Vail Valley Voices: Peak oil changes everything
August 11, 2009
Who is King Hubbert?
When I was 2 in 1956, the age my youngest daughter is today, Marion King Hubbert made a discovery that could have saved modern civilization a lot of trouble.
King Hubbert, as he was called, was born in the oil patch that was early 20th century Texas. He attended the University of Chicago, where he received his B.S. in 1926, his M.S. in 1928 and his Ph.D in 1937, studying geology, mathematics and physics. He worked as an assistant geologist for the Amerada Petroleum Co. for two years while pursuing his Ph.D. He joined the Shell Oil Co. in 1943, and by 1956 King Hubbert was a geoscientist working for Shell in Houston.
Back in 1956, Hubbert published a paper in which he predicted that for any given geographical area, from an individual oil field to the planet as a whole, the rate of petroleum production of the reserve over time would resemble a bell curve.
Based on his theory, he presented a paper to the 1956 meeting of the American Petroleum Institute in San Antonio, Texas, which predicted that overall petroleum production would peak in the United States between the late 1960s and the early 1970s.
As you might expect, Hubbert received a lot of criticism.
Hubbert became somewhat famous when this prediction proved correct 24 years later in 1970. Probably a bit more accurately, King Hubbert achieved fame a few years after America’s peak oil year, since it’s not possible to know you’ve hit your peak until it has passed.
Hubbert kept up his research and in 1974 he projected that global oil production would peak in 1995 “if current trends continue.” Various predictions have been made by others as trends have fluctuated in the intervening years. Hubbert’s theory and its implications for the world’s economy remain the only factual proof about the case, but unfortunately recent events seem to provide some hard evidence in hindsight that Mr. Hubbert was correct again.
Exhibit A : When crude oil costs were bid up to record highs of $140 per barrel last year, George W. Bush, a friend of the al Saud ruling family that controls the world’s largest-producing oil fields, implored for more production to lower prices. The Saudis, for the first time in decades, could not increase production.
This inability to control pricing via production is a strong indicator that in Saudi Arabia, as it was in the USA in the 1970s, oil producers have met or passed their own peak production capability.
Until the ’70s, the U.S. enjoyed the capability to vary production as needed to control world oil prices. Until last year, the Saudis could control global prices.
Since everyone seems to be past peak, oil and energy costs will be driven by speculation now, and predictable costs of energy are fading into the past. Without predictable medium- to long-term cost models and estimates, business cannot function well.
Since all business today depends on oil, and not just any oil but cheap oil at that, this presents a problem.
Actual discovery of world oil reserves peaked between 1965 and 1969 with the Alaska and North Sea reserve discoveries. Every discovery since that year has been smaller than prior to 1965 and perhaps more notably, in locations that will require far more hardship and expense to recover.
This increase in diminishing returns, where it costs as much in energy to obtain new oil as one receives from the new oil (compared to a 20:1 or more positive ratio in east Texas and Saudi Arabia during the last century) is part of the equation Hubbert used in forecasting the global production peak — a global peak that evidently has occurred on schedule.
Continuing as we have simply will not be possible much longer.
Hubbert believed a conversion to solar power would replace fossil fuels, but such a conversion, at the massive scales required today, may not be practical.
Unfortunately, simply getting the millions of modules required to support a portion of the country’s present electric economy shipped across the planet from where they’re made, Japan and China, might not be practical, even if political stability is maintained to allow such trade.
Civilization lived with 100 percent renewable solar energy from the dawn of time until the beginning of the industrial age in 1750. Human population of the planet during that time never exceeded about 500 million people . This was the carrying capacity of a totally solar-powered world.
Total energy input globally is today many orders of magnitude larger than it was before the oil age began in 1860 — close to 10,000,000,000 tons of petroleum equivalent BTUs per year. Two-thirds of that input comes from oil. Coal, generating electric power, is a distant second and two-thirds of coal’s energy is lost at the power plant as waste heat.
Oil has allowed the human population to exceed 6 billion, far more than a solar-powered, green, renewable energy planet ever took care of. Oil and gas based fertilizers, pharmacuticals and energy intensive farming and public health systems have increased the planet’s capability to support the human experiment.
Now that we’re close to (or have passed, which I believe is the case) oil’s peak production, there will be far less cheap energy available for factory farming, fertilizers, pesticides, and every other aspect of our sprawling, global lifestyles.
The decline will not be smooth. We are already well invested and engaged in energy wars (Iraq, Afghanistan and with the formation of the U.S. African Command (AfriCom), that continent will probably see increased U.S. militarization. Politicians will not discuss the impact of the loss of cheap oil on our suburban economy in public, since there are no alternatives to the decline of our two generation old oil-based civilization, but the policy in place to try to sustain it is obvious.
How many new U.S. refineries have been built since Hubbert’s global peak prediction? None. If there were a lot of undeveloped oil reserve capacity in the face of a growing economy and a growing population, why have oil companies been closing and selling refineries rather than building more? Why have oil companies merged to cut costs and increase profits rather than drilling, baby, drilling?
Why was the last administration’s energy plan classified? Because it was simply a plan to invade and police the Near and Middle East oil-producing regions, a plan well under way and continuing with the present administration.
Many people assume someone will come up with a replacement as cost and price models meet demand. But never in history has something as compact, portable and easy to store or ship at room temperature as oil has been able to provide the energy in this mass.
One barrel of oil’s gasoline content — 42 gallons — equals a staff of 12 full-time servants working for one year. Nothing beats this but uranium, and best estimates show the world sitting on less than a 50-year supply of that, if it could all be mined! We’ve been past the peak uranium curve for decades. Hubbert’s curves work for all resources and have been applied to them.
We’re simply waking up too late in Hubbert’s bell curve to be able to implement the miracle that would be needed to get around the basic laws of thermodynamics needed to provide the BTUs and kilowatts required to sustain the economy we’ve constructed by burning millions of years of stored energy in a century.
We have thrown away the culture of a solar-powered planet over our past few generations.
Sadly, with few exceptions such as the Amish culture, most people have no Plan B for a post peak oil life even though we’re all going to live to experience it. Post-peak life won’t be as it has been or is today. That is the only thing we know for sure. In their kinder moments, the young people living in 2050 probably just won’t believe life ever was this easy. I don’t like to think about how they’ll treat us when that moment passes.
Bill Sepmeier lives off the grid in Sweetwater.