The Peak of Oil

A few weeks ago, I read about the idea that we are nearing the peak of world wide oil production in this Rolling Stone article. Now I’m all of a sudden seeing the idea pop up in several places. They were talking about it last night on NPR, the Guardian had this story, Boing Boing mentioned it. The theory is that sometime in the next 5-10 years we will reach the peak of world wide oil production (just like US production peaked in 1970 and has been steadily declining since). After that, production will start to decrease a few percent per year which will have an immediate effect on our lifestyles, energy consumption patterns and the geopolitical competition for oil. Apparently, this theory goes back to the 50s when a geophysicist named Hubbert predicted that the exploitation of any oilfield follows a predictable “bell curve” trend (Wikipedia entry). I find this fascinating because rather than talk about how we have decades left before we run out of oil, we are forced to face the possibility that within a few short years we will have to start making changes to our energy consumption patterns (i.e. reversing them from growing to shrinking). This seems like a plausible outcome. What I don’t agree with in these articles is the alarmist predictions of the world wide chaos that will follow the peak of oil. It seems to me that once we put our minds to it, we will be able to solve this problem and change our patterns more rapidly than people think (a possible analogy is the surprising speed with which people reacted to the world population growth problem in the 70s after there was critical awareness of it).

One reply on “The Peak of Oil”

I remember when I was a lad seeing a snazzy LED countdown in the L.A. Museum of science and industry. The idea was to let museum visitors know how many years until all the oil ran out. I seem to recall the clock was set at 30 years or so. This was…about 30 years ago.

The "end" of any natural resource is hard to envision. The Ultimate Resource 2 is a book written by a guy who explains scarcity in market terms and operates from the position that all resources decline in value over time because people will always invent new ways to use them (which is where the book gets its title: the ultimate resource is earth, the ultimate resource 2 is the human brain).

As soon as oil gets to a certain price (might be $60, might be $75, might be $100, the market decides), people will start looking to alternatives. You can argue they're doing this already, actually. Nuclear power (particularly the pebble-bed design) is already being seriously considered). The transition might not be pretty but it might not be a disaster either. People are buying Priuses today and they'd never seriously consider something like that in the 1970s.

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