Peak oil

Hubbert's Peak Refuted: Peak Oil Theory Still Wrong

Who's a flat-earther now?

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As I have explained earlier geologist M. King Hubbert famously predicted in 1956 that U.S. domestic oil production in the lower 48 states would peak around 1970 and begin to decline. In 1969 Hubbert predicted that world oil production would peak around 2000. Hubbert argued that oil production grows until half the recoverable resources in a field have been extracted, after which production falls off at essentially the same rate at which it expanded. This theory suggests a bell-shaped curve rising from first discovery to peak and descending to depletion.

Hubbert has many peak oil disciples. For example, Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes has written three whole books in the past decade and a half insisting that peak oil is nigh and disaster will soon follow in its wake:

In two earlier books, Hubbert's Peak (2001) and Beyond Oil (2005), the geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes laid out his rationale for concluding that world oil production would continue to follow a bell-shaped curve, with the smoothed-out peak somewhere in the middle of the first decade of this millennium–in keeping with the projections of his former colleague, the pioneering petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert.

Deffeyes sees no reason to deviate from that prediction, despite the ensuing global recession and the extreme volatility in oil prices associated with it. In his view, the continued depletion of existing oil fields, compounded by shortsighted cutbacks in many exploration-and-development projects, virtually assures that the mid-decade peak in global oil production will never be surpassed.

In When Oil Peaked, he revisits his original forecasts, examines the arguments that were made both for and against them, adds some new supporting material to his overall case, and applies the same mode of analysis to a number of other finite gifts from the Earth: mineral resources that may be also in shorter supply than "flat-Earth" prognosticators would have us believe.

Who's a flat-earther now?

Instead of falling, global oil production has soared. In the United States the Energy Information Administration predicts that domestic oil production will average 9.43 million barrels a day this year, the most since 1972. Given the fall in oil prices, exploration and production will trail off a bit to 9.3 million barrels per day next year. The low point in U.S. production was in 2008 when pumping averaged 5 million barrels per day. Peak oilists always underestimate the power of markets to mobilize human ingenuity.

As it happens, I analyze the "peak everything" fallacy in my forthcoming book, The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century (St. Martin's Press, July 21).