Physics 3333 / CFB 3333 Peak Oil

The Peak Oil Hypothesis

You might use a paper by M. King Hubbert, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, as a starter. In there, Hubbert noted

"For any production curve of a finite resource of fixed amount, two points are known at the outset, namely that at t=0, and again at t=infinity... the production rate must begin at zero, then after passing through one or several maxima, it must decline again to zero."

To that, we add a few more basic points. These are not disputed by anyone.

  • You have to find oil before you can produce it.
  • On any time frame we are interested in, the Earth isn't making any more oil.
  • Geologists pretty well understand where oil comes from.
  • The total oil produced is the area under the production curve.
  • The start at zero, peaking, and subsequent decline is documented in ALL oil fields.
  • The decline after peak sets in when something around half the oil has been produced. This amount varies.
  • Historically, the peak of oil discovery was the period 1950 - 1975 (approximately)
  • Recently, discovery has been about 1/3 of consumption
  • If demand for oil exceeds the supply, someone will go without.
  • Petroleum products have the highest energy density of ANY usable fuel.
  • Any other energy source requires a higher initial investment than oil.
  • Switching from oil will take time, money and energy.
  • Exponential growth cannot be sustained forever.

Given these points, the Peak Oil hypothesis is this: When you sum all of the Earth's oil fields, the resulting total production curve will look very much like the production curve for one field. It starts at zero, ramps up to one or more peaks, then declines to zero again. The total area under the curve is (and must be) the total amount of oil produced. Production patterns can change the shape of the curve but cannot materially change the area under it. Also - a peak of production seems to follow a peak of discovery by something like 30 years.

That's it in a nutshell. World oil production must someday reach a peak and then begin to decline toward zero. An endless pattern of production increase would imply the existence of HUGE quantities of oil that are not known to exist anywhere on Earth. When does the decline begin?

The Evidence So Far

This is clearly a dynamic situation. The evidence is changing and building constantly. Not everyone agrees on important details. The best thing to do is read everything you can find about it. There's a lot of blather about gloom and doom, so you will have to sort that out. Fortunately, you can find pointers to good information on the web. We've provided a list of resources below. There are a number of things to keep up with. Here are a few.

  • Annual production of "conventional" crude oil
  • Total exportable oil (amount available for export)
  • U.S. oil imports
  • U.S. oil inventories

One thing you will find out is that, while the analysis is being done scientifically, the data are not of good quality. The many national oil companies (government-owned) do not release accurate reserve or production data. An accurate analysis is not possible. Those who are working on the problem are simply gathering as much current data as possible and trying to reduce the error bars. Dr. Campbell says "All numbers are wrong. The question is: by how much?" Tom Whipple (of ASPO-USA) writes excellent reports; the Energy Bulletin will point you to these.

Public statements by people in the oil business (who ought to know what's happening) appear more and more (as of late 2007). The preponderance of these point to a peak relatively soon. The resources below will point you to these.

Who is Talking About This?

Initially, the people who founded ASPO and were starting to make noise about this were retired geologists.

  • Colin Campbell
  • Jean Laherrere
  • L.F. (Buzz) Ivanhoe (now deceased)
  • Kenneth Deffeyes
  • Ali Samsam Bakhtiari (now deceased)
  • Albert Bartlett
  • Richard Duncan
  • and more....

The HubbertPeak web site (see link below) will point you to more, plus various writings by some of them. See Ivanhoe's newsletters for starters. They are old but give excellent background.

Much of their discussion about the upcoming peak has been pooh-poohed by oil industry executives and people in goverment (and not just here in the U.S.). As of this writing (late 2007), this situation is beginning to change.

Why the Fuss Now?

This is rising to general consciousness now because evidence is starting to indicate that the peak of worldwide oil production is very near in time. The potential effects of this are so serious that some people are starting to take notice and consider plans for the future. The members of ASPO worldwide have been making enough noise about the situation that is being recognized. There is a slowly growing realization that, at all levels, we have no "Plan B" for dealing with the situation.

Note that the ferocious oil proice spike (up to $147/barrel) got the attention of a LOT of people.

In May 2008, Dr. Campbell (ASPO) updated the ASPO model and the result was that it now shows that peaking occurred in 2007. Dr. Campbell points out that the exact time of peak is not very important - what's really going to get us is the inexorable decline that follows the peak. Dr. Campbell has now retired, but ASPO carries on the effort.

How Do I Keep Up With This?

Read, read and read. As of late 2009, there is some coverage of the story. It may become more prominent as time goes by. The real, deep story is not likely to come packaged in neat bytes on television or radio; you'll have to look for it.

Print media, however, were starting to pick up this story as of early 2008. News stories and op-ed pieces are starting to appear. Keep looking.

This is going to be a dynamic and rapidly developing situation. We cannot possibly keep this web page up-to-date, so keep reading. Web sites such as ASPO, The Oil Drum and The Energy Bulletin will point you to current developments. Gail Tverberg, who writes as Gail the Actuary (she actually is an actuary), produces very clear and cogent pieces about the situation. You can often find her on The Oil Drum. The book by Ken Deffeyes is a "must read" for the background it provides.

The Future

It might be helpful if you knew what oil is used for. Here is a rough breakdown of what comes from a barrel of oil (from

  • 45% - gasoline
  • 21% - fuel oil
  • 9% - jet fuel
  • 5% - heavy fuel oil
  • 4% - liquefied gases
  • 4% - still gas
  • 4% - coke
  • 3% - asphalt
  • 3% - petrochemical feedstock
  • 1% - lubricants
  • 1% or so of "other"

You might ask "What happens when availability of these petrolueum products begins to decline?" A lot of people are asking that. The possibilities are complex and interrelated. When the peak has passed (and even deniers are starting to admit it must happen sometime), we could see an enormous disruption of our way of life. It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to figure out what will happen when the amount of gasoline available for cars is one half of the current amount.

For an eye-opening analysis, read the report to the Connecticut state legislature (see link below).

We have an indicator in what is happening to the airline industry in 2008. High fuel prices are forcing capacity cutbacks and price increases, plus the addition of multiple fees. Also - the auomakers of Detroit are facing some serious challenges as they try to adapt to the new world of high fuel cost.

An Oil Exercise

Just for the interest of it, see how many places in your life that you can find oil. This goes far beyond the gasoline for your vehicle. As an example, the plastic bottles that water and soda pop come in are petroleum products. In fact, essentially all modern plastics come from petroleum. How much else can you find?

For starters, try this listing, taken from the Pittsburgh (PA) Post-Gazette on 2 December 2007. The piece was written by Dan Bedenarz.

"Directly, petrochemicals are used to manufacture analgesics, antihistamines, antibiotics, antibacterials, rectal suppositories, cough syrups, lubricants, creams, ointments, salves and many gels. Processed plastics made with oil are used in heart valves and other medical equipment. Petrochemicals are used in radiological dyes and films, intravenous tubing, syringes and oxygen masks. In all but rare cases, fossil fuels heat and cool buildings and supply electricity."

Prof. Gregory's Notes

Prof. Bob Gregory (SMU Geology Dept.) gave a guest lecture to the class. His visuals from the lecture might be useful as memory refreshers.

Links and Resources

These books and web sites will provide useful information.