energy peak oil science technology transport

What is peak oil?

I’ve been reading about oil again, and I thought I’d tackle the issue of ‘peak oil’. This is the first of three posts on the subject.

Peak oil is a theory about how worldwide oil supplies will perform in the long term. Based on the work of a Shell geologist named M King Hubbert in the 1950s, the theory suggests that oil production from any oil field (or country, or the world as a whole) will follow a curve, rising and then falling. After a new oil field is discovered, infrastructure is built and drilling begins, and yield rises exponentially, until all the easily accessible oil is gone. At that point production will not suddenly crash, but go into a slow decline, as less and less new oil is found within the area.

Imagine wringing out a wet towel or t-shirt. Give it a twist and at first you’ll get a great gush of water. After a couple more twists the water is just a trickle, and you really have to strain to get out those last drips. That’s how an oil field works too. When oil was first discovered in the US, in Texas and Louisiana, it was so plentiful it was seeping out of the ground. When you started drilling you got a great gush of oil. Give it a few years and you have to drill deeper, and then finally you have to resort to more extreme measures, pumping in co2 or even seawater to push the last barrels to the surface.

Hubbert predicted that US oil would peak in 1965-1970 and then go into decline. He was right, US oil peaked in 1970. He predicted that a world peak would follow about 30 years later, the ‘Hubbert Peak’. OPEC’s rationing of oil has delayed that peak by 10 years, something Hubbert also saw as their policies were implemented, but otherwise his predictions more or less hold.

So have we reached the peak of world oil production? That depends on who you ask. We’ve certainly reached a plateau, and oil use outstrips new discoveries. Many of the world’s most productive sites have already peaked, as the graph below shows: The US in 1971, Syria in 95, Argentina in 98, the UK’s North Sea oil peaking in 1999.

Looking at a graph like this, with such an obviously repeated pattern, it is remarkable that peak oil is a contested theory. It looks clear to me that since oil is a finite resource, it will inevitably run out at some point. There will come a year when oil production will be lower than the year before, and never recover. The only question is when.

Some say we have seen peak oil already, or are about to. Others contend that it is years away yet, and that we will keep discovering new oil to put off the inevitable day, or make more use of tar-sands or make oil out of coal. Either way, peak oil is either here or rapidly approaching. The question of when is the subject of the next post.

pt 2 – When will the oil run out?

pt 3 – What can we do about peak oil?

6 comments

  1. I like your t-shirt analogy. Very Good. Here’s another:

    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 will 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.

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