Peak Oil Is Back With A Vengeance

M. King Hubert and his famous curve, which he has calculated for US oil production. Image source

The great misunderstanding

Now, back to the topic of peak oil. What most people misunderstand about the topic, is that oil production cannot rise or stay flat indefinitely, or until reserves run out on one bad day.

Put many wells together — all producing according to their own Hubbert curves — and you get one big Hubbert curve for a given field, country or even the world. Yes, before you ask, the laws of physics and geology are the same everywhere on Earth.

The results have been proven by millions and millions of wells across the surface of this planet. It is only a matter of time and accurate input data (historical production rates of each field) to find out where we are on this curve globally. With enough data plotted against this curve one can estimate the ultimate recovery rate: the holy grail of oil production, telling us how much we had originally to start with. Deduct how much we have used up so far, and voila: we got how much oil is left.

What about the shale revolution?

The main argument against Peak Oil in the 2010s was that Hubbert’s peak doesn’t apply because — thanks to human ingenuity, what else — we have found a way to harvest previously untapped resources and managed to increase production well above historical highs. This statement, however, could not be a better textbook example on how to prove a theory right by trying to disprove it.

Hubbert’s peak as observed in the US. Image source: Researchgate

Is it really worth it?

Since you have read this far, let me share my findings with regards to something even more important than peak oil production. As I wrote earlier, it is the net energy what really matters when we talk about any energy ‘production’ be it hydrogen or oil. In the later case and with an ever increasing share of unconventional sources (tar sands, extra heavy oil, deep water etc.) we are getting less and less useful energy for society as whole. These sources demand an ever large share from oil to be maintained, let alone to be further developed. Oil is not used only by cars, but by the very equipment doing the drilling and pumping of the black gold itself. It doesn’t matter how high you can push production in barrels when you have to return a considerable fraction of the product into extraction. It’s no wonder that authors of another great study examining this factor came to the conclusion that:

As a result, no matter how many different unconventional resources we tap, we will eventually reach peak net energy from oil by 2023. That is: next year.

Sit with this, and while at it, ponder how many uses oil has in our high tech lives from mining, to transportation and food production. This means that you cannot expand these activities globally any further, and since peak oil (and peak net energy from oil) means a gradually falling production, this will translate into a permanent crisis. Not a sudden fall or apocalypse. But a steady slimming diet for the economy, turning many parts of it off for good, resulting in less international trade, less travel, less products (including ‘renewables’) and unfortunately less food.

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