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Sunday, March 05, 2006

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by Kenneth S Deffeyes

Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak

Current Events (February 11 2006)

In the January 2004 Current Events on this web site, I predicted that world oil production would peak on Thanksgiving Day, November 24 2005. In hindsight, that prediction was in error by three weeks. An update using the 2005 data shows that we passed the peak on December 16 2005.

"A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires" that I present an update on the data sources and the interpretation.

1. The underlying methodology is Hubbert's postulate that the rate of new oil discoveries depends on the fraction of the oil that has not yet been discovered. Similarly, the rate of oil production depends on the fraction of oil that has not yet been produced. A test of Hubbert's hypothesis, using the long history of US oil production, is on pages 35 to 42 of my book Beyond Oil (Hill and Wang, 2005). An algebraic result from the Hubbert theory says that the production rate peaks when half of the oil has been produced.

2. The most accurate measure of the eventual total oil comes from the "hits" graph on page 48 of Beyond Oil. The input data for that graph are the dates of the first well in each oilfield. The February 2006 edition of Colin Campbell's ASPO newsletter {1} contains his updated version of the ExxonMobil discovery dates. I enlarged Campbell's graph and scaled off data for 2004 and 2005. An update of the calculation reported on page 49 of Beyond Oil gives an unchanged estimate: 2.013 trillion barrels. (There is always a statistical nervousness when an estimate does not change. I make the estimates by stepwise trials, and the winning step was 2.013. What I know is that neither estimate was 2.012 or 2.014.)

3. The world peak would then happen when 1.0065 trillion barrels have been produced (half of 2.013). Following Hubbert, I used the Oil & Gas Journal end-of-year production numbers. It isn't that the Oil & Gas Journal reports are divinely inspired; their methodology is well explained and their reports constitute a relatively consistent data set. The cumulative world production at the end of 2004 was 0.9812 trillion barrels and at the end of 2005 it was 1.00748 trillion. During the year, we passed the halfway point. The graph {2} shows the date of the crossover: December 16 2005.

During the year, we passed the halfway point.
The graph shows the date of the crossover: December 16 2005.

There are some interesting additional bits in the end-of-year statistics. Compared to 2004, world oil production was up 0.8 percent in 2005, nowhere near enough to compensate for a demand rise of roughly three percent. The high prices did not bring much additional oil out of the ground. Most oil-producing countries are in decline. The rise in production was largely from Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Angola. The Saudi production for 2005 was 9.155 million barrels per day. On March 6 2003 Saudi Aramco and the government of Saudi Arabia announced by way of the Dow Jones newswire that they were maxed out at 9.2 barrels per day. In retrospect, that statement seems to be accurate. Further details are in Matthew Simmons' book Twilight in the Desert (Wiley, 2005).

Could some new discovery come along and reverse the global oil decline? The world oil industry is a huge system: Annual production worth 1.7 trillion dollars. I don't see anything on the horizon large enough to turn it around.

So what are the policy implications? Numerous critics are claiming that the present world economic situation is a house of cards: built on trade deficits, housing price bubbles, and barely-adequate natural gas supplies. Pulling any one card out from the bottom of the pile might collapse the whole structure.

1. There are calls for embargoing Iranian oil because of the nuclear weapons situation. Pulling four million barrels per day out from under the world energy supply might trigger a severe worldwide recession. In the post-peak era, we're playing a new ball game and we don't yet know the rules.

2. Ghawar, the supergiant Saudi oilfield, is producing increasing amounts of water along with the oil. When Simmons sent Twilight in the Desert to the printer, the water cut at Ghawar was around thirty percent. There are later reports on the Internet {3} of water cuts as high as 55 percent. Ghawar has been producing four million barrels per day; when the Ghawar field waters out, you can kiss your lifestyle goodbye.

Since we have passed the peak without initiating major corrective measures, we now have to rely primarily on methods that we have already engineered. Long-term research and development projects, no matter how noble their objectives, have to take a back seat while we deal with the short-term problems. Long-term examples in the proposed 2007 US budget {4} include a 65 percent increase in the programs to produce ethanol from corn, a 25.8 percent increase for developing hydrogen fuel cell cars, and a 78.5 percent increase in spending on solar energy research. The Times reports that solar energy today supplies one percent of US electricity; the hope is to double that to two percent by the year 2025. By 2025, we're going to be back in the Stone Age.

By 2025, we're going to be back in the Stone Age.

Ethanol, fuel cells, and solar cells are not the only shimmering dreams. Methane hydrates, oil shale, and the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste depository would be better off forgotten. There are plenty of solid opportunities. Energy conservation is by far the most important. Initiatives that are already engineered and ready to go are biodiesel from palm oil, coal gasification (for both gaseous and liquid fuels), high-efficiency diesel automobiles, and revamping our food supply. Every little bit helps, but even if wind energy continues its success it will still be a little bit.

That's it. I can now refer to the world oil peak in the past tense. My career as a prophet is over. I'm now an historian.


{1} and

{2} See


{4} New York Times (February 9 2006) page A-18

Copyright 2001-2005 - K Deffeyes. All Rights Reserved.

Bill Totten


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