Well, over a week has passed since my last post, which was a bit of an unexpected diversion into democracy and planning. Today I’m going to post no more than 500 words on peak oil – what it is ‘in a nutshell’ (more on nutshells later). Thanks, Jeff, for the suggestion!
Peak oil refers to the point at which the global production of conventional oil (i.e. the cheap and easy stuff) reaches a peak, after which production declines. The concept of peaking applies to any non-renewable resource and it’s important to remember that it relates to production – oil is not about to run out. There will always be some oil left in the ground as we will only extract oil so long as it is economically viable to do so.
Peak oil was first described in the 1950s by a petroleum geologist called M. King Hubbert. Hubbert wondered why production from individual oil wells always reached a peak when about half of the oil remained. He went on to apply his peaking theory to regions, countries and indeed the whole world. In 1956, Hubbert presented his findings which stated that the US would peak between 1965 and 1970 – this was before the oil of Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico was known about, yet he was surprisingly accurate. Despite concerted efforts to produce more oil, the US did indeed peak in conventional oil production at the end of 1970.
Hubbert was ridiculed – the US was the world’s foremost oil-producing nation at the time and geologists just kept finding more oil. This stuff would never run out and boy was it useful – it couldn’t run out. But Hubbert wasn’t talking about oil running out, was he? People never like to hear about something which might stop them having a good time. Even today, while peak oil is much more widely known about, there are still many sceptics (let’s face it, climate change still has its sceptics and there’s a lot more effort invested in understanding climate change).
In 2005, Robert Hirsch published a report, commissioned by the US Department of Energy, on how to mitigate the impacts of peak oil. The report concluded that, “Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking”. Hmm, so when is peak? No one knows. The year of peak will only ever be seen in the rear view mirror – who knows how much new oil will come onto market or how the global economy will fluctuate (nothing reduces demand for oil like a good old economic depression). And anyway, if we agreed on the year of peak, would that kick us out of our stupor? No, there are too many powerful vested interests who peddle the myth that technology will save the day. Technology does not create energy, it uses it. We are racing towards a low-energy future without a plan – we need an energy transition.