Who is Hubbert? Is that like the nursery rhyme?

Most definitively not. Marion King Hubbert was a geoscientist educated at the University of Chicago in topics ranging from mathematics and physics to geology. During his work as a research geophysicist for Shell Oil Company, he observed and became concerned about rising energy production given what he recognized was a finite supply.  He considered the fact that it took 500 million years to accumulate our supplies of fossil fuels to indicate that within the next few thousand years, no significant new supplies would be created. Duly, it could be taken as a given that “the industrial exploitation of the fossil fuels will consist in the progression exhaustion of an initially fixed supply” (Hubbert, 1956, p. 4).

Given this knowledge of a finite supply of energy resources existing, Hubbert proposed that oil production and discovery over time would resemble a single peaked bell curve. This is known today as Hubbert's curve

Hubbert's original curve - 1968 - from Energy and the Wealth of Nations

Hubbert's original curve - 1968 - from Energy and the Wealth of Nations

The bell curve may be regarded as representing a normal distribution, such that at the peak of the curve represents the 50% mark. The exact timing of the peak would depend on how large the oil reserves were. Later in Hubbert’s life, he acknowledged the possibility that the peak oil curve could be double-peaked, meaning new technology or perhaps new reserves would allow production to temporarily rise again after prior falling. This secondary theory seems to be correct - due to the intrusion of new technology (fracking), US oil production is once again rising.

How credible is Hubbert and his theory? 

Hubbert was a brilliant mind when it came to oil and geology. He correctly predicted a number of significant milestones in oil and gas production, a fairly remarkable feat considering that most "experts" are fairly bad at predicting things. In 1956, Hubbert correctly predicted U.S. oil production would peak in 1970, and also was correct that natural gas would peak in 1975. Hubbert was remarkably close, but incorrect, in his prediction that world oil production would peak in 2000—it has plateaued since 2004.

Here we can see the potential arising of a second peak in the extraction chart. From EIA

Here we can see the potential arising of a second peak in the extraction chart. From EIA

Hubbert’s peak theory transformed the way energy resources were thought about and planted the concept (and buzz-word) “peak oil”, which is talked about frequently today.

Ok, so what is peak oil? Is it just a theory or a fact?

Peak oil is the idea that world oil production will rise, then peak, then decline. This is absolutely a fact if our energy sources and consumption remains exactly the same as it is today.

In the case of peak oil, the first and foremost assumption is that in order for there to be a peak, there must be a finite supply. This we can attest to—though we could still possibly discover new oil fields in the deep ocean or under glaciers, the fact remains that on this planet there exists a certain amount of oil. Even though our extraction technologies may improve and oil usage more efficient, the finite nature of our supply remains a fact.

Given a finite supply, it may be reasoned that at some point 50% of this supply will be consumed. According to various estimates for EUR (energy ultimate recovery), there are 2.3-4 trillion barrels of oil to be recovered, with 1.1 trillion extracted to date. 

But if we haven't even extracted half of the estimates, why worry? Shouldn't this be a problem for a future generation?

Well, people have been saying that about our problems for decades, and look how well that's worked out for us. The EUR doesn't mean all those barrels will eventually be extracted; after all, some may be impossible to reach.

In this respect, peak oil could be both a fact and a concept. Under the assumptions that we develop no new energy sources and keep oil as the main source of energy, of course peak oil is a fact. However, if cheap new energy sources are developed and the market moves away from oil, peak oil and Hubbert's curve will be stored away as historical (but un-important) theories. So in this sense, peak oil may be both a fact and a concept—which one it will be depends on how the future plays out.

A lot of people criticize peak oil as dumb - why? 

Really, there's no logical explanation for why people are so resistant to this idea after all, if they don't think it will be a reality, what is so threatening about it? Ugo Bardi wrote (paywalled link) for the journal Energy about how society approaches new ideas with a focus on peak oil. He is spot-on with his stages of a new idea: 

"In general, the reaction to peak oil is not different than that to any new idea, and we may say that it follows a series of four phases, loosely patterned after a well known sentence by Thomas Huxley “History warns us that it is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions.

Phase 1: Never heard of it.

Phase 2: It is wrong.

Phase 3: It is right, but irrelevant.

Phase 4: It is what I had been saying all along."

Today, America is stuck somewhere in between Phase 2 and 3. The Phase 2 people view peak oil as a concept, and the phase 3 people view peak oil as a fact, but one that will not take place—thus, a concept again. The Phase 3 people believe that peak oil “will have no effects on the world economy since the price mechanisms will cause a smooth transition to alternative energy resources.” (Bardi) They may well be correct, but this is their assumption in rejecting peak oil. If the market did not move to alternative energy sources, then the decline from peak oil would be a major concern. 

What is the likelihood of the market remaining centered around oil until there is none left on the earth?

There's no readily available number, but it is extremely low.

Ok, but that means there is still a chance, right? 

Well, um, yeah... its highly unlikely that humanity will sit around doing nothing as we run out of oil,  which is the critical determinant of all economic growth, how we power our cars, factories, machines, and pretty much everything. I would say chances of us actually using oil until we run out as less likely than Obama secretly being a lizard person. 

This is more likely than us actually running out of oil.

This is more likely than us actually running out of oil.

There's no need to be rude

Sorry, its just that numerous alternative energy sources already exist, and as technology for them improves, the cost will decrease. Meanwhile, as the supply of oil diminishes and extraction becomes more difficult, prices will skyrocket. It's hard to imagine more expensive gas and oil prices than the last few years, but really use your imagination. When the cost of alternative energy sources falls below that of oil, basic economics tells us that the market will move to the cheaper source of energy. So, though peak oil is a fact—a finite supply exists, today we are in the wavering peak of production, and if we don’t get a new source, production will decline—it is very unlikely that we will see an Oil Armageddon. 

I feel better now. 

Good. Though some deny the fact that we are faced with a finite supply of oil, and it may very well become an inaccessible resource for humans in the future, sentiment towards and recognition of peak oil as a concept is growing, albeit grudgingly. Now, hopefully you can add yourself to the ranks of Phase 3 or Phase 4 believers. 

Now we can talk about peak water!

I don't need that negativity in my life. 

AuthorIsabel Munson