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Energy Insights:69: Peak Oil Primer

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69: Peak Oil Primer



On this page:

  1. Peak Oil primer
  2. What can be done?
  3. Links and further information

1. Peak Oil primer

What is Peak Oil?

Peak Oil is the simplest label for the problem of energy resource depletion, or more specifically, the peak in global oil production. Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource, one that has powered phenomenal economic and population growth over the last century and a half. The rate of oil 'production,' meaning extraction and refining (currently about 84 million barrels/day), has grown in most years over the last century, but once we go through the halfway point of all reserves, production becomes ever more likely to decline, hence 'peak'. Peak Oil means not 'running out of oil', but 'running out of cheap oil'. For societies leveraged on ever increasing amounts of cheap oil, the consequences may be dire. Without significant successful cultural reform, economic and social decline seems inevitable.

Why does oil peak? Why doesn't it suddenly run out?

Oil companies have, naturally enough, extracted the easier-to-reach, cheap oil first. The oil pumped first was on land, near the surface, under pressure, light and 'sweet' (meaning low sulfur content) and therefore easy to refine into gasoline. The remaining oil, sometimes off shore, far from markets, in smaller fields, or of lesser quality, takes ever more money and energy to extract and refine. Under these conditions, the rate of extraction inevitably drops. Furthermore, all oil fields eventually reach a point where they become economically, and energetically, no longer viable. If it takes the energy of a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil, then further extraction is pointless.

M. King Hubbert - the first to predict an oil peak

The Hubbert Curve is used to predict the rate of production from an oil producing region containing many individual wells. Source:

In the 1950s a U.S. geologist working for Shell, M. King Hubbert, noticed that oil discoveries graphed over time, tended to follow a bell shape curve. He posited that the rate of oil production would follow a similar curve, now known as the Hubbert Curve (see figure). In 1956 Hubbert predicted that production from the US lower 48 states would peak between 1965 and 1970. Shell tried to pressure Hubbert into not making his projections public, but the notoriously stubborn Hubbert went ahead and released them. In anycase, most people inside and outside the industry quickly dismissed Hubbert's predictions. It turned out that Hubbert was right, US continental oil production did peak in 1970. However in 1970, by definition, US oil producers had never produced as much oil, and Hubbert's predictions were a fading memory. The peak was only recognised several years later with the benefit of hindsight.

No oil producing region fits the bell shaped curve exactly because production is dependent on various geological, economic and political factors, but the Hubbert Curve remains a powerful predictive tool.

Although it passed by largely unnoticed by many, the U.S. oil peak was arguably the most significant geopolitical event of the mid to late 20th Century, creating the conditions for the energy crises of the 1970s, leading to far greater U.S. strategic emphasis on controling foreign sources of oil, and spelling the begining of the end of the status of the U.S as the world's major creditor nation. The U.S. of course was able to import oil from elsewhere, and life continued there with only minimal interuption. When global oil production peaks however, the implications will be far greater.

So when will oil peak globally?

Hubbert went on to predict a global oil peak between 1995 and 2000. He may have been close to the mark except that the oil shocks of the 1970s slowed our use of oil. As the following figure shows, global oil discovery peaked in the late 1960s. Since the mid-1980s, oil companies have been finding less oil than we have been consuming.


Of the 65 largest oil producing countries in the world, up to 54 have past their peak of production and are now in decline, including the USA (in 1970/71) and the North Sea (in 2001). Hubbert's methods, and variations on them, have been used to make various projections about the global oil peak, with results ranging from 'already peaked', to the very optimistic 2035. Many of the official sources of data used to model oil peak such as OPEC figures, oil company reports, and the USGS discovery projections, upon which the international energy agencies base their own reports, can be shown to be very unreliable. Several notable scientists have attempted independent studies, most notably Colin Campbell and the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO).


ASPO's latest model suggests that 'regular' oil peaked in 2004. If heavy oil, deepwater, polar and natural gas liquids are considered, the oil peak is projected for around 2010. Combined oil and gas, as shown above, are expected to also peak around 2010. Other researchers such as Kenneth Deffeyes and A. M. Samsam Bakhtiari have produced models with similar or even earlier projected dates for oil peak. Precise predictions are difficult as much secrecy shrouds important oil and gas data.

Other quite different types of analysis have provided supporting evidence to these 'early peak' scenarios, most notably UK Petroleum Review editor Chris Skrebowski's Oilfields Megaproject reports, and energy banker Matthew Simmons' analysis of Saudi Arabian oil fields.

The effects of natural gas peak are more localized due to the economic and energetic expense of liquefying and transporting natural gas as LNG. Both British and North American natural gas production have already peaked, so these nations may be facing dual energy crises.

What does Peak Oil mean for our societies?

Our industrial societies and our financial systems were built on the assumption of continual growth – growth based on ever more readily available cheap fossil fuels. Oil in particular is the most convenient and multi-purposed of these fossil fuels. Oil currently accounts for about 43% of the world's total fuel consumption , and 95% of global energy used for transportation . Oil is so important that the peak will have vast implications across the realms of geopolitics, lifestyles, agriculture and economic stability. Significantly, for every one joule of food consumed in the United States, around 10 joules of fossil fuel energy have been used to produce it.

The 'Hirsch Report'

A risk mitigation study on Peak Oil was released in early 2005, commissioned by the US Department of Energy. Prepared by the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), and titled “Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management” , it is known commonly as the Hirsch Report after its primary author Robert L. Hirsch. The executive summary of the report warns that "as peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking." [Emphasis added.] Unfortunately nothing like the kind of efforts envisaged have yet begun.

But it's just oil - there are other fossil fuels, other energy sources, right?

To evaluate other energy sources it helps to understand the concepts of Net Energy, or the Energy Returned on Energy Invested ratio (ERoEI). One of the reasons our economies have grown so abundant so quickly over the last few generations is precisely because oil has had an unprecedently high ERoEI ratio. In the early days of oil, for every barrel of oil used for exploration and drilling, up to 100 barrels of oil were found. More recently, as oil recovery becomes more difficult, the ratio has become significantly lower. Certain alternative energy 'sources' may actually have ERoEI ratios of less than one, such most methods of industrially producing biodiesel and ethanol. That is, when all factors are considered, you probably need to invest more energy into the process than you get back.

Hydrogen, touted by many as a seamless solution, is actually an energy carrier, but not an energy source. Hydrogen must be produced using an energy source such as natural gas or nuclear power. Because of energy losses in transformation, the hydrogen will always contain less energy than was invested in it.

Some alternatives such as wind and hydro-power may have much better ERoEI, however their potential expansion may be limited by various physical factors. Even in combination it may not be possible to gather from renewable sources of energy anything like the amount of energy that industrial society is accustomed to. Richard Heinberg uses the metaphor that whereas fossil fuels might be considered a massive energy inheritance, and one spent perhaps unwisely, renewables are much more akin to a hard won energy wage.

For certain tasks, such as air travel, no other energy source can readily be substituted for oil. As noted by the Hirsch Report, alternative energy infrastructures require long periods of investment, on the scale of decades, to be widely implemented. We may be already leaving the period of cheap energy before we have begun seriously embarking on this task.

It's perhaps worth noting briefly that any ERoEI study is complex and different methods of accounting can come up with vastly different results, so any net energy study might be viewed with some suspicion. Perhaps the best method yet developed is Howard Odum's eMergy analysis. But we may not know with total certainty the usefulness of any renewable energy technologies until the hidden fossil fuel energy subsidies are finally removed.

2. What can be done?

Many people are working on partial solutions at various different levels, but there is probably no cluster of solutions which do not involve some major changes in lifestyles, especially for the global affluent. Peak Oil presents the potential for quite catastrophic upheavals, but also some more hopeful possibilities, a chance to address many underlying societal problems, and the opportunity return to simpler, healthier and more community oriented lifestyles.

The Post Carbon Institute Outposts. The Post Carbon Institute is a think tank devoted to exploring the implications of, and preparing for, Peak Oil, focusing on relocalization. They write, “the most important initiative of the Post Carbon Institute is working with groups of concerned citizens to prepare their community for the Post Carbon Age. These groups are Outposts in the sense that they are community-based extensions of the Post Carbon Institute; they operate autonomously yet receive guidance and electronic infrastructure from the Institute. Outposts work cooperatively in their local community to put theory about living with less hydrocarbons into practice while sharing knowledge and experiences with the global network of outposts.”

The Community Solution to Peak Oil. Many excellent resources are available through the website of this US based organisation "dedicated to the development, growth and enhancement of small local communities... that are sustainable, diverse and culturally sophisticated." The Community Solution have organised two recent grassroots Peak Oil conferences, and have developed a case study of Cuba, a country which has relatively successfully adapted to an artificial oil peak.

Permaculture: Permaculture is a 'design science' which can allow us to live in relative abundance with minimal resource use. Permaculture principles can be used to functionally redesign social systems, built environments, ecological and agricultural practices for energy descent. David Holmgren's recent book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, deals explicitly with the global oil peak and proposes permaculture as the best set of strategies for dealing with 'energy descent'.

Local Energy Descent Action plans: Several communities around the world have begun their own preparations for Peak Oil, and are documenting the process. The Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan out of rural Ireland is the world's first local action plan for Peak Oil, dealing with many issues including health, education, tourism and youth issues. Local organisers within the town of Willits, Califonia have begun work on the Willits Economic LocaLization Project in response to Peak Oil. - Kinsale EDAP editor Rob Hopkins' blog

Oil Awareness Meet Ups is a grass roots awareness raising network helping people meet up and discuss peak oil. Join or start a meet-up in your neighborhood.

Local Currencies and Steady State Economics:
Local Currencies: Richard Douthwaite, a 'recovering economist', has proposed a number of alternative monetary systems to deal with energy decline and the associated monetary crises which might arise post-peak. Local currencies like LETS are in operation around the planet already (although LETS itself may be somewhat problematic). Experiment now with local currencies to help survive economic crises.
The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability (FEASTA) has some of Richard Douthwaite's publications available for free online, including entire books as well as masses of other excellent research and articles by other writers, relating not just to economics and local currencies, but to various aspects of sustainability.
See also:
Steady State Economics: The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) promote alternatives to the ecological insanity of growth based economics. Read their position paper here:

Intentional Communities: Intentional Community (IC) is an inclusive term for ecovillages, cohousing, residential land trusts, communes, student co-ops, urban housing cooperatives and other related projects and dreams... ICs represent one of the sanest ways of dealing with energy peak.

Surviving Peak Oil: A good collection of essays edited by Dale Allen Pfieffer on "what measures can people of limited means undertake to ease their transition into a post-petroleum world."

The Depletion Protocol: (previously refered to as the Uppsala or Rimini Protocol) is an ethical global political framework for sharing the world's remaining oil reserves more equitably than free market forces would allow, to avoid resource wars and profiteering. Help promote it:
Introduction to the Depletion Protocol by Colin Campbell (Word .doc format)
How to avoid oil wars, terrorism, and economic collapse by Richard Heinberg

Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) are a system for rationing fuel which includes everyone – individuals, industry and the Government – and which enables users to sell any rations they do not use.

Lobbying: Lobby governments to spend now on renewable energy and improving agricultural practices. Many facts are summarized in the following 'convince sheet' by Bruce Thomson:,convince_sheet.html

Online Discussions:
Got questions? Want to talk with like-minded people? See these links: - online news and forum - meet people on and offline - a group for Peak Oil beginers
- original peak oil focused email list - a more solutions, self-sufficiency focused list - a group emphasizing discussion and politics
There are numerous local mailing lists too, many on yahoo can be found at this link:

3. Other links

Where can I get more information?

Several articles already published on this site provide good introductions to this topic:
The coming global energy crunch. A great introductory article by Aaron Naparstek
Plan War and the Hubbert Oil Curve, an interview with Richard Heinberg
The Petroleum Plateau by Richard Heinberg on the current plateau in world oil production.
Debunking the mainstream media's lies about oil by Dale Allen Pfeiffer
The oil we eat by Richard Manning looks at modern agricultures' dependence on fossil fuels

There are some great introductory websites like:
Wolf at the Door: A Beginner's Guide to Oil Depletion - available in French, Polish and English.
Life After The Oil Crash – a question and answer style introduction.
Peak Oil Center - a very concise introduction.

Some excellent original media about peak oil is being generated at:
Global Public Media - many excellent interviews in multiple formats
From The Wilderness Publications - passionate site with a geopolitical and conspiracy themes

Research and reference articles can be found at:
ASPO - original research from The Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas
ASPO Ireland - The Irish branch of ASPO through which Colin Campbell now publishes the ASPO monthly newsletter - an alarming but scholarly collection of research. The original Peak Oil website.

More energy news:
Crisis Energética - in Spanish

More links, and books to read: An excellent list of links is maintained here:


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