Whatever Happened to Peak Oil?

October 14, 2016

Aerial photograph showing gas well pad site, waste water holding pond and related road and pipeline trail situated on rural farmland in north-eastern Pennsylvania. Mark Godfrey © The Nature Conservancy

About 10 years ago, discussions of peak oil were everywhere. Peak oil was a cover story in Newsweek and National Geographic. When would the production of oil from the Earth’s crust begin to drop and fail to keep up with rising demand, particularly from the developing world? What would be the impact of peak oil on the price of gasoline for each of us? Several petroleum geologists estimated that sometime between 2004 to 2008, we’d reach peak oil.

Peak oil focused our attention on two problems related to petroleum: the finite supply in the Earth’s crust and the climate changes rendered by burning fossil fuels. For a time, concern about the problem of peak oil worked in favor of solving the climate-change problem. Alternative energies were the rage.

But somehow peak oil just never came to be.

The Energy Information Agency has shown that oil production has increased every year since the early 1980s, even though new discoveries have lagged production over the same interval. We have gotten better at exploiting old reserves and squeezing oil from rock never thought to hold it.

Peak oil was a market casualty, but only a temporary one. Rising demand caused prices to rise and focused an enormous amount of new effort to extract oil from the Earth’s crust—including fracking and roasting of oil sands. Oil flooded the markets from these sources, and coupled with a global recession in 2008, the price of a barrel of oil dropped by more than 50 per cent.

Still there has been no magical addition of oil reserves to the Earth’s crust and no major new discoveries of conventional oil fields that we had failed to notice. The current glut of oil on the world market shows how more effort and more efficient methods can extract oil from deposits discovered decades ago.

Oil remains irreplaceable for most forms of transport and agriculture in the modern economy. At some point, perhaps rather soon, production will begin to fall, and fail to satisfy rising demand. All the symptoms of peak oil will return to haunt us. Along with others, my prediction is that peak oil production, even with new technologies, will occur about 2020.

We were granted a lot of extra time to prepare for peak oil, but unfortunately, we have wasted most of it. Specifically, we have only a short time to make serious efforts to transition modern society away from fossil fuels and onto other sources of energy—solar, wind, tidal and geothermal. These can satisfy the demand of an ever-increasing number of humans to live the good life in an economy driven by external sources of energy. Renewable energy can also allow us to remove fossil fuels from society and avoid the worst consequences of global climate change, which is increasingly evident all about us.

This is not the time to be smug about the demise of peak oil. The fundamentals have not changed and the challenge of dealing with declining oil production will define the world we live in—for both those that have oil and those that don’t.

Brace yourself.

This post originally appeared on William H. Schlesinger’s blog Citizen Scientist, published by Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

William H. Schlesinger

William H. Schlesinger is one of the nation’s leading ecologists and earth scientists and a passionate advocate for translating science for lay audiences. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he has served as dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke and president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. More from William H.

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  1. Levelized costs for electricity generated with natural gas and carbon capture and storage (CCS) is estimated by the eia to be 1.5 times more expensive than natural gas alone (plants coming on line in 2022). Can CCS occurs as part of tertiary oil recovery by storing super-critical CO2 in depleting oil fields while using it to increase recovery from those fields? Can a strategy of burning oil for electricity and storing the CO2 in the oil fields (from which the oil is recovered with the CO2) work to provide dispatchable electricity and make use of known but currently unrecoverable reserves?
    The factor of 1.5 for natural gas makes me think that it might work.