Has World Oil Production Already Peaked?

One of the first scientists to predict a peak in world oil production was a geologist named M. King Hubbert. In 1956, he predicted the peak would occur in the early years of the twenty-first century. Well, here we are. Many of us know (or should know) that oil is a finite resource, and though there may be an incredibly vast amount of oil in the Earth, it will become increasingly difficult to extract it as it becomes scarcer. According to Richard Heinberg world oil production peaked on July 11, 2008. One year ago today. Though he admits that the exact date of the peak is impossible to calculate, he uses this date because it is the day that oil reached its highest recorded price.

Well, you might ask, so what? For one thing, Hubbert predicted that peak oil production occurs on a bell curve. This means that in coming years, we will see less and less oil produced. That’s why it’s called the peak. After that moment, by definition, less oil will be extracted as it becomes less economically feasible to do so. If the peak has already occurred, then we could see the end of the use of fossil fuels in a generation or two. This is all the more reason that renewable energy must be explored and more adequately funded.

There’s a catch. Not a single renewable energy can provide the kind of lifestyle that we’ve enjoyed with fossil fuels. The stored up energy in petroleum is the cheapest form of energy currently being produced. That means that life as we know it will drastically change. People will no longer be able to move things from place to place cheaply. This means that societies will have to contract. Consumption will have to re-localize. The suburb as we know is an endangered species.Part of me finds the prospect of a re-localized, hyper-urban society invigorating.

It scares the shit out of the other part of me.

The more optimistic part sees the potential for the return to nature, to the Earth’s natural rhythms. We won’t be able to buy food from halfway across the globe, so more people will have to understand its production locally. Regionally based culture will gradually reassert itself. Mass transit will cease, and therefore mass culture will change. These are positive things.

However, all this scarcity is the basis for extreme forms of competition. Peak oil will probably mean massive starvation for a large part of the Third World. If food cannot be shipped inexpensively to places that don’t produce enough food of their own, then people will not eat. If the US doesn’t built up an renewable energy infrastructure in the next ten to fifteen years, then we won’t be that far behind the Third World.

Right now, we can choose not to support locally grown organic agriculture. We can choose to drive our cars to work. We can take vacations using commercial airliners. We can buy imported goods that come from exotic lands. We can consume anything we want, provided we have enough money to do so. In the future, it won’t be that easy. After peak oil production, we won’t be able to make these choices. They simply will not be options.

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2 Responses to “Has World Oil Production Already Peaked?”

  1. Peak Oil is something I have given a lot of thought to. I have to disagree with you on one point though. I believe that as oil becomes more scarce the price will go up. As it does, the companies that sell it will be able to drill in places that were not economically feasible before. If the price per unit goes up, then it makes more sense for them to try to suck every last drop out and this will of course lead to more environmental destruction at the places that are being drilled.

    Also, when the price of oil starts to rise (especially because of peak oil), the use of oil will transition from all the places it is now to areas that will not be able to find an easy or cheap substitute (e.g. fuel for airplanes). So our cars will need to run on something other than gas; our energy will need to come from other sources and so on. Which will, of course, make those that are interested in creating new markets for nuclear power very happy. Not to mention that coal will like be around for a lot longer than oil, and it is much worse in terms of CO2 and other pollutants.

    Which brings me to GCC. I think that global climate change will probably have a bigger impact in the short term than peak oil. Either one (or both together) will have devastating effects on the population and the way we do things, but I personally believe that climate change is the bigger short term threat. This is not to say that we shouldn’t already be preparing for the post-oil world because we certainly should, but global warming will be really ugly, really soon. We can already feel it, and it is only going to get worse.

  2. I take your point about the increase in price resulting from scarcity. However, it going to be a geometric progression. Eventually, extracting oil will be so expensive that no retail cost will be able to cover the cost of production. The July 11 peak oil day is a fabrication of the Post Carbon Institute. I have no idea what kinds of credentials these people have. I just thought the idea was interesting. You are probably right that the price will go up beyond last year’s peak.

    I also agree that global climate change has the potential to be much more devastating. However, the problem is that it’s hard to assess the scale of the damage. I don’t think there’s much consensus about how much damage will result from GCC. Weather is extremely difficult to predict on a daily basis, so making a longer range prediction is even more difficult.

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