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Has ‘peak oil’ gone the way of the Flat Earth Society?

Has ‘peak oil’ gone the way of the Flat Earth Society? thumbnail


Below are some excerpts from the Energy Wire article by Colin Sullivan titled “Has ‘peak oil’ gone the way of the Flat Earth Society?” As the headline suggests and as the graph above helps to illustrate, I think the answer is “Yes,” read below to see why.

The theory was straightforward and seemed to hold with common sense: One day soon, the Earth would hit its halfway point of global oil production — its “peak” — and thereafter, it would see a steady decline. Those behind the concept called it “peak oil.”

The theorists wrote books and rose high in academic departments. One of them, M. King Hubbert, had a famous bell curve named after him and discovered disciples willing to follow. They found themselves at the vanguard of a movement that essentially said, “Oil is finite, so pay attention!”

Along with the celebrity came a good deal of political clout. More than one energy insider, including several in Congress, deployed the theory to argue for the end of the fossil-fuel century and the beginning of a cleaner renewable dawn — both to cope with carbon emissions said to warm the planet and to avert economic disaster for oil-addicted societies.

It was a good time to be a peak-oil adventurer. It was the last quarter of the 20th century, and the world, ever reliant on Middle East reserves, was nearing its oil halftime show any day, they said. In lectures, talks and congressional hearings, the peak oilers insisted the denouement would start anytime, be it 1989 or 1997 or 2005, bringing with it dangerous crude prices and economic collapse unless a substitute was brought to market posthaste.

There’s one big problem: Those behind the theory appear to have been dead wrong, at least in terms of when the peak would hit, having not anticipated the rapid shift in technology that led to exploding oil and natural gas production in new plays and areas long since dismissed as dried up (see chart above).

When asked whether the trend is really that clear-cut, a slate of experts from universities and think tanks agreed: The peak-oil concept is increasingly out of date less than a decade after its proponents said global output would surely hit the halfway mark.

According to Michael Ross, a political scientist at University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations,” peak oil was a faulty theory to begin with, and its advocates were doomed from the start because they refused to take into account technological shifts that might come about due to dwindling supplies from old fields and sustained high prices for crude. They may have also overstated the likelihood that humanity would keep on consuming that particular energy product until it was exhausted — though that part of the puzzle remains to be determined.

“I don’t think it was ever a well-founded theory,” Ross said. “The fact is these resources have always been out there, and it’s just a matter of the industry needing to invest more in extraction technology in order to get at that. That’s what we’re seeing now.”

Over the last several weeks, EnergyWire has been trying to get in touch with lead peak oilers — by phone and email — to no avail. The key figures behind the theory have either passed away, including Hubbert and investment banker Matthew Simmons, or are plain unwilling to defend their story.

Several peak oil founding figures were contacted for this article. They either didn’t return calls or emails or were followed into a maze of shut-down websites and disconnected phone numbers. These include former Princeton University professor Ken Deffeyes, famed British geologist Colin Campbell, French petroleum engineer Jean Laherrere, author Mike Ruppert, Swedish physicist Kjell Aleklett and Boston University professor Cutler Cleveland.

Others who still hold to the theory did respond, though they tend to lack the expertise of that first generation of peak oil or have redrafted their angle to favor more technical interpretations in light of new developments.

Bottom Line: “It’s a hallmark of academic integrity that, when the facts contradict your hypothesis, that you admit you were wrong,” said UCLA’s Michael Ross of peak oil. “Scholars make wrong predictions all the time, and those who are good scientists admit it when their predictions turn out to be inaccurate.”

AEI Ideas

7 Comments on "Has ‘peak oil’ gone the way of the Flat Earth Society?"

  1. KingM on Tue, 26th Mar 2013 1:36 pm 

    I’m not a doomer, but it seems pretty clear that barring some huge new development, we are at a peak right now. It may be inching up slightly, but growth has been flat for most of a decade now. That the peak appears to be more plateau-like, doesn’t change the fact that we’re going to be transitioning gradually away from oil over the next few decades.

  2. FoxV on Tue, 26th Mar 2013 1:47 pm 

    I don’t mind responding to the article.

    So US oil production is back to early 90s levels. Lets compare now and then shall we
    1993 oil – $17bbl Gasoline – $1.20gln
    2013 oil – $95bbl Gasoline – $3.30gln

    The earth is not as round as they think.

  3. GregT on Tue, 26th Mar 2013 2:20 pm 

    The undulating plateau that we are currently experiencing was exactly what was expected when the peak was reached. What was also expected was economic instability.

    We will transition away from oil, and it isn’t going to be the stroll in the park, that many believe it will be. Recessions, depressions, social unrest and chaos will be normal, it has already begun, and it isn’t going to get better.

  4. DC on Tue, 26th Mar 2013 2:26 pm 

    The article has a bit of a reek to it. I somehow doubt the ‘peak oilers’ they tried to contact them were anywhere near as evasive as they are pretending here. Many of those folks HAVE made many comments on the small and temporary uptick in local US production and offered both commentary and interpretations on what it all means.

    Now if I were them, and they were in fact, contacted by these oil shills, I would probably hang up too. The oil industry pays a legion of shills to distort, obscure and outright lie about PO, so why would anyone give clods like these the oxygen of respectability? Real scientists dont ‘debate’flat-earthers for exactly that reason, I dont see why anyone would waste there time with corporate funded po\CC denialists either.

  5. LT on Tue, 26th Mar 2013 3:10 pm 

    The wider the peak plateau is, the stiffer the downward slope is. It is so because the source is finite. It is interesting to keep an eye on this plateau window.

  6. GregT on Tue, 26th Mar 2013 3:49 pm 

    It is much easier to “spot the peak”, when it is actually shown on the chart. The “peak” of US oil production, occurred back in the 70s. This article is meant to deceive.

  7. energy investor on Thu, 28th Mar 2013 4:35 am 

    Several months ago, I started in on the prediction that production of conventional oil would start declining in Q4, 2013.

    According to my math, the cause may arrive due to either 1. An inability to cover depletion from new capacity, allied to a decision by major producers to husband their reserves. Or 2. due to the world’s first global depression.

    Of course I could be wrong, and certainly hope I will be. Even so I view the writer of this article as an ill-informed idiot.

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