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April 4, 2005


The peak oil idea -- which says that world oil production will go into
irreversible decline sometime in the next decade or two -- is quickly
morphing into conventional wisdom.

By Stan Cox

Until recently, peak-oil analysts got about as much respect from the
energy establishment as do perpetual-motion enthusiasts. But now, with
oil prices headed for uncharted territory and even Saudi Arabia
seemingly unable to boost production to higher levels, the peak oil
idea -- which says that world oil production will go into irreversible
decline sometime in the the next decade or two -- is quickly morphing
into conventional wisdom.

Fifty years ago, geologist M. King Hubbert showed that the output
of an oilfield, or indeed the oil production of an entire country,
increases year by year up to the point (a "peak") at which
approximately half the oil is exhausted. From there, he said, annual
output drops inexorably toward zero.

Hubbert hit the bullseye with his prediction that U.S. production
would peak in 1970. And over the past half century, country after
country has seen its oil production hit a peak and start dropping. Yet
for decades, economists, petroleum executives and government officials
refused to follow Hubbert's analysis to its logical conclusion -- that
in the easily foreseeable future, humanity will pass over a global
peak of oil production, where there awaits a very grim, slippery

The Hubbert Curve, designed by geophysicist M. King Hubbert,
illustrates that over time, the rate of oil production rises and then
falls in a bell-shape pattern. But gradually, in the past couple of
years, the main issue in the oil debate has shifted from whether a
world peak will occur to when. And when it comes to peak-oil
predictions these days, there is no shortage.

Please place your bets

Colin Campbell of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas
(ASPO) predicts that production will begin its decline between now
and 2010.

British Petroleum exploration consultant Francis Harper believes it
will happen between 2010 and 2020. Consulting firm PFC Energy puts
it at around 2010 to 2015. The publication Petroleum Review
predicts that demand will outstrip supply in 2007. Richard
Heinberg, author of the 2003 book, The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the
Fate of Industrial Societies, expects a peak in 2007 or 2008.

Retired Princeton professor Kenneth Deffeyes, author of the just-
published, Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak is more
pessimistic, and more specific, about when the peak will happen:
Thanksgiving Day, 2005. (His tongue appears to be in his cheek
regarding the day, but not the year).

If all that is too gloomy for you, energy consultant Michael Lynch
maintains that there's no peak in sight for "the next 20 or 30 years."
Peter Odell of Erasmus University in the Netherlands has tacked a full
30 years onto Deffeyes' grim prediction, setting a date of
Thanksgiving 2035. And Uncle Sam has the cheeriest news of all: a
peak year of 2037 forecast by the Department of Energy.

Now how many times has someone told you, "Oh, yeah, all my life
they've been saying the oil's about to run out, and it hasn't done it
yet"? In fact, the record of oil forecasting has not been an exercise
in Chicken-Littlism.

Asking, "When will oil peak and begin its decline?" (not, "When will
it run out?"), the prognosticators of the past came up with dates only
five to 10 years ahead of many of today's predictions. Roger Bentley
of the University of Reading found that in the 1970s -- during the
last outbreak of peak-oil fever -- analysts from "reputable
organizations" (including Esso, Shell, the UK Department of Energy,
and the U.N., as well as Hubbert himself) were nearly unanimous in
predicting a world oil peak somewhere around the year 2000.
Does the peak year even matter?

With oil prices soaring, economic logic says the sooner the peak's
date can be nailed down, the better. Financial web sites are buzzing
about it, but in a somewhat merrier key than the peak-oil sites. One
research firm is even forecasting production peaks for individual oil
companies, with obvious implications for stock values.

On the other hand, if we're more concerned about improving humanity's
prospects in 2010 or 2037 than Wall Street's prospects at the close of
trading tomorrow, then one prediction is probably as good as another.
In designing an energy policy that can be sustained far into the post-
petroleum future, the precise timing of the peak is of about as much
practical importance as the date of the next total eclipse of the sun
(on that forecast, astronomers agree: March 29, 2006).

A recent report prepared for the U.S. government by Science
Applications International Corporation suggests that whatever the peak
year turns out to be, 2005 is the time to get moving on energy
policy. The report's lead author, Robert L. Hirsch, concluded that
strong action must be taken at least 10, and preferably 20 years
before we reach a world oil peak, if we are to avoid "a long period of
significant economic hardship worldwide."

If Hirsch is right, and if peak-oil analysts like Campbell and
Deffeyes have correctly predicted a peak before 2010, we're in serious
trouble already. Even with bold, immediate moves to wean ourselves
from oil, "significant economic hardship" is probably the very best we
can hope for.

But even if the DOE's own rosy forecast of a 2037 peak is to prove on
target, we're left with little time for leisurely Sunday drives.
Initiating, in Hirsch's words, "crash program mitigation 20 years
before peaking" in a thoroughly oil-addicted country will require at
least a decade of political action just to get started.

Shrinking supplies of oil could actually help mitigate this century's
other looming crisis: global warming. There too, the clock is ticking.
In a 2002 paper in the journal Science, 18 eminent researchers urged
massive, immediate investment in a diverse array of new, unproven non-
fossil-fuel technologies if we're to supply the world's energy needs
with no net carbon emissions, even by the year 2050.

And energy's not the whole story. One example: To supply the total
current U.S. production of plastics, synthetic fibers and rubber,
solvents, and other petrochemicals using biomass (plant-derived
materials) instead of petroleum would consume the entire net annual
growth of all the nation's forests -- and we're already using that
wood for other purposes.

Supply, demand, and physical reality

Debates among peak-of-production soothsayers and their critics remain
unsettled because a crucial quantity -- the precise amount of oil
still in the ground worldwide -- remains unknown. Nevertheless, two
things are becoming more and more clear: Vast new oilfields just don't
seem to be out there, and in existing fields, producers are getting
less and less bang for the buck. The oil still in the ground will
prove a lot harder to suck out than the oil that's already been pumped
and burned.

In those fields first discovered and exploited in the past century,
the oil was almost as easy and cheap to extract as Jed Clampett's
bubblin' crude. But with many of the fields in production today, oil
has to be brought from greater depths, requiring a lot more energy and
often necessitating injection of water, steam or various gases.

Such methods may be wrecking mature fields, causing them to dry up
more quickly. Energy investment banker Matthew Simmons has been
saying that overpumping may already have damaged oilfields in
Saudi Arabia and Iran, rendering vast amounts of oil unrecoverable.

In 2000, operators of Mexico's largest oilfield began injecting
nitrogen gas into wells. As a result, they temporarily achieved a much
higher extraction rate. But this year, the field fell prematurely into
permanent decline.

The size of world reserves is not only unknown, it's beyond our
control. With that quantity fixed, the chief way for humans to stretch
out the oil curve is to cut the rate of consumption. Fast-rising
demand in the world's two largest countries, China and India, is said
to be worsening the current oil crunch, but before we in the West
point fingers, it's important to remember that one average American
consumes as much oil as 32 citizens of India.

For decades, Prof. Albert Bartlett of the University of Colorado has
been calling attention to the ability of conservation to extend the
life of a resource. For example, assume that the nation of West
Vehicula calculates that it has about 60 years worth of oil in the
ground, given that it's planning to increase consumption at 4 percent
per year. Bartlett's simple calculations show that the Vehiculans
could stretch the lifetime of that resource to more than 300 years by
holding consumption growth to zero.

Won't the problem take care of itself? As prices rise, people will
voluntarily cut consumption, right? Well, in a 2003 article,
energy economist Andrew McKillop showed that at least during the
1990s, the opposite happened. Each time oil prices rose, world demand
rose within six-12 months. And over on the far side of Hubbert's peak,
it will be physical reality, not economics, that governs consumption.
With supply shrinking year by year, every barrel that comes out of the
ground will likely be burned lickety-split.

The view from the top

Environmentalists may be tempted to anticipate an ever-worsening
scarcity of oil as just the thing to shock America into conservation
and serious development of alternative energy. But what if -- and this
is not hard at all to envision -- the peak prompts a worldwide fossil-
fuel rush instead?

Expensive, energy-inefficient and environmentally disastrous efforts
to exploit oil and tar sands in Canada, Venezuela and elsewhere could
be cranked up to full speed. The militarization of American society
could become total, as the government's chief mission becomes control
of oil across the globe. (The number-one target, of course, would be
the Persian Gulf, where resides 63 percent of the world's remaining
oil.) And we would likely exploit our large coal reserves in a big
way, breaking new global-warming records as we go.

The best alternative to that nightmare is renewable energy. Geologist
Walter Youngquist, author of the 1997 book, Geodestinies, has taken a
hard-headed look at the inventory of alternatives to fossil fuels
and concluded that to make them work, we'll have to put an end to our
profligate ways. He paints a picture of a frugal, restrained society
very different from the one we've lived in on the upslope of the oil

Yes, peak oil's in the news, but it's only beginning to seep into the
national conciousness. Maybe we'll know the idea is really catching on
when Hollywood gets interested. But by the time The Day After the Peak
hits your local cineplex, it might turn out to be a reality show.

Stan Cox ( is senior research scientist at the Land
Institute in Salina, Kan. and a member of the Institute's Prairie
Writers Circle.

Copyright 2005 Independent Media Institute.