Bell signals death knell for oil

Hubbert's Peak
June 28, 2002

The bulk of the world's oil was formed during only a few brief epochs of extreme global warming in the geological past, which means that we started running out when we produced the first barrel about 150 years ago. This much can surely be agreed by everyone, but the issue of how far we have come along the depletion curve is hotly debated between natural scientists and economists.

The oil shocks of the 1970s alerted us to the delicate balance between supply and demand, although we were then a long way from the midpoint of depletion, which defines peak production. The glut of oil from new provinces, such as the North Sea and Alaska, that followed the shocks gave the false impression that we had somehow escaped from the iron grip of depletion. But over the past few years, price volatility and events such as the California blackouts have reminded us that the inevitable peak approaches.

Kenneth Deffeyes's book is a valuable contribution to this debate. The author started his career as a petroleum geologist before taking up an academic position at Princeton University. He writes with a happy blend of authority and humour, providing a readable account of the processes responsible for oil generation and entrapment. This supplies the necessary background for the latter part of the book, which addresses the critical issue of depletion.

It starts with a review of the work of M. King Hubbert, a remarkable scientist, who in 1956 correctly predicted that production in the US would reach a peak some 15 years later. He was much derided at the time, and the government went so far as to persuade the US Geological Survey to try to discredit his findings. But events were to prove him right. Discovery in the US had peaked in 1930, and Hubbert realised that with a finite endowment, production had to follow a bell-shaped profile, peaking when about half of the total had been produced.

He probably made the first estimate on the back of an envelope, only later developing the mathematical basis for the curve, which is known as a logistic curve. Deffeyes goes on to explain the derivatives of the bell-curve that elegantly show how annual percentage growth can be plotted against cumulative production to allow a straight-line extrapolation pointing to the ultimate recovery, when the resource is finally exhausted.

Having demonstrated that peak of conventional oil production is imminent, the author turns to contributions from heavy oils and other difficult and expensive categories, before evaluating energy from solar, wind, nuclear and other sources. He recognises that these make important contributions, but cannot come close to replacing conventional oil in the way that it is used today.

The book ends with an appeal to reality, stressing that the imminent peak of oil production will prove to be a discontinuity of historic proportions.

Classical economics has its roots in the industrial revolution, when man was perceived to be master of his environment. Population growth, combined with depletion of resources, have changed that relationship but old ideas die hard. The economist bases his forecasts on a blind faith in market forces and technology. He likes to point out that the Stone Age gave way to the Bronze Age, followed by the Iron Age and the Computer Age in a natural progression as better substitutes were found. Deffeyes counters by showing that this chapter in history is now over as oil, our premier fuel, heads into decline. So far, we have climbed the economist's staircase voluntarily, now we face the raw necessity of resource constraint as we try to stumble down the other side of the pyramid.

This is an important book, raising awareness of these critical issues in a blinkered world where governments find it easier to react to rather than to anticipate clearly visible looming crises, and where vested interests indulge in denial and obfuscation, fearing that word depletion might smell like a dwindling asset to the investment community. Production in the North Sea is at a peak, with production in the UK in sharp decline and Norway not far behind. Within about ten years, Europe's indigenous supply of oil, providing about 90 per cent of transport fuel, will have almost halved. Growing dependence on costly imports of oil from the Middle East and gas from Siberia carries serious geopolitical and economic consequences. Deffeyes's book provides an easy primer that deserves to be read by everyone, but especially by those in government. The time to prepare is now. The lead times for new solutions are long and the adjustments difficult.

Colin Campbell is a board member of the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre in London.

Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage

Author - By Kenneth S. Deffeyes
ISBN - 0 691 09086 6
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £17.95
Pages - 208

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