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10 years after the oil price spike: Is peak oil a process rather than a moment?

10 years after the oil price spike: Is peak oil a process rather than a moment?

Ten years ago this week—July 11, 2008 to be exact—the price of a barrel of oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange hit an intraday high of $147.27, its highest price ever. By the following autumn the world economy was in shambles and the price of oil was tumbling. The oil price eventually bottomed out around $34 per barrel in mid-February the following year.

Oil prices started 2002 around $20 per barrel and then rose almost continuously until mid-2008. As they rose, the world’s best known critic of peak oil* prognostications, Daniel Yergin, began to look so foolish for having predicted ample supplies for decades to come that his firm finally reversed itself in mid-2008 and began to forecast higher prices. That should have been read as a contrarian signal; just two months later the oil bull market ended.

Peak oil thinkers at the time believed that their forecast of a nearby all-time peak in the rate of world oil production had been fulfilled. The official numbers seemed to confirm this. Petroleum geologist Kenneth Deffeyes’ had made a half-serious prediction that Thanksgiving Day 2005 would mark the all-time high for production. Production of crude oil including lease condensate (which is the definition of oil) was slightly more than 74 million barrels per day (mbpd) in December 2005, but thereafter declined.

Despite high and rising prices oil production failed to exceed that number for two years. In December 2007 production inched above the previous high mark and stayed there through July 2008, the month the oil price peaked. That month the world produced slightly more than 75 mbpd.

In August production fell by more than one million barrels and did not surmount 75 mbpd until two years later.

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