The Energy Spectator

Is the Theory of ‘Peak Oil’ Dead?

The power of market adaptation illustrated.

By 3.5.13

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Yet another voice has questioned the theory of “peak oil,” which posits future scarcity, rising prices, and economic collapse due to the lack of precious fuels that drive the global economy. Under this theory the rate of petroleum extraction will crest and then commence “an immutable decline…as demand for this finite resource permanently exceeds supply.”

This latest critic of the theory is the Boston Company Asset Management LLC, which released a white paper entitled, “End of an Era: The Death of Peak Oil. An Energy Revolution, American-Style.”

The Boston Company report claims that “an array of structural shifts in the Energy industry is conspiring to insulate the global economy from any such dramatic increase in the price of oil.” This is due, in part, to American consumers radically altering their consumption of petroleum products in the world’s largest market. Moreover, “heightened investments and technological breakthroughs have spurred an explosion in resources, as source rock has expanded the definition of ‘finite resources.’” This latter point refers to the combination of directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing that has allowed access to previously hard-to-reach supplies of gas and oil in the continental United States. In Canada, the development of oil extraction from tar sands has also escalated dramatically in recent years.

In North America oil supply has grown annually by roughly 500,000 barrels per day while demand shrinks because vehicles are increasingly burning less gasoline.

This contributes to the global market on top of 1 million barrels per day from places such as the North Sea, Brazil, West Africa, and, of course, the Middle East.

“If another 2 million bpd [barrels per day] can be added to supply (including some give back from weaker demand), Asia -- the fastest growing region in the world -- would have to double its trend-line growth in consumption to achieve a balance,” says the company.

“Thus, we bid farewell to the days of Peak Oil.”

“End of an Era” supports the argument made by noted energy analyst Daniel Yergin, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (2009).

Yergin outlines the sorry history of peak oil theorists in his latest book, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (2012), which continues and expands the history of energy in American and around the world.

In The Quest Yergin calmly, patiently explains the error in the concept of “peak oil,” which assumes “that the world is near or at the point of maximum output, and that an inexorable decline has already begun, or is soon to set in,” Rather, he believes “The World has decades of further production growth before flattening out into a plateau-- perhaps sometime around mid-century -- at which time a more gradual decline will begin.”

“The date of the peak has tended to move forward,” he writes. “It was supposed to arrive by Thanksgiving 2005. Then the ‘the unbridgeable supply gap’ was expected to open up ‘after 2007.’ Then it would arrive in 2011. Now some say ‘there is a significant risk of a peak before 2020.”

Yergin documents at least five instances of the nation or world having been declared to be running out of oil. In 1885 the state geologist of Pennsylvania, home of the first oil boom, proclaimed that surge of supply was only a “temporary and vanishing phenomenon -- one which young men will live to see come to its natural end.”

The idea of peak oil originated with an eminent earth scientist, Marion King Hubbert. In 1978 he predicted that children born in 1965 would see all the world’s oil supply gone in their lifetimes. Humanity was embarking upon “a period of non-growth.”

“By 2010, U.S. production was four times higher than Hubbert had estimated -- 5.9 million barrels per day versus Hubbert’s 1971 estimate of no more than 1.5 million barrels per day -- a quarter of the actual number,” notes Yergin. Hubbert simply did not account for the impact of prices, substitution, and technological innovations.

Interestingly, the Energy Information Agency, a federal bureau, recently stated that U.S. crude oil production exceeded an average 7 million barrels per day in November and December 2012, the highest volume since December 1992. Increasing oil production in North Dakota and onshore Texas drove the increase in U.S. crude oil production over the last several months (although production in North Dakota took a dip in November, before increasing again in December). This increase in production is coming from shale and other “tight” or very low permeability formations.

Nothing is forever, including oil and gas reserves, and gasoline prices are near $4 dollars per gallon in many parts of the country. There may be a point when supplies become limited and prices escalate, driving businesses and consumers to even greater efficiencies, electric vehicles, and other sources of energy such as renewables or modular nuclear plants. Yergin notes that the growth in world energy demand will be “greater than all the energy that the world consumed in 1970.” And 75 to 80 percent will still be carbon-based two decades from now.

“The globalization of demand may be shaping tomorrow’s needs,” writes Daniel Yergin. “But it is accompanied by a globalization of innovation.” The generation of knowledge and the application of science is now “a worldwide endeavor.”

This global resource base of knowledge and creativity is expanding, fueling insight and ingenuity that will lead to new solutions for the benefit of humanity. Peak oil or no peak oil, the future is neither bleak nor foreboding as long as markets, prices, and human creativity are allowed to function so as to cope with the challenges of the future.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.