Are we running out of oil, gas and coal?

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?




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22 Responses to Are we running out of oil, gas and coal?

  1. The question of running out of any fossil hydrocarbon was answered ~2 billion years back, as Oxygen released by photosynthesizing organisms began to roam freely in the air.

    Most of the Oxygen so produced is in oxides of metals that weren’t oxides in the original, anoxic earth atmosphere. Soooo, there’s not enough Oxygen floating around today to even come close to burning all that fossil C&H all over the world.

    • clivebest says:

      As I understand it the free oxygen content in the atmosphere is equal to all the organic carbon and pyrite buried in sediments. Fossil fuels are a tiny percentage of the total. The change in oxygen levels is insignificant even if humans cause CO2 levels to double. CO2 levels are naturally kept very low on earth due to natural weathering of rocks by water. CO2 and the raw materials for life such as phosphorous returns to the atmosphere through plate tectonics generated volcanoes. The carbon cycle acts as a negative temperature feedback because weathering sequestration increases with temperature keeping CO2 levels small. A level of about 300ppm maximises entropy (heat loss to space) in the atmosphere for T=288K.

      • No, Clive. The Earth’s atmosphere was anoxic and rocks were largely metallic prior to photosynthesis. As photosynthesizing organisms began adding oxygen, metals corroded — iron, etc. rusted, and a great deal of Oxygen ever produced was locked into oxides, even of Uranium, which then dissolved in water and even allowed Ma Nature to run her own nuclear-fission reactors about B years ago — Google “Oklo reactors”.

        So, fossil Carbon can never have access, via combustion, to most of the Oxygen ever produced by photosynthesis. It will remain Carbon, even if we burn all the Oxygen with whatever Carbon we can find.

        The Oxygen now entering air is about 50% from phytoplankton/cyanobacteria in seas, especially off the coast of Brazil, nourished by the silt-rich waters from the Amazon. Land plants & forests are essentially neutral, since if left undisturbed, their carbon storage goes into soils and is regurgitated by bacterial action.

        Farming & grazing has ruined that balance, and so farmed./grazed lands are net Carbon (and methane) sources now.

        We’re deep into a period of reckoning with planetary reality.

    • Soooo, there’s not enough Oxygen floating around today to even come close to burning all that fossil C&H all over the world.

      According to Scripps “we are losing 19 O2 molecules out of every 1 million O2 molecules in the atmosphere each year.”

      Soooo, we have enough oxygen floating around today to keep burning fossil C&H at current rates for another 52,638 years.

    • This silly comment interface keeps reporting duplicates that don’;t exist, so let me try here…

      Roger, No, because ocean chemistry is crashing before 2050 or earlier…

      Even today…

    • Since the “duplicate comment” trick is ongoing, I’ll stick this here — ACO has a problem with how CO2 & sunlight work together. Perhaps a little more Physical Chemistry study would help, ACO?

      • A C Osborn says:

        Well Doc, for someone who has trouble with the Forum controls and who does not appear to know the difference between Chemistry and Radiative Physics I think you have a nerve to post the same accusation 3 times.
        Perhaps instead of repeating yourself you might like to answer the questions I have asked?

        Please show me the Physics Chemistry which actually shows this happening in the Earth’s Atmosphere and not in a laboratory bottle. Just point me to the Paper that shows it for the Atmosphere, no Maybes, Coulds, Shoulds, or requirements for massive positive feedbacks, no 1000 years to do so, but actual verifiable measurement Values?
        Don’t forget 100,000 times the amount of energy released when it was burnt.
        You do know that according to NASA CO2 causes Cooling in the Troposphere and increased CO2 has caused increased cooling don’t you?
        You also know that DWIR is reducing as well?

        No don’t bother on this thread, I do not wish to Hijack this thread which is on Peak Oil & Gas, perhaps you would like to respond on this one where we can all learn from it
        which is at least about emmissions.

  2. Euan Mearns says:

    Roger, Figure 9 is one that Luis de Sousa and I produced many years ago now. One of the points of that exercise was to assess the scale of mitigation using energy efficiency, nuclear and renewables. I have a slide showing that somewhere – I’ll try to get back on that next week.

    Of course back then we never guessed that OECD governments would try and force closure of FF industries. Or to isolate themselves from their lifeblood – Russia.

  3. BAU says:

    ‘Peak Oil’ is too complicated to fit in a few graphs plotting time and volume(!) imho..

    We shouldn’t even call the main predicament “Peak Oil” but more something like “Peak net energy from all extracted liquids” or something? Looking at barrels per day hides way bigger problems.

    You can think up all sorts of scenario’s which have the barrels per day happily rising, while at the same time our society will become an energy mining hell-hole.

    Actually, that hell-hole might already have quietly arrived with LTO and Tarsands.

    Let’s start by graphing with proper energy content for example. (NGL’s) Chuck out refinery gains, and subtract what’s used in production. Although, refining is then left out. So maybe we should graph by the total of energy delivered by the total of end products with energy used in production and refining subtracted, to get an idea of what is left over for the rest of society.

    Something like glider did at the Oil Drum:

    • Ed says:

      Great link. glider’s plot of net energy per capita says it all for me. Without measures to reduce world population we are all getting poorer*. In the UK there is pressure to stop net immigration but as yet none to encourage smaller family sizes though tax incentives. The last politician to voice concerns about UK population increase was Sir Keith Joseph and it killed his bid for the leadership of the Conservative party and made way for Margaret Thatcher. Since that time the narrative has changed. Now decreasing population sizes is portrayed as a negative thing, turning the ‘population time bomb’ on its head and calling it the ‘demographic time bomb’. Apparently we need more and more young people to support the old. Ponzi scheme I say.

      * ‘getting poorer’ may mean becoming more like Cuba. They lead just as happy lives as ourselves with excellent health care and education provision on only a small fraction of our energy use.

  4. A C Osborn says:

    Euan & Andrew, have you watched the U-tube Video Dr Cannara posted?
    No wonder he is such a worried man.
    This statement was prominent at the beginning of the video.
    “While each CO2 molecule stays in the Atmosphere it heats air 100,000 times more than the energy released when it’s C was burned.”
    I would really like to see the science behind that statement.

  5. Leo Smith says:

    Once again the misunderstanding that peak oil can be offset by exotic production methodology: the reality is best described by Gail Tverberg ( ) in that peak oil will be characterised by oil prices due to complex extraction rendering oil itself unattractive as a fuel vis à vis say uranium.

    EROI sets an absolute upper limit on the use of any fuel: beyond that you get less energy out than you put in to produce the fuel.

    Below that is a more complex economic equation where as Gail points out, rising prices in oil actually start to limit the economic growth globally, and so oil consumption starts to fall anyway.

    .There are signs this is already happening.

    Peak flint and peak bronze didn’t happen because we ran out of flints, copper or tin, or even the ability to mine them cheaply.

    Peak wood in at least Europe didn’t happen because we ran out of trees, although we nearly did.

    In all cases a better technology superseded it dependent on different resources.

    Its very hard to do more than a wet finger calculation, but I would say that we are at or about peak oil now, and what will happen in the next two decades is a rush to replace fossil wherever it can be replaced by the next best thing, which will be in nearly all cases nuclear power.

    Or if we don’t, there will be a slide back into a new dark age.

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