in oil prices would certainly revive drilling in American shale deposits. But it is doubtful that this will happen before shrinking conventional production makes it all but impossible to achieve a new all-time high in U.S. production.

As for world production, he did his original calculations before the high prices and oil crises of the 1970s led to an energy efficiency drive worldwide and resulted in the first ever sustained decline in world oil consumption, something that would clearly delay a peak. After the first of those oil crises, in the mid-1970s Hubbert calculated that a worldwide peak might come as soon as the 1990s or as late as the 2030s (but only if consumption remained level from the 1970s onward).

He views were largely adopted in a U.S. Energy Information Administration forecast in the late 1970s. The agency forecast a probable peak about 2010, but offered a range of 1995 to 2035 depending on energy policies and consumption patterns.

As it turned out, conventional oil, the kind that Hubbert used in his models, the kind that flows as a liquid from the ground--which I call "Beverly Hillbillies oil" after the "bubbling crude" seen in the introduction to the now long-defunct television series--this kind of oil peaked in 2006 according to the International Energy Agency, a consortium of 29 countries which provides ongoing research and information about energy supplies worldwide.

Despite all protestations to the contrary, Hubbert proved prescient once again even if he didn't get the exact timing right. That world oil production continues to eke out small gains is due entirely to production from unconventional sources not included in Hubbert's models. But those sources have shown themselves to be exquisitely sensitive to price.

In the two countries best known for unconventional oil, the United States and Canada, production from U.S. deep shale deposits and Canadian tar sands is now shrinking. Alarmingly, without recent growth in oil production in these two countries, worldwide oil production would have declined from 2005 to today. Now that the twin engines of growth, the United States and Canada, are in decline, we may see a fall in worldwide production soon (though whether this will mark the ultimate peak will not be known until many years thereafter).

But, any peak will inevitably result from a mix of economic and geologic factors. So, the new question about oil is, "Can we afford to extract and refine the oil we have left?" Or, more precisely, "Will the cost of extracting these unconventional sources cause economic growth to slow or stagnate?"

This is just the sort of scenario Hubbert foresaw if we waited too long to address the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels. And, there is reason to believe that low oil prices today reflect an economy slowed by previously high oil prices. These high prices themselves are an indication that we are now facing ever more difficulty and effort in extracting the remaining marginal sources of oil. And, the fact that so many oil companies are now going bankrupt due to low prices tells us that high prices will have to return if we want to extract this difficult-to-get oil in great quantities again.

Hubbert died in 1989, living to see the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Long concerned about nuclear waste and impatient for a transition, Hubbert decided that global society needed to undertake the rapid deployment of an indisputably clean source of energy, solar power. We would use solar power not only for electricity, but also to make the liquid fuels needed for our transportation system which we could adapt to run on methanol or hydrogen.

Perhaps what irked Hubbert's critics the most was his lifelong skepticism about exponential economic and population growth. So firmly did he believe that population growth needed to be curtailed that he and his wife had no children. There were limits, he believed, and if they were breached, humans would pay dearly.

Hubbert is much maligned and much praised these days. But he is perhaps not well understood. Mason Inman's compelling biography gives us all, critics and supporters alike, a chance finally to understand this scientific giant and the context within which he spawned insights that continue to be central to our lives.


UPDATED July 19, 2016

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


ReserveGrowthRulz said...

Why do you think that Mason doesn't mention Hubbert's 1938 peak oil call for the US (by 1950)? Just doesn't relate to the way he wanted to tell the story perhaps?

Kurt Cobb said...

It's always helpful to actually read a book when commenting on it. Inman does include the 1938 call and explains in detail Hubbert's thinking at the time based on the very limited information available to him. To his credit, Hubbert kept gathering information over the years--he had much better information when he worked for Shell--and refined his approach which helped him make both his prescient call in 1956 of a 1970 peak in U.S. production and his later call that came quite close to the 2006 peak in conventional oil though he was making the prediction more than 25 years beforehand.