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M. King Hubbert and the future of peak oil

M. King Hubbert and the future of peak oil

Almost synonymous with the term “peak oil” is M. King Hubbert, perhaps the foremost geophysicist of the 20th century, who first theorized about the eventual decline of oil production in the 1930s. His life has now been chronicled by science writer Mason Inman in a new biography entitled The Oracle of Oil.

Depending upon whom you speak with, peak oil is either a catastrophe waiting to happen or a far-off concern that has already been solved or will be soon. Frequently, peak oil is referred to as a myth. What you rarely hear is that peak oil is an empirical fact having already occurred in dozens of countries.

The term “peak oil” simply means that crude oil production for any field, region or country eventually reaches a peak or plateau from which it inexorably declines. Because the amount of oil in the Earth’s crust is finite, it is logical to assume that one day peak oil production will occur worldwide. The concern is that we as a global society are so accustomed to rising oil production that we have built an entire world around that assumption. Will we be ready when oil production begins to decline?

To shed some light on that and other questions author Inman takes us from Hubbert’s early days at the University of Chicago to his famous speech in 1956 (in which he predicted a peak in U.S. crude oil production no later than 1970) to his days in Washington, D.C. working for the U.S. Geological Survey and his fights there concerning the timing of a U.S. oil production peak.

In the course of the story Inman puts to rest misconceptions about Hubbert and about peak oil. First and foremost, peak does NOT mean running out. As explained above it means the trend of rising oil production reverses into a decline.

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Peak Oil Has More To Do With Oil Prices Than You May Think

Peak Oil Has More To Do With Oil Prices Than You May Think

The Origins of Peak Oil Awareness

The scientific study of peak oil began in the 1950′s, when Shell geophysicist M. King Hubbert reported on the evolution of production rates in oil and gas fields. In a 1956 paper Hubbert suggested that oil production in a particular region would approximate a bell curve, increasing exponentially during the early stages of production before eventually slowing, reaching a peak when approximately half of a field had been extracted, and then going into terminal production decline.

Hubbert applied his methodology to oil production for the Lower 48 US states and offshore areas. He estimated that the ultimate potential reserve of the Lower 48 US states and offshore areas was 150 billion barrels of oil. Based on that reserve estimate, the 6.6 million barrels per day (bpd) extraction rate in 1955, and the 52.5 billion barrels of oil that had been previously produced in the US, Hubbert’s base case estimate was that oil production in the US would reach maximum production in 1965. He also estimated that global oil production would peak around the year 2000 at a maximum production rate of 34 million bpd.

Hubbert calculated a secondary case that if the US oil reserve increased to 200 billion barrels (about which he expressed doubts), peak production would occur in 1970, a delay of five years from his base case. Oil production in the US did in fact peak in 1970, so Hubbert is widely credited with precisely calling the US peak, but few know that he was actually skeptical that the peak would take place as late as 1970.

The US has now surpassed Hubbert’s most optimistic estimate for US oil production. Through 2014, cumulative US production stands at approx. 215 billion barrels, with a remaining estimated proved reserve of 48.5 billion barrels (but with the caveat that this reserves estimate is based on crude prices near $100/bbl).

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Peak Oil: Myth Or Coming Reality?

Peak Oil: Myth Or Coming Reality?

In 1956, a geoscientist named M. King Hubbert formulated a theory which suggested that U.S. oil production would eventually reach a point at which the rate of oil production would stop growing. After production hit that peak, it would enter terminal decline. The resulting production profile would resemble a bell curve and the point of maximum production would be identified as Peak Oil, a point of no return.

The original peak oil curve
Image Source: Cornell University

Hubbert first predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970 and then start declining rapidly. His prediction turned out to be partly true, as U.S. crude oil production peaked that same year, not to be eclipsed again until the shale boom began.

Annual crude oil production (in thousands of barrels per year) for entire United States, with contributions from individual regions as indicated.

“The end of the oil age is in sight, if present trends continue production will peak in 1995 — the deadline for alternative forms of energy that must replace petroleum in the sharp drop-off that follows.” This is what Hubbert had to say in 1974, based on 628 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. However, his prediction didn’t turn out to be true, as global oil production continues to surge, thanks to new oilfield discoveries and improved exploration and drilling technology.

 

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Peak Oil

Peak Oil

Peak Oil comic by Stuart McMillen. Title page. Rollercoaster by Red House Painters. Black and white drawing of roller coaster car at abandoned amusement park.
Cartoon drawing of M. King Hubbert speaking at conference. Hand gripping lectern illustration. M. King Hubbert looked into the crowd and began to speak. The 500 petroleum geologists hushed as Hubbert predicted the looming decline of their industry.

 

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