What Is Peak Oil Anyways?
What is Peak Oil?
Peak Oil is the simplest label for the problem of energy resource depletion, or more specifically, the peak in global oil production. Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource, one that has powered phenomenal economic and population growth over the last century and a half. The rate of oil 'production,' meaning extraction and refining (currently about 83 million barrels/day), has grown in most years over the last century, but once we go through the halfway point of all reserves, production becomes ever more likely to decline, hence 'peak'. Peak Oil means not 'running out of oil', but 'running out of cheap oil'. For societies leveraged on ever increasing amounts of cheap oil, the consequences may be dire. Without significant successful cultural reform, economic and social decline seems inevitable.
Why does oil peak? Why doesn't it suddenly run out?
Oil companies have, naturally enough, extracted the easier-to-reach, cheap oil first. The oil pumped first was on land, near the surface, under pressure, light and 'sweet' (meaning low sulfur content) and therefore easy to refine into gasoline. The remaining oil, sometimes off shore, far from markets, in smaller fields, or of lesser quality, takes ever more money and energy to extract and refine. Under these conditions, the rate of extraction inevitably drops. Furthermore, all oil fields eventually reach a point where they become economically, and energetically, no longer viable. If it takes the energy of a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil, then further extraction is pointless.
Where does the idea of oil peak come from?
In the 1950s a US geologist working for Shell, M. King Hubbert, noticed that oil discoveries graphed over time, tended to follow a bell shape curve. He posited that the rate of oil production would follow a similar curve, now known as the Hubbert Curve (see figure). In 1956 Hubbert predicted that production from the US lower 48 states would peak in 1970. Shell tried to pressure Hubbert into not making his projections public, but the notoriously stubborn Hubbert went ahead and released them. In anycase, most people inside and outside the industry quickly dismissed Hubbert's predictions. In 1970 US oil producers had never produced as much, and Hubbert's predictions were a fading memory. But Hubbert was right, US continental oil production did peak in 1970/71, although it was not widely recognized for several years, only with the benefit of hindsight.
So when will oil peak globally?
Hubbert went on to predict a global oil peak for around 1995. He may have been close to the mark except that the oil shocks of the 1970s slowed our use of oil. As the following figure shows, global oil discovery peaked in the 1960s. Since the mid-1980s, oil companies have been finding less oil than we have been consuming. Source: peakoil.ie
Of the 65 largest oil producing countries in the world, up to 54 have past their peak of production and are now in decline, including the USA (in 1970/71) and the North Sea (in 2001). Hubbert's methods, and variations on them, have been used to make various projections about the global oil peak, with results ranging from 'already peaked', to the very optimistic 2035. Many of the official sources of data used to model oil peak such as OPEC figures, oil company reports, and the USGS discovery projections, upon which the international energy agencies base their own reports, can be shown to be very unreliable. Several notable scientists have attempted independent studies, most notably Colin Campbell and the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO). Source: peakoil.ie
ASPO's latest model suggests that 'regular' oil peaked in 2004. If heavy oil, deepwater, polar and natural gas liquids are considered, the oil peak is projected for around 2010. Combined oil and gas, as shown above, are expected to also peak around 2010. Other researchers such as Kenneth Deffeyes and A. M. Samsam Bakhtiari have produced models with similar or even earlier projected dates for oil peak. Precise predictions are difficult as much secrecy shrouds important oil and gas data.
What does Peak Oil mean for our societies?
Our industrial societies and our financial systems were built on the assumption of continual growth – growth based on ever more readily available cheap fossil fuels. Oil in particular is the most convenient and multi-purposed of these fossil fuels. Oil currently accounts for about 43% of the world's total fuel consumption [PDF], and 95% of global energy used for transportation [PDF]. Oil is so important that the peak will have vast implications across the realms of geopolitics, lifestyles, agriculture and economic stability. Significantly, for every one joule of food consumed in the United States, around 10 joules of fossil fuel energy have been used to produce it.