Friday, April 25, 2008

The Theoretical Basis for Peak Oil

"World Total Liquids Supply" projection chart, August 2007, courtesy of "Ace" at

It happened at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and behold, he stood by the river.

Behold, there came up out of the river seven cattle, sleek and fat, and they fed in the marsh grass.

Behold, seven other cattle came up after them out of the river, ugly and thin, and stood by the other cattle on the brink of the river.

The ugly and thin cattle ate up the seven sleek and fat cattle. So Pharaoh awoke.

He slept and dreamed a second time: and behold, seven heads of grain came up on one stalk, healthy and good.

Behold, seven heads of grain, thin and blasted with the east wind, sprung up after them.

The thin heads of grain swallowed up the seven healthy and full ears. Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream.

It happened in the morning that his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all of Egypt’s magicians and wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh.

  • Genesis 41:1-8

The oil age began thousands of years ago, with the use of bituminous pitch by societies existing from Biblical times onward. But the petroleum age kicked into high gear from the 19th century to the present. In the 20th century, M. King Hubbert, a Shell Oil geologist, predicted that the oil age would soon come to an end.

Hubbert was no dummy. Among his accomplishments, he correctly deduced that the rock of the earth's crust would exhibit plasticity of movement at depths of several miles below the earth's surface, where rock pressures and temperatures are very high. And he contributed greatly to the understanding of hydrocarbon migration paths in reservoirs beneath the earth's surface. But he also observed that instantaneous oil production from any particular field followed a roughly bell-shaped curve over time – beginning at a certain rate, rising to a maximum when roughly half of the recoverable oil had been pumped, then falling away eventually to zero. Based on his observation of individual field behavior, he formulated a theory that not only fields, but regions and even nations producing oil would experience the same behavior, with regional production beginning at a certain level, then rising to a peak when roughly half of the recoverable oil had been extracted, before falling away eventually to zero.

He presented his theory in a speech to the American Petroleum Institute in 1956, predicting that oil production in the United States would peak between the late 1960's and 1970 before heading into irreversible decline. His audience was stunned. His bosses at Shell Oil were very unhappy. He was laughed to scorn. Then the 1973 Yom Kippur war occurred and the Arab oil embargo, and the West found out that Hubbert had been right.

My mom sent me to a gas station one day during the embargo and rationing. She needed gas to get to work, and her license plate was odd on an even rationing day, or something like that. I was sick with the flu, but I got on a bicycle and rode, carrying a gas can, to a station in front of which was a long line of cars waiting to get gas.

Hubbert also predicted that worldwide oil production would one day peak, then enter irreversible decline. He originally estimated that this would occur during the latter half of the 1990's; others who have studied his work have since pushed the date back to the latter part of this first decade of the 21st century, or the very beginning of the next decade.

Hubbert was by no means the only “prophetic” voice warning of peak oil. Other voices include:

  • Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere (“The End of Cheap Oil,” Scientific American, March 1998). Colin Campbell, Ph.D, is a retired British petroleum geologist and founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas. He predicted that oil production would peak by 2007. Jean Laherrere is a retired petroleum engineer who used to be employed by Total S.A., a French petroleum company. His work on seismic refraction surveys contributed to the discovery of Africa's largest oil field.

  • Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Ph.D, Professor Emeritus of Geology at Princeton University, who predicted that world oil production would peak in 2005.

  • Chris Skrebowski, Editor of the UK Petroleum Review and former long-range planner for British Petroleum. Mr. Skrebowski originally argued against an impending world peak in oil production, but after studying data on decline rates of fields such as the British/Norwegian North Sea field, he has become a believer.

  • Jeffrey Brown, independent petroleum geologist from Dallas Texas, who, in collaboration with others, developed the “Export Land Model” to describe how in a post-Peak world, net exports will decline much faster than the decline in actual world production.

Are all these "prophets" accurate? How close are we to “Peak Oil?” I am no geologist; only an informed reader of the facts. Yet, in my next post, I'd like to offer the reasons why I believe we are already past peak, and that 2008 will be the year that we are forced to confront this reality.

And in the meantime, I saw premium unleaded gas selling for $4.01 a gallon today as I was riding my bike home from work. I also passed a station where diesel was selling for $4.69. Signs abound warning whoever has eyes to see that our present society is on the verge of a change. These signs are not merely dreams and visions, but of the pronouncements of engineers and scientists tracing out cold hard fact. Yet the Pharaoh who was visited by the dreams of Genesis 41 was much wiser than the people now leading our nation, because he heeded the warning of those dreams and made preparations for coming bad times. Our leaders can't even dream.


Jim said...

Tuesday 23 December 2008 - I am planning to purchase gasoline today at Walmart in Portland, Texas at the price of $1.39 per gallon. I am a petroleum geologist exploring for oil. What does it all mean??

TH in SoC said...

I believe that the collapse in the price of oil and petroleum products is due to the same factors behind the collapse in price of many commodities: the collapse of the credit-based global "official" economy. It is not that vast new deposits of oil or other minerals have been discovered; rather, it is that the buying power of major players has been curtailed by the collapse of credit. The low prices won't last.

But as for our oil situation, you should know the details much better than I, since you are a petroleum geologist and I am not. I am curious to know your opinions on the whole thing, however. I have linked to a few rather weighty government and private industry studies under the sidebars titled "Other Wells" and "Signs of the Times." I am thinking especially of the German Energy Watch Group Oil Report and the Barclays Capital report titled, "Burning Violins." What do you think of those?