Peak oil

Peak Oil: What Ever Happened to Hubbert's Peak?

Next year U.S. oil production will exceed its 1970 peak.


Price of Oil

Crude oil production in the U.S. will reach an average of 9.9 million barrels a day in 2018, the Energy Information Administration projects in its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook report. This would surpass the previous record of 9.6 million barrels per day, set in 1970.

So much for Hubbert's Peak.

In 1956, geologist M. King Hubbert famously predicted, in a presentation to the American Petroleum Institute, that oil production in the U.S. would peak no later than 1970. To make his estimates, Hubbert added up all the plausible extrapolations of domestic crude oil reserves. His more conservative calculation assumed the ultimate production of 150 billion barrels, in which case production would peak in 1965. But if ultimate production could rise to 200 billion barrels, the peak would be delayed until 1970.

M.K. Hubbert

Many people thought Hubbert's predictions were vindicated when U.S. production began dropping from its 1970 peak. In fact, domestic production of crude reached a nadir of 5 million barrels per day in 2008. (Had Hubbert's calculations been right, the U.S. would have been producing only about 2.5 million barrels a day that year.) As global oil prices began rising toward their highest levels ever, peak oil doomsaying had its heyday.

My 2006 article "Peak Oil Panic" detailed many of those predictions of an impending petroleum catastrophe. The Princeton geologist Ken Deffeyes suggested in 2001 that global oil production would peak on Thanksgiving Day, 2006. Petroleum geologist Colin Campbell warned in 2002 that dwindling oil supplies would soon lead to "war, starvation, economic recession, possibly even the extinction of homo sapiens." In his 2004 book Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil, the Caltech physicist David Goodstein asserted not just that peak production was imminent but that "we can, all too easily, envision a dying civilization, the landscape littered with the rusting hulks of SUVs." In 2007, the German Energy Watch Group declared that the world had reached peak oil, and that this could soon trigger the "meltdown of society."

At the peak oil alarmist website The Oil Drum, one prominent analyst declared in 2009 that global oil production had peaked at 82 million barrels per day in 2008 and would thereafter begin declining at a rate of 2.2 million barrels per day. Had that estimate been correct, world oil production would have fallen by now to about 62 million barrels per day. Instead, the International Energy Agency reported this month that global production now averages around 97 million barrels per day. Keep in mind that this level of production is taking place despite the political and economic chaos afflicting such major oil-producing countries as Venezuela, Libya, and Iraq.

Peak oilers greatly underestimated the power of markets and human ingenuity to solve problems. (Think fracking.) The Energy Information Administration reports that the U.S. has cumulatively produced more than 200 billion barrels of oil. (So much for Hubbert's "ultimate production" calculations.) During that time, proven domestic oil reserves have never fallen below 20 billion barrels; they are now estimated at 32 billion barrels.

A decade ago, at the peak of peak oil hysteria, I wrote that "the peak oil doomsters are probably wrong that world oil production is about to decline forever. Most analysts believe that world petroleum supplies will meet projected demand at reasonable prices for at least another generation." That's still true.