The End of Peak Oil

U.S. production of crude oil is now about ten million barrels per day, matching peak levels achieved in 1970.  The Energy Information Administration projects that U.S. oil production this year will be the highest ever recorded.  Let's hope this is the final stake in the heart of peak oil theories.

As a young geology student in 1981, I was taught that oil production in the U.S. would follow a bell-shaped curve.  It had already peaked in 1970 and was on a course of inevitable decline.  The apparent logic was inexorable.  Over the eons, geologic processes had generated a finite amount of irreplaceable petroleum liquids in the Earth's crust.  Once these were gone, they were gone forever.  The necessary corollary was that we had to reshape our entire industrialized civilization by switching to renewable sources of energy.  The longer we delayed, the greater the shock of declining energy supplies would be when it finally arrived.

Peak oil theory was invented in the year 1956 by the American geologist M. King Hubbert.  Hubbert predicted that oil production in the U.S. would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970.  Hubbert's model was apparently validated in the early 1970s, when production began to decline.  The theory became gospel for a generation of geologists.  When oil prices collapsed to near $10 a barrel in late 1998, it gave some of us pause.  But by the summer of 2008, oil prices in the neighborhood of $150 a barrel seemed to validate Hubbert's predictions of scarcity.  In 2010, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman proclaimed that "peak oil has arrived."

What happened?  The theory of peak oil was flawed from the beginning.  While it's true that the amount of oil in the Earth's crust is fixed, it's difficult to accurately estimate the fraction of that oil that can be economically extracted.  Production depends on technology, and it's impossible to reliably predict future technologies.  In the past ten years, engineers have perfected techniques of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.  These technologies allow us to produce petroleum directly from shales, the most common rock in the sedimentary column.  Vast resources once thought to be unreachable have become economically viable.  Thirty years ago, any claim to produce oil directly from shale would have been regarded as laughable.

In 1920, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that "the world's supply of recoverable petroleum" was no more than 60 billion barrels.  It was wrong.  The world has already produced 1,400 billion barrels of oil.  Worldwide, there is about 1,700 billion barrels of oil in reserve – nearly a 60-year supply at current production rates.  And the size of the ultimate resource is likely to be greater than 10 trillion barrels.

Peak oil predictions and other Malthusian prognostications of resource limits have failed repeatedly for decades.  But the people who invoke these false auguries of doom and gloom never seem to suffer any consequences.  Any discussion of energy resources is tainted by ideology.  Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are portrayed as morally superior.  Tendentious promotions of renewables invariably gloss over their inherent limitations.  Wind and solar are intermittent and expensive.  Both suffer from low power densities.  These flaws are not political or even technological.  They originate in the laws of physics and chemistry and are not likely to be overcome at any time in the foreseeable future.

Oil and other fossil fuels will continue to be our primary energy sources through the end of this century because they offer four great advantages.  Compared to renewables, fossil fuels are inexpensive, reliable, abundant, and concentrated.  The age of oil is far from being eclipsed.  We have barely begun to exploit unconventional oil resources.  The western U.S. alone contains at least 2 trillion barrels of petroleum in oil shale formations.  At a current U.S. annual consumption rate of 7.2 billion barrels, that's a 278-year supply.

Ultimately, the world will switch to nuclear power because that's where the energy is.  But there's no reason grounded in science for that transition to take place in the lifetime of anyone reading this article.  Political attempts to control energy markets for ideological reasons can only result in increasing energy prices and reduced human prosperity.

David Deming is a geologist, professor of arts and sciences at the University of Oklahoma, and author of the series Science and Technology in World History.

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