by Roger Andrews
In March 1956 M. King Hubbert delivered the landmark paper in which he predicted that US oil production would peak around 1970 and then begin to decline. No one took much notice. It was, after all, difficult to see it happening:
Figure 1: US Oil Production 1920-1956 (EIA data)
But happen it did:
Figure 2: US Oil Production 1920-1977 (EIA data)
And Hubbert became a prophet and the concept of “peak oil” was born, although the phrase itself wasn’t coined until some years later.
Now let’s extend the graph to the present. Except for the subsidiary peak caused by Alaskan oil in the 1980s US production continued to decline much as Hubbert had predicted. In the mid-2000s, however, it flattened out and after a couple of years began a rapid rise, breaking completely out of the Hubbert curve. This of course was largely a result of fracking, a new technology that Hubbert couldn’t have foreseen. (Except that fracking wasn’t a new technology – some 3,000 US wells were being fracked each month when Hubbert wrote his paper. The industry just found a better way of doing it. But I digress.)
Figure 3: US Oil Production 1920-Present (EIA data)
Hubbert also predicted in his 1956 paper that world oil production would peak in about fifty years’ time, i.e. about now, and decline thereafter. How has this prediction worked out? There’s still no clear sign of a peak, even allowing for the fact that “conventional” crude plus condensate production has been roughly stable since 2004 and that the increased production since then has been contributed by “unconventional” sources such as natural gas liquids that Hubbert presumably wouldn’t have allowed for:
Figure 4: World Oil Production 1965-Present (BP data)
But the 1970 peak in US oil production was very abrupt, so the fact that world production shows no obvious sign of slackening doesn’t mean that peak oil isn’t just around the corner.
So when is peak oil going to occur? Here are three schools of thought. First, we’re already past it:
Figure 5: Peak Oil Already Past (Source: Wikipedia)
(Note: I don’t endorse this or any of the following predictions. I present them purely for the purposes of illustration.)
Second, we’re not quite there yet:
Figure 6: Peak Oil Soon to Come (Source: EIA)
Third, there’s nothing to worry about. Conventional oil production will peak around 2035 but unconventional oil production will rapidly expand after that to fill any shortfalls (see Brandt et al.)
Figure 7: No Peak Oil Problem (Source: Brandt et al.)
What about natural gas and coal? Gas production shows no sign of peaking. Coal production is flattening out, but whether this signifies the onset of peak coal is uncertain. The peak in 1989 didn’t.
Figure 8: World Natural Gas & Coal Production 1980-2012 (BP data)
Gas and coal are both projected to peak at about the same time as oil, which is any time now (note that the graph below shows per-capita consumption, so it won’t be directly comparable to the other graphs):
Figure 9: Peak Oil, Gas & Coal (Source: Oil Drum)
But not everyone is pessimistic about coal, or at least not US coal:
Figure 10: No Peak Coal in US (Source: Uppsala University)
And US natural gas production, like US oil production, has already broken through a prediction Hubbert made in 1962, and the breakthrough began well before fracking:
Figure 10: US Natural Gas Production vs. Hubbert (Source: Wikipedia)
What can we conclude from all this? Mostly that the future is difficult to predict, but we knew that already. So let’s see what the past tells us.
Although other factors are involved, one measure of how long oil, gas and coal are likely to last is the reserve/production ratio, which tells us how many years of reserve life remains at present production rates. Here are oil and gas (I can’t show a plot for coal because of the lack of reliable historic global reserve data):
Figure 11: US Oil & Gas Production, Reserves & Reserve Life (BP data)
Oil production and reserves have both increased since 1980, but because reserves have increased faster than production reserve life is up from about 30 years in 1980 to about 50 years now. Gas reserves have increased since 1980 but production has broadly kept pace, so reserve life has remained reasonably constant in the 50-60 year range.
Again, however, the fact we have 50-60 years of reserves doesn’t necessarily mean that we aren’t close to peak oil and gas. Increasing costs and/or well depletion rates could lead to a peak occurring tomorrow. The reserves would still be there – and in all probability more would be added – but they would be produced at progressively lower rates. We would be firmly on the back side of the Hubbert curve.
So are we running out of oil, gas and coal? (and other minerals too – copper, gold, uranium, iron ore, phosphorus, mercury, lead, zirconium, selenium and gallium are also claimed to be at, close to or past their production peak.) Fossil resources are finite, so at some point we are bound to see a peak in oil, gas and coal production followed by a terminal decline. But are we at that point now, or do we still have a way to go?