Whatever Happened To Peak Oil?

Remember 2005? In the middle of a Bush presidency, Terri Schiavo and her feeding tube captured national attention, Lance Armstrong was still winning Tour de France titles, and Arianna Huffington launched a new website. Perhaps it was the shock of Hurricane Katrina, or the post-Y2K lull, but we needed of a new apocalyptic obsession and we found one in peak oil.

Public interest in peak oil — as judged by Google searches, at least — peaked in August 2005 and coincided with Hurricane Katrina.

In 2005, we were experiencing peak “peak oil.” Nearly ten years later, people keep asking: Whatever happened to peak oil? Is it still a thing?

What is peak oil, exactly?

Peak oil is the point when petroleum production reaches a maximum. After that point, production can only go in one direction: down. This event is, as a 2005 U.S. Department of Energy report put it, “an unprecedented risk management problem.”

We have a geologist named M. King Hubbert to thank for introducing us to the concept of peak oil in 1956. Throughout the decades, economic markets and geopolitics brought energy security in and out of the public psyche and peak oil along with it. Here’s a video of Hubbert from 1976, explaining peak oil with retro-tastic diagrams:


A key point to remember is that peak oil, as the term was first used, refers to peak production, not peak consumption, or peak discovery, or peak demand. Those things are all important, but they are different concepts.

The underlying logic behind Hubbert’s idea is simple (how it manifested itself in academic and popular discourse is not):

Oil is a finite resource. It comes from plants and animals that died millions of years ago. And even though plants and animals are dying and turning into oil at this very moment, we’re mining and using oil at a faster rate than we’re accruing it.

A single oil field tends to follow a curve of increasing, then decreasing, production. Hubbert assumed that the world’s oil supply is made up of oil fields, so the world’s oil production should follow a similar curve.

But global oil production has a lot more influences than a single well does. When oil interacts with people and markets and geopolitics and technology, things get messy. And that’s why Hubbert’s simplified curve doesn’t exactly match reality.

Did peak oil already happen?

Our friend M. King Hubbert thought peak oil would happen in the mid-1990s. That date came and went, and researchers have been revising peak oil predictions. A Department of Energy report cited peak oil predictions ranging from 2006 to 2025 to never.

To illustrate how tricky it is to predict peak oil production, here’s a U.S. Energy Information Administration graph from 2004 (pre-peak-peak-oil) outlining different scenarios:

Future oil production scenarios from the Energy Information Administration, published in 2004.

Confusing, right?

It’s impossible to know you are at a peak when you are in the middle of it — it’s more like riding a bike through a rolling landscape than summiting a Colorado fourteener.

It’s impossible to tell you’re on a peak until you’re long past it. Image by Jordan Wirfs-Brock.

Oil production has been increasing over the past twenty years, and globally in 2014 we are producing more oil than ever.

But that could mean we’re at a peak or it could mean we’re still growing. And some experts claim that even though overall production is at an all-time high, conventional oil (that is, the easy oil) peaked back in 2008.

Things changed, of course, when we figured out how to extract the not-so-easy oil like the kind in North Dakota’s Bakken formation.

Did peak oil already happen?

Maybe. Here’s what global oil production looks like over the past twenty years:

Image by Jordan Wirfs-Brock.

Peak oil could have happened yesterday, or last month. It might happen tomorrow, or next year, or in five years, or twenty. We won’t know when it happens; we’ll only know in retrospect.

Even then, we may think we’ve peaked and then realize we haven’t. That’s exactly what happened in the U.S., which peaked in the 1970s — until we starting mining oil from shale. Now, U.S. production is up and refineries are running at record levels.

U.S. oil production looked like it peaked in the 1970s, but is seeing an upsurge due to recent oil shale extraction. Image by Energy Information Administration.

Is peak oil “real” and is it something we should be worried about?

As the U.S. Department of Energy said in a 2005 report, “Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization.” Experts have described all kinds of cascading end-of-days scenarios for when that blood runs dry: higher oil prices leading to a major recession, a drop in agricultural production leading to global famine, a complete disruption of life as we know it.

Obviously that hasn’t happened yet, and peak oil prepping has gone out of style (although you can still pick up guidebooks on getting ready for the impending disaster).

The peak oil debate has produced optimists and pessimists. There are peak-oil-deniers (lots of them) and peak-oil-denier-deniers. Some argue that even though oil discovery peaked fifty years ago, we’ll keep developing technologies that will allow us to get harder to reach reserves and so oil production won’t peak, or alternative energy sources will preempt it. Others claim that the market — supply and demand — will take care of peak oil for us, and before we run out of oil to extract, it will become too expensive and won’t be worth it to mine anymore. Or, some say, the problem isn’t peak oil, the problem is us. George Monbiot wrote, in 2012, “There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us, and no obvious means to prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground.”

When we talk about peak oil, we so often focus on whether oil production is growing or declining, overall. But what’s just as important is how rapidly oil production is changing. (For you nerds out there, we’re talking about the second derivative of oil production.)

When M. King Hubbert first shared his peak oil curve, it featured a quick increase in production followed by a quick decline. In that scenario, reaching peak oil would be like falling off a cliff — which is the source of all the apocalyptic peak oil doom-and-gloom. But what if the decline were slow? Peak oil would be more like when you are coasting down a hill on your bike and the wind feels great in your hair, until you realize that the reason you feel so free is you forgot your helmet, which is dangerous.

Image by Jordan Wirfs-Brock.

Perhaps peak oil is a red herring. Instead of debating if or when it will happen, or if it already happened, or why it will never happen, we should be asking:

How will we meet our energy needs in the future, and can we do so in a way that doesn’t cause harm?

Peak Vernacular

Whether or not we’ve reached peak oil, and whether or not peak oil is a huge apocalyptic deal, the concept of peak something is embedded in our cultural vernacular. Andy Revkin of the New York Times has long discussed the concept of “peak us” (human population) versus “peak everything” (resources) — peak water, and peak food, and peak lithium.

But the concept of peak has gone beyond resource use and attained meme status: There’s peak Internet, and peak Catfish, and peak bacon, and peak traffic signs, and peak hipster.

Google search is pretty sure I’m more interested in peak beard than peak oil.

Peak oil has left us a lasting legacy: the real sense that stuff isn’t infinite. Things — from oil production to our cultural obsession with Fifty Shades of Grey — don’t just grow forever. They peak and they decline. This seems like a basic concept, but it’s surprisingly revolutionary when you consider how many measures our economic and societal well-being are based on growth. So thank you, M. King Hubbert, not just for peak oil, but for peaks everywhere.

Jordan Wirfs-Brock is a data journalist with Inside Energy. This story originally appeared on Inside Energy’s IE Questions series in two parts (with an epilogue).

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