Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, January 31, 2005

Peak oil primer and links

1. Peak oil primer

What is Peak Oil?

Peak Oil is the simplest label for the problem of energy resource depletion, or more specifically, the peak in global oil production. Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource, one that has powered phenomenal economic and population growth over the last century and a half. The rate of oil 'production', meaning extraction and refining (currently about 83 million barrels per day), has grown in most years over the last century, but once we go through the halfway point of all reserves, production becomes ever more likely to decline, hence 'peak'. Peak Oil means not 'running out of oil', but 'running out of cheap oil'. For societies leveraged on ever increasing amounts of cheap oil, the consequences may be dire. Without significant successful cultural reform, economic and social decline seems inevitable.

Why does oil peak? Why doesn't it suddenly run out?

For obvious reasons, people have extracted the easy-to-reach, cheap oil first. The oil pumped first was on land, near the surface, under pressure and light and 'sweet' and easy to refine into gasoline. The remaining oil, sometimes off shore, far from markets, in smaller fields, or of lesser quality, will take ever more money and energy to extract and refine. The rate of extraction will drop. Furthermore, all oil fields eventually reach a point where they become economically, and energetically no longer viable. If it takes the energy of a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil, then further extraction is pointless.

M King Hubbert - the first to predict an oil peak

In the 1950s a US geologist working for Shell, M King Hubbert, noticed that oil discoveries graphed over time, tended to follow a bell shape curve. He posited that the rate of oil production would follow a similar curve, now known as the Hubbert Curve. In 1956 Hubbert predicted that production from the US lower 48 states would peak in 1970. <1> Shell ordered Hubbert not to make his studies public, but the notoriously stubborn Hubbert went ahead and did it anyway. As it turned out, most people inside and outside the industry dismissed Hubbert's predictions. In 1970 US oil producers had never produced as much, and Hubbert's predictions were a fading memory. But Hubbert was right, US continental oil production did peak in 1970/71, although it was not widely recognized for several years and only with the benefit of hindsight.

See first chart at

No oil producing region neatly fits bell shaped curve exactly because production is dependent on various geological, economic and political factors, but the Hubbert Curve remains a powerful predictive tool.

So when will oil peak globally?

For about thirty years the world has been finding less oil than it has been consuming. Discovery of new oil fields peaked in the 1960s. <2> Around fifty oil producing countries have already peaked and now produce less and less oil each year, including the USA and the North Sea. <3> Hubbert's methods, and variations of them, and other methods entirely, have been used to make various projections about the global oil peak, with results ranging from 'already peaked', to the very optimistic 2035. Many of the official figures used to model oil peak such as OPEC figures, oil company data, and the USGS discovery projections can be shown to be very unreliable. <4,> Several notable scientists have attempted independent studies, most notably Colin Campbell and the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO). <6>

See second chart at

ASPO's latest 2004 model suggests a peak of 'conventional' oil in 2005, and all oil and gas liquids in 2008. Others such as Kenneth Deffeyes <7> and A M Samsam Bakhtiari <8> have made similar or even earlier predictions, although precise predictions are difficult as much secrecy shrouds important oil and gas data.

Globally, natural gas <9> is also expected by some to peak within decades, although its affects are more localized due to the added expense of transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG). Both British and North American natural gas may have peaked already. <10>

What does this mean?

Our industrial societies and our financial systems were built on the assumption of constant growth, growth based on ever more readily available cheap fossil fuels. Oil in particular is the most convenient and multi-purposed of these fossil fuels. Oil currently accounts for about 40% of the world's commercial energy, <11> and about 90% of transportation energy. <12> Oil is so important that the peak will have vast implications across the realms of geopolitics, lifestyle, agriculture and economic stability.

But it's just oil - there are other fossil fuels, other energy sources, right?

To evaluate other energy sources it's important to understand the concepts of embodied energy <13> and Net Energy or ERoEI - Energy Return on Energy Invested <14>. One of the reasons our economies use ever increasing quantities of oil is precisely because oil has a comparatively high ERoEI. Historically, for every barrel of oil used for exploration and drilling of oil, 100 barrels were found. This was an unprecedentedly high ratio, although these days the ratio is far lower. Certain alternative energy 'sources' actually have ERoEI ratios of less than one, such as photovoltaics (arguably) and most methods of industrially producing biodiesel and ethanol. That is, when all factors are considered, you probably need to invest more energy into the process than you get back. Hydrogen <15>, touted by many as a seamless solution, is actually an energy carrier, but not an energy source - it must be produced using an energy source such as nuclear, so while it may or may not be a convenient store of energy, it's Net Energy will be negative. Some alternatives such as wind and hydro have better ERoEI, however their potential expansion may be limited by physical factors. Even in combination it may not be possible to gather from renewable sources of energy anything like the amount of energy we are used to. For certain tasks, such as air travel, no other energy source can readily be substituted for oil. Alternative energy infrastructures require long periods of investment, on the scale of decades, to be widely implemented. We may be already leaving the period of cheap energy before we have begun seriously embarking on this task.

2. Links

Where can I get more information?

Several articles already published on this site provide good introductions to this topic:

"The coming global energy crunch". A great introductory article by Aaron Naparstek

"Plan War and the Hubbert Oil Curve", an interview with Richard Heinberg

"The Petroleum Plateau" by Richard Heinberg on the current plateau in world oil production.

"Debunking the mainstream media's lies about oil" by Dale Allen Pfeiffer

"The oil we eat" by Richard Manning looks at modern agricultures' dependence on fossil fuels

There are some great introductory websites like:

Wolf at the Door: A Beginner's Guide to Oil Depletion - available in French, Polish and English.

Life After The Oil Crash - a question and answer style introduction.

Peak Oil Center - a very concise introduction.

Some excellent original media about peak oil is being generated at:

Global Public Media

From The Wilderness Publications

Research and reference articles can be found at:

ASPO - original research from The Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas - an alarming but scholarly collection of research

More energy news:

Crisis Energetica - in Spanish

More links, and books to read: An excellent list of links is maintained at

3. What can be done?

Many people are working on partial solutions at various different levels, but there probably is no cluster of solutions which do not involve some major changes in lifestyles for the global affluent. Peak Oil presents the potential for quite catastrophic upheavals, but also some more hopeful possibilities, such as a return to simpler and more community orientated lifestyles.

Peak Oil Action is a grass roots awareness raising network helping people meet up and discuss peak oil. Join or start a meet-up in your neighborhood.

The Post Carbon Institute Outposts. The PCI is a think tank devoted to exploring the implications of energy descent. They write, "the most important initiative of the Post Carbon Institute is working with groups of concerned citizens to prepare their community for the Post Carbon Age. These groups are Outposts in the sense that they are community-based extensions of the Post Carbon Institute; they operate autonomously yet receive guidance and electronic infrastructure from the Institute. Outposts work cooperatively in their local community to put theory about living with less hydrocarbons into practice while sharing knowledge and experiences with the global network of outposts."

The Community Solution to Peak Oil. "The Community Solution is a program of Community Service, Inc. Community Service is dedicated to the development, growth and enhancement of small local communities. We envision a country where the population is distributed in small communities that are sustainable, diverse and culturally sophisticated."

Permaculture: David Holmgren, one of the co-originators of the permaculture concept has written a book called Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability which deals explicitly with the peak oil problem. Permaculture principles work towards re-designing cultural and agricultural practices for an energy descent world. By doing a course locally or with a bit of study, you can start applying permaculture principles on a suburban or rural plot.

Local Currencies and Steady State Economics:
Local Currencies: Richard Douthwaite, a 'reformed economist', has proposed a number of alternative monetary systems to deal with energy decline and the associated monetary crises which might arise post-peak. Local currencies like LETS are in operation around the planet already (although LETS itself is somewhat problematic). Experiment now with local currencies to help survive economic crises.

Steady State Economics: The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) promote alternatives to the ecological insanity of growth based economics. Read their position paper at

Intentional Communities: Intentional Community (IC) is an inclusive term for ecovillages, cohousing, residential land trusts, communes, student co-ops, urban housing cooperatives and other related projects and dreams ... ICs represent one of the sanest ways of dealing with energy peak.

The Uppsala Protocol is an ethical global political framework for sharing the world's remaining oil reserves more equitably than free market forces would allow, to avoid resource wars and profiteering. Help promote it:

Lobbying: Lobby governments to spend now on renewable energy and improving agricultural practices. Many facts are summarized in the following 'convince sheet' by Bruce Thomson:,convince_sheet.html

Online Discussions:

Got questions? Want to talk with like-minded people? See these links: - online news and forum - meet people on and offline - original peak oil focused email list - a more solutions focused list - a group emphasizing discussion

There are numerous local mailing lists too, many on yahoo can be found at this link:


<1> "The Coming Global Energy Crunch: A $2 gallon of gas is just the beginning" by Aaron Naparstek, New York Press (June 01 2004)

<2> "Facts & Data", Peak Oil Center

<3> "Oil experts warn global crude supplies could peak by 2010" by Bruce Stanley, The Detroit News (May 25 2002)

<4> Presentation at the Technical University of Clausthal by C J Campbell (December 2000)

<5> A Reply by C J Campbell to "Global Petroleum Reserves - A View to the Future" by Thomas S Ahlbrandt and J McCabe, United States Geological Survey, SolarQuestR iNet News Service
(December 01 2002)


<7> "A Geologist Looks at the Coming Crisis"


<9> "The Coming Natural Gas Crisis"







Your feedback is welcome.

Last updated 21 December 2004

Bill Totten


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