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Energy Insights: Energy News: Peak Oil 1: What Is Peak Oil?

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Peak Oil 1: What Is Peak Oil?


Michael Lynch

 Michael Lynch

Forbes contributor Don Blackmon initiated not a firestorm but a tempest in a teapot by suggesting that peak oil had been debunked by the work of M. A. Adelman, my mentor.  Amazingly, there are many people who believe in peak oil, but are not particularly aware of the history of the theory and its evolution.  (Among there many other shortcomings.)

Here’s the situation:  there have long been warnings of scarcity, going back to the 19th century, primarily reflecting pessimism about petroleum resources which was rather unusual, given the relatively poor understanding of the geology at that type.  A combination of hubris and Malthusian bias would seem to explain it.

M. King Hubbert wrote a paper in 1956 in which he noted that no particular pattern could be observed in energy production, but that for US oil, a bell curve seemed reasonably accurate, so he applied it to predict US production would peak between 1965 and 1970.  When Nixon ended oil import quotas in 1970, US oil prices and drilling dropped, and production peaked in 1971, which convinced Hubbert (and his many disciples) that the bell curve was ‘scientific’ and valid.  His other predictions fared much less well, but have tended to be overlooked.

Growing gap between discovery and production (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1989, Colin Campbell revived the method, arguing that conventional oil production had peaked that year.  Subsequently, he joined with Jean Laherrere to produce a series of consulting reports and then articles, making various claims for their ability to accurately estimate recoverable resources and production patterns.  These proved to be incorrect, and they abandoned most of their early arguments, after initially deriding critics, like me, as not being ‘scientific’.

Their work became eclipsed by others, particularly in the US, who basically argued that production had (or soon would) peak because of difficulties in raising production.  Given high prices, some argued that their argument were validated, even to the point of arguing that the loss of supply due to the 2003 Iraq war or the 2011 Libyan uprising were not very relevant.

Various other technical arguments have been advanced, including that decline rates were too high to allow production to increase, or that the energy needed to produce oil had become too great, but all have faced the problem of increasing discoveries and production.  Future posts will address some of these issues, but the fact remains that there is no significant work suggesting that world oil production must peak any time in the foreseeable future, unless demand-side pressures are the cause.

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