Sunday, September 10, 2006

Marion King Hubbert's Peak Oil Theory

Hubbert peak theory

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A bell-shaped production curve, as suggested by M. King Hubbert in 1956.
A bell-shaped production curve, as suggested by M. King Hubbert in 1956.
2004 U.S. government predictions for oil production other than in OPEC and the former Soviet Union
2004 U.S. government predictions for oil production other than in OPEC and the former Soviet Union

The Hubbert Peak theory posits that for any given geographical area, from an individual oil field to the planet as a whole, the rate of oil production tends to follow a bell-shaped curve. Early in the curve (pre-peak), production increases due to the addition of infrastructure. Late in the curve (post-peak), production declines due to resource depletion.

"Peak Oil" as a proper noun, also known as Hubbert's peak, refers to a singular event in history: the peak of the entire planet's oil production. After Peak Oil, according to the Hubbert Peak Theory, the rate of oil production on Earth will enter a terminal decline. The theory is named after American geophysicist Marion King Hubbert, who created a model of known oil reserves, and proposed, in a paper he presented to the American Petroleum Institute in 1956 [3], that production of oil from conventional sources would peak in the continental United States between 1965 and 1970, and worldwide within "about half a century" from publication.

When the global peak will occur is a controversial issue. Production peaks are difficult to predict, and generally the only reliable way to identify the timing of any production peak, including the global peak, is in retrospect. United States oil production peaked in 1971 [4]. The peak of world oilfield discoveries occurred in 1962 [5]. Some estimates for the date of worldwide peak in oil production, made by Hubbert and others, have already passed. Estimates for the date of Peak Oil range from 2005 to dates after 2025.

Some industrialized countries are currently highly dependent on oil. Opinions on the effects of Hubbert's peak, and the subsequent terminal decline of global oil production, range from predictions that the market economy will develop alternatives to oil and decrease oil dependence in modern economies, to doomsday scenarios of global economic meltdown and societal collapse.

Hubbert's theory

The standard Hubbert curve.  For applications, the x and y scales are replaced by time and production scales.
The standard Hubbert curve. For applications, the x and y scales are replaced by time and production scales.
A clear example of hubbert theory applying on Norway's production‎
A clear example of hubbert theory applying on Norway's production‎

In 1956, Hubbert proposed that crude oil production in a given region over time would follow a bell-shaped curve without giving a precise formula; he later used the Hubbert curve, the derivative of the logistic curve, for estimating future production.

Hubbert assumed that after oil reserves are discovered, oil production at first increases approximately exponentially, as wells are drilled and more efficient facilities are installed. At some point, a peak output is reached, and oil production begins declining until it approximates an exponential decline.

The Hubbert curve satisfies these constraints. Furthermore, it is symmetrical, with the peak of production reached when half of the oil that will ultimately be produced has been. It also has a single peak.

Given past oil production data, a Hubbert curve may be constructed that attempts to approximate past data, and used to provide estimates for future production. In particular, the date of peak oil production and the total amount of oil ultimately produced can be estimated that way.

The standard Hubbert curve is a real-valued function of one real variable; in order to apply it to the real world, scales have to be chosen, one for time and one for oil production, based on the observed data. They are usually given implicitly by specifying the integral of the Hubbert curve, the ultimate total oil production Q, with a unit of billions of barrels, and the initial growth rate asymptotically reached for very early times, a, often expressed in percent per year.

Hubbert also proposed a method for determining the values for Q and a based on empirical data, by considering the ratio of production at a given time and cumulative production to that point as a function not of time but of the cumulative production itself; if production followed a Hubbert curve, this function would have the form a - \frac{Q}{Q_\infty} a, a straight line. Thus, by considering the best linear fit to the function actually observed, estimates for a and Q can be obtained.

Use of multiples curves

, the use of multiple curves instead of one can better model the behavior of diverse systems. In US oil production, Hubbert dealt with a large sampleset that wasn't very politically constrained. How discovery of new resources should be added to a Hubbert curve, and whether they were accounted for in the first place, is always controvertial, but it's intuitively warranted in certain circumstances. Timber production by European powers, for example, would follow its own curves for most of history, followed by the addition of new curves as colonialism took off. [6]

Peak prediction

In 2004, ASPO predicted that conventional plus unconventional oil production would peak around 2007.
In 2004, ASPO predicted that conventional plus unconventional oil production would peak around 2007.
The Energy Information Administration predicts no peak in consumption before at least 2025. Source: International Energy Outlook 2004. The International Energy Agency makes a similar projection
The Energy Information Administration predicts no peak in consumption before at least 2025. Source: International Energy Outlook 2004. The International Energy Agency makes a similar projection

In 1974, Hubbert projected that global oil production would peak in 1995 "if current trends continue" [7] (i.e., 2% growth in consumption per year)[8]. However, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, global oil consumption actually dropped (due to the shift to energy efficient cars, the shift to electricity and natural gas for heating, etc), then rebounded to a lower level of growth in the mid 1980s (see graphics on right). The shift to reduced consumption in these areas meant that the projection assumptions were not realized and, hence, oil production did not peak in 1995.

The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) has calculated that the annual production peak of conventional crude oil was in early 2004. During 2004, approximately 24 billion barrels of conventional oil was produced out of the total of 30 billion barrels of oil; the remaining 6 billion barrels coming from heavy oil and tar sands, deep water oil fields, and natural gas liquids (see adjacent ASPO graph). In 2005, the ASPO revised its prediction for the peak in world oil production, from both conventional and nonconventional sources, to the year 2010[9]. Natural gas is expected to peak anywhere from 2010 to 2020 (Bentley, 2002).

In 2004, 30 billion barrels of oil were consumed worldwide, while only eight billion barrels of new oil reserves were discovered. Huge, easily exploitable oil fields are most likely a thing of the past. In August 2005, the International Energy Agency reported annual global demand at 84.9 million barrels per day (mbd) which means over 31 billion barrels annually. This means consumption is now within 2 mbd of production. At any one time there are about 54 days of stock in the OECD system plus 37 days in emergency stockpiles.

The United States Geological Survey claimed at one time that there are enough petroleum reserves to continue current production rates for 50 to 100 years[10]. That is countered by an important Saudi oil industry insider who says the American government's forecast for future oil supply is a "dangerous over-estimate."[11] Campbell argues that the USGS estimates are methodologically flawed (although he does not claim to be an expert in probability theory)[12]. One problem, for example, is that OPEC countries overestimate their reserves to get higher oil quotas and to avoid internal critique. Population and economic growth will almost certainly lead to increased energy consumption in the future.

According to the Energy Information Administration of the United States Department of Energy, "adjustments to the USGS and MMS estimates are based on non-technical considerations that support domestic supply growth to the levels necessary to meet projected demand levels. [emphasis added]" (Annual Energy Outlook 1998 With Projections to 2020[13]). [This is misquoted; the quoted part is not preceded by "international reserve", and does not make a statement about international reserve estimates.]

Professor Kenneth Deffeyes, author of "Hubbert's Peak" (ISBN 0-691-11625-3) and "Beyond Oil" (ISBN 0-8090-2956-1), asserts that the peak was passed on Dec 16, 2005 [14]. He also asserts that the total of world oil is 2.013 trillion barrels.

Has it happened already?

World oil supply.[2] Source: IEA
World oil supply.[2] Source: IEA
World Oil Supply 2002-2006 Q2. Source: Multiple tables from IEA
World Oil Supply 2002-2006 Q2. Source: Multiple tables from IEA
World Crude Oil Production 1960-2004. Sources:  DOE/EIA, IEA
World Crude Oil Production 1960-2004. Sources: DOE/EIA, IEA

Chevron states that "oil production is in decline in 33 of the 48 largest oil producing countries". [15] Other countries have also passed their individual oil production peaks.

World oil production growth trends, in the short term, have been decreasing over the last 18 months. Average yearly gains in world oil production from 1987 to 2005 were 1.2MB/day (1.7%). Global production averaged 84.4 MB/day in 2005, up only 0.2 MB/day (0.2%) from 84.2MB/day in Q4 2004 (see figure at right). Production in Q2 2006 was 85.1MB/day, up 0.4MB/day (0.47%) from the same period a year earlier [16]. Yearly gains in the last 8 years ranged from -1.4MB/day (-1.9%; 1998-1999) to 3.3MB/day (4.1%; 2003-2004)[17].

Colin Campbell of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas (ASPO) has suggested that the global production of conventional oil peaked in the spring of 2004 albeit at a rate of 23-GB/yr, not Hubbert's 13-GB/yr. Another peak oil proponent Kenneth S. Deffeyes predicted in his book Beyond Oil - The View From Hubbert's Peak that global oil production would hit a peak on Thanksgiving Day 2005 (Deffeyes has since revised his claim, and now argues that world oil production peaked on December 16 2005[18]). Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens has stated that worldwide conventional oil production will top out at 85MB/day.[19]

Of the three largest oil fields in the world, two have peaked. Mexico announced that its giant Cantarell Field entered depletion in March, 2006, as did the huge Burgan field in Kuwait in November, 2005. Due to past overproduction, Cantarell is now declining rapidly, at a rate of -13% year over year. [20] In April, 2006, a Saudi Aramco spokesman admitted that its mature fields are now declining at a rate of 8% per year, and its composite decline rate of producing fields is about 2%[21], thus implying that Ghawar, the largest oil field in the world may have peaked.

Chevron has launched the Will You Join Us? [22] campaign, seeking to alert the public to the possibility of petroleum depletion and encourage discussion. The campaign's website notes findings from the International Energy Agency's (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2004: "Fossil fuels currently supply most of the world’s energy, and are expected to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. While supplies are currently abundant, they won’t last forever."

Traditional natural gas supplies are also under the constraints of production peaks, which especially affect specific geographic regions because of the difficulty of transporting the resource over long distances. Natural gas production may have peaked on the North American continent in 2003, with the possible exception of Alaskan gas supplies which cannot be developed until a pipeline is constructed. Natural gas production in the North Sea has also peaked. UK production was at its highest point in 2000, and declining production and increased prices are now a sensitive political issue there. Even if new extraction techniques yield additional sources of natural gas, like coalbed methane, the energy returned on energy invested will be much lower than traditional gas sources, which inevitably leads to higher costs to consumers of natural gas.


Peak Oil on a license plate of a hybrid car driving past a wind turbine
Peak Oil on a license plate of a hybrid car driving past a wind turbine

Mitigation efforts attempt to prevent hazards from developing into disasters altogether, or to reduce the effects of disasters when they occur.

Most oil consumption comes from transportation, 68% in America [23], and there are many forms of transportation that do not require oil or require much less than the standard automobile. Today, these include the application of biofuels, high mpg hybrid vehicles, battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Solar- or hydrogen- powered demonstration vehicles have also been designed and developed as pilot projects or for engineering school competition. Because America uses 1 in 4 barrels of global oil consumed [24] [25] and uses 68% for transportation, it uses 17% of global oil consumption for transportation and is potentially the largest market for any new type of vehicle.

More comprehensive mitigations include better land use planning through Smart growth to reduce transportation inducements, increased capacity and use of mass transit, vanpooling and carpooling, and human powered transport from current levels [26]. Rationing is also a form of mitigation - see [27] for driving ban schemes and a list of policies and their oil savings in table E-1.

Since mitigation affects the price of oil and the economy it is very important in calculating the timing and shape of a peak. Conversely the shape of the peak[1] affects mitigation efforts. Key questions for mitigation are the viability of solutions such as alternative fuel cars, the roles of government and private sector [28] [29], and how early the switch to these technologies would have to be in order to maintain the lifestyle of a country or even prevent changes to the Earth's carrying capacity.

Alternative sources for oil

Alternatives are energy sources other than conventional oil and natural gas which can be used instead in one or more applications, such as:

  • a prime energy source to generate electricity
  • a transportation fuel
  • for space heating
  • for water heating
  • an ingredient in plastics, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and fertilizers
  • a lubricant in industrial machinery and manufacturing.

Popular alternatives include

One near-term alternative source of liquid fuel is the Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada. Production from this source is around 1 million bbl/day as of 2006, and is expected to build up to 3.2 million bbl/day by 2015. Higher oil prices have overcome the high costs of extracting heavy oil from this source. The current extraction process, however, requires large inputs of scarce natural gas and fresh water. The figure for recoverable reserves from this source is currently (mid 2006) around 180 billion barrels (cf. the Saudi Arabian reserve of about 260 billion barrels of conventional oil). A similar field, the Orinoco tar sands in Venezuela, is also being exploited. These two are the largest known fields of tar (i.e., bitumen) sands.

Synthetic fuel, created via coal liquefaction, requires no engine modifications for use in standard automobiles. As a byproduct of oil embargos during Apartheid in South Africa, Sasol, using the Fischer-Tropsch process, developed relatively low-cost coal-based fuel. Currently, over 50% of fuel (mostly diesel) used by automobiles in South Africa is produced from coal. With crude-oil prices currently around $75 per barrel, this process is now cost-effective; however the process emits large amounts of carbon dioxide, thus contributing substantially to global warming.

Depending on when global oil production peaks, these alternatives may not yet be commercially available or scalable to replace conventional oil. Promoting conservation and improved efficiency are seen as the easiest and least expensive courses of action to deal with rising prices of scarce oil and natural gas. Modern diesel and hybrid vehicles use off-the-shelf technology and achieve superior fuel efficiency over traditional models.

Energy return on energy investment

When oil production first began in the mid-nineteenth century, the largest oil fields recovered fifty barrels of oil for every barrel used in the extraction, transportation and refining. This ratio is often referred to as the Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROI or EROEI).

Since, for economic reasons, the cheapest and easiest to extract sources of energy are used first, the EROEI decreases over time. Currently, between one and five barrels of oil are recovered for each barrel-equivalent of energy used in the recovery process. While any source of energy with an EROEI near or below 1.0 would seem futile to exploit, there are special situations when this is not the case. Availability of cheap, but hard to transport, natural gas in some oil fields has led to using natural gas to fuel steam injection into oil fields. Similarly, natural gas in huge amounts is used to power most Athabasca Tar Sands plants. Cheap natural gas has also led to Ethanol fuel produced with a net EROEI of less than 1, although figures in this area are controversial because methods to measure EROEI are in debate.

Note that it is important to understand the distinction between a barrel of oil, which is a measure of oil, and a barrel of oil equivalent (BOE), which is a measure of energy. Many sources of energy, such as fission, solar, wind, and coal, are not subject to the same near-term supply restrictions that oil is. Accordingly, even an oil source with an EROEI of 0.5 can be usefully exploited if the energy required to produce that oil comes from a cheap and plentiful energy source.

Implications of a world peak

Gas coupon printed but not used in 1979's oil crisis
Gas coupon printed but not used in 1979's oil crisis
Oil depletion scenarios
Oil depletion scenarios

According to the Hirsch report prepared for the U.S. Dept. of Energy, a global decline in oil production will have serious social and economic implications without due preparation. Peak Oil theorists argue that global economic growth relies on cheap energy[30], and oil contributes significantly to the worldwide energy pool, particularly for transportation. A decline in energy supply might slow or even reverse growth; however, it must be noted that the world economy has continued to grow despite multi-year drops in total energy consumption. For example, from 1979 through 1983, total world energy consumption dropped by 3%, including a 14.8% drop in oil consumption[31], yet world GDP growth for that 5-year period was still about 2.5% per year[32].

Initially a peak in oil production would manifest itself as rapidly escalating prices and a worldwide oil shortage. This shortage would differ from shortages of the past because the fundamental cause would be geological, not political. While past shortages stemmed from a temporary insufficiency of supply, crossing Hubbert's Peak means that the production of oil continues to decline, so demand must be reduced to meet supply. The effects of such a shortage depend on the rate of decline and the development and adoption of alternatives. If alternatives are not forthcoming, then the many products and services produced with oil become scarcer, leading to lower living standards in all countries. Scenarios range from doomsday scenarios to no noticeable problems thanks to new technologies. In order to deal with potential problems from peak oil, Colin Campbell has proposed the Rimini protocol.

It is unlikely that the actual peak in global oil production will be a direct catalyst of global economic decline. Instead, economic turbulence could be precipitated by the realization of the financial and investment world that "peak oil" (and natural gas) is either imminent or has already occurred. Significant indications of economic volatility have manifested themselves in the largest increase in inflation rates in 15 years (Sept. 2005), due mostly to higher energy costs. Since natural gas is the single largest feedstock used to produce fertilizers, an increase in natural gas prices could provide upward pressure on food costs, in addition to the increase in the transportation component of food prices.

These possible impacts of peaking oil, exacerbated by global competition over scarce remaining oil supplies, have led some analysts to predict dire consequences for conventional oil-dependent economies. According to oil industry analyst Jan Lundberg, "Based on today's intensifying trends, warning signs and an understanding of history, one must be ready to see the fossil-fueled phase come to an end most abruptly. When common practices cannot be maintained and too many people suddenly begin hoarding scant supplies, the desired resource dries up. This causes ramifications that quickly compound whatever triggered the crisis." This scenario is referred to by Lundberg as Petrocollapse. Contrasting views note that most uses of oil, from plastics to transportation fuels, have substitutes, blunting the impact of declining petroleum supplies.

Current events pertaining to oil production

In late 2005 as oil prices rose, greater attention was focused on Hubbert's theory and its potential implications. While Hubbert himself is still not widely known, debates and discussions about rising fuel prices have become commonplace in the media and elsewhere almost everywhere in the world. However, oil and gas prices are notoriously volatile and price increases have been caused by numerous other factors, though there is a general agreement that increased demand has been the major factor, with such increased demand bringing the Hubbert peak closer than would have been predicted otherwise. In June 2005, OPEC admitted that they would 'struggle' to pump enough oil to meet pricing pressures for the fourth quarter of that year. The summer and winter of 2005 brought oil prices to a new high (not adjusted for inflation). This may be a sign of increasing demand having started to outstrip supply or it may just be that the various geopolitical forces in the regions where oil is produced are limiting the available supply. One other explanation for the rising oil prices is that it has been a sign of too much paper money and not too little oil. In this view, dramatically higher prices of all commodities and real estate indicates rising inflation.

The Burgan Field, Kuwait's largest oil field, peaked in November 2005 [33]. In March 2006, Fernado Canales, the Energy Secretary of Mexico, announced that Mexico's giant Cantarell Field peaked in 2005 [34]. Burgan and Cantarell are among the largest fields in the world. Only Saudi Arabia's Ghawar is larger and it may have entered depletion in 2006 [35].

As awareness of Peak Oil increases, there are also a number of events being organized to allow for further education and discussion. For example, the Third U.S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solution [36] was announced for September 2006 in Yellow Springs, Ohio.


Economist Michael Lynch[37] argues that the theory behind the Hubbert curve is overly simplistic, and that available evidence contradicts some of the more specific predictions.[38]

Critics such as Leonardo Maugeri, vice president for the Italian energy company ENI, point out that Hubbert peak supporters such as Campbell previously predicted a peak in global oil production in both 1989 and 1995[39], based on oil production data available at that time. Maugeri claims that nearly all of the estimates do not take into account non-conventional oil even though the availability of these resources is (supposedly) huge and the costs of extraction and processing, while still very high, are falling due to improved technology. Furthermore, he notes that the recovery rate from existing world oil fields has increased from about 22% in 1980 to 35% today due to new technology and predicts this trend will continue. The ratio between proven oil reserves and current production has constantly improved, passing from 20 years in 1948 to 35 years in 1972 and reaching about 40 years in 2003. These improvements occurred even with low investment in new exploration and upgrading technology due to the low oil prices during the last 20 years.

More generally, the supply of oil may be somewhat elastic in both the short term and the long term. Higher prices may encourage greater production and the use of more expensive extraction approaches. Over time, the current higher oil prices may well cause increased investment. However, absent added reserves or alternative sources, this may only delay the peak, rather than eliminating the peak altogether, and accelerate the depletion of reserves.

Proponents of "abiotic oil", often referred to or dismissed as a "fringe theory" believed by virtually no notable U.S. geologists, are skeptical of any statistical analyses containing as a given the nonrenewable "fossil" origin theories of petroleum. This Abiogenic Theory, also called the Abiotic Theory, or the Russian-Ukrainian Theory--that not all oil is fossilized bio matter, but occurs through other geologic processes, and thus is not so severely limited in supply--is believed to be true by many geologists in Russia and the Ukraine.

Part of the current debate revolves around energy policy, and whether to shift funding to increasing energy conservation, fuel efficiency, and alternative energy sources like solar or nuclear power. Campbell's critics, such as Michael Lynch and Freddy Hutter, claim that his research data is sloppy. They point to the date of the coming peak, which was initially projected to occur by 2000, but has now been pushed back to 2010, and note that Campbell's predictions for world oil production are strongly biased towards underestimates[40]. However, Campbell and his supporters insist that when the peak occurs is not as important as the realization that the peak is coming. Throughout 2001-2003, in his monthly newsletters, Campbell maintained that his 1996 prediction of a peak in 2000 was unchallenged, despite Hutter's alerts of increasing production levels. Finally in his April 2004 Newsletter, Campbell relented and shifted the peak to 2010. Later this was brought forward to 2007 but in October 2005, was shifted back to 2010. These shifts between predicted dates occur because of the systemic lack of accurate oil reserve data--with no truly accurate data we will not know when the peak occurs.

Another controversy was the status of the Hubbert Peak of conventional oil. Hutter claimed throughout 2004 that Campbell's own data illustrated that the Peak had passed unceremoniously in the Spring of 2004. The ASPO Newsletter continued to show the extraction peak in 2005 and/or 2006. Finally in August of 2005, Campbell again relented and began publishing that indeed the Peak had passed in 2004.

Further, the scenarios constructed by peak oil proponents are said to fail to consider the potential of backstop technologies such as ethanol-based fuels, coal liquefaction, gas-to-liquids (GTL) and other substitutes for crude oil. Coal liquefaction in particular becomes economically feasible, according to some estimates, at a sustained oil price of $32/barrel[41]—a price less than half the market price as of March 2006. Peak oil proponents argue that such technologies are much more costly and polluting than conventional oil and that they cannot be produced in sufficient quantity to replace rapidly declining post-peak supplies of conventional oil.

Hubbert peak for Gas

Because gas transport is a complicated operation,the global peak of gas is less important than the peak per continent.The North American peak happened in 2001, according to Western Gas Resources Inc; according to Doug Reynolds, the peak will occur in 2007 [42]; according to Bently, production will peak anywhere from 2010 to 2020 (Bentley, 2002).

Longterm Hubbert peaks


Peak is still very far,but we can observe the example of anthracite in the USA, a hie grade coal, that has peaked in the 1920's.


    1. ^ The Shape of World Oil Peaking: Learning From Experience by Robert L. Hirsch [1]
  • "Feature on United States oil production." (November, 2002) ASPO Newsletter #23.
  • Hubbert, M.K. (1982). Techniques of Prediction as Applied to Production of Oil and Gas, US Department of Commerce, NBS Special Publication 631, May 1982

See also

Global fossil carbon emissions, an indicator of consumption, for 1800-2000.  Total is black.  Oil is in blue.
Global fossil carbon emissions, an indicator of consumption, for 1800-2000. Total is black. Oil is in blue.





Michael C. Ruppert, Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil


External links




Reports, essays and lectures


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