M. King Hubbert, a geologist working for Shell Oil in Houston, is responsible for the concept of “peak production.” In 1956, Hubbert produced a graph that looked like a normal “bell curve.” The idea was that oil production worldwide would increase until it reached a peak, followed by a decline to zero, the point where we run out of oil.
Also known as “Hubbert’s Peak,” the graph was inherent in the very concept of oil as a fossil fuel. In other words, if oil comes from decaying ancient forests and dead dinosaurs, then inevitably we must run out of oil. After all, there only were a finite number of ancient trees and dinosaurs, so the oil resulting from them must be finite as well.
Craig Smith and I wrote “Black Gold Stranglehold: The Myth of Scarcity and the Politics of Oil” to take exception with the Fossil-Fuel Theory. We argue the science of oil as an abiotic, natural product that the Earth generates on a constant basis. The abiotic oil theory has been central to Soviet science since the end of World War II. Looking deep within the Earth for oil, Russian has advanced from being a relatively oil-poor country in the 1950s, to being today the world’s second largest exporter of oil, contending strongly for first position with Saudi Arabia.
Hubbert’s graph predicted that oil production would “peak” in 1970, and that it would taper off from there until 2050, when we would have used up all the oil that ever was. Unfortunately for Hubbert, these predictions were flat wrong. Today, the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that we have 1.28 trillion barrels of proven oil reserves worldwide, more than ever before in human history, despite decades of increased usage.
Still, having their predictions proven wrong has not discouraged peak-production oil theorists. Since the 1950s, oil “experts” continually move the date for peak production” further out, unable to consider that the theory itself might just be wrong. Craig Smith and I argue that the Peak Production Theory is nothing more than a logical tautology – an argument that assumes as true what one should be trying to prove. In other words, if oil is a fossil fuel, we have to run out eventually. If we are not running out now, we will eventually – so the theory goes – no matter that we haven’t peaked yet and worldwide oil-reserve estimates keep growing. The alternative hypothesis – that the world will never run out of oil – is one the supporters of Hubbert’s Peak never seriously contemplate.
Kenneth Deffeyes, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, and a 1950’s Shell Oil colleague of M. King Hubbert, has given us excellent insight into how Hubbert came up with his famous “peak curve.” According to Deffeyes, it turns out that Hubbert’s famous peak was basically a “back of the envelope drawing,” a pre-conceived intuition into which Hubbert jammed the available data. In writing his book, “Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage,” Deffeyes admits on Page 135 that Hubbert first reached his conclusion and then searched for raw data and methods to support his conclusion:
Despite sharing roughly 100 lunches and several long discussions with Hubbert, I never had the guts to cross-examine him about the earliest roots of his position. Lunch discussions were more cheerful when Hubbert chose the topic.
Deffeyes acknowledges that Hubbert liked to be the star of the show, one who could be belligerent in technical arguments. “That Hubbert is a bastard,” Deffeyes quoted colleagues as claiming, “but at least he’s our bastard” (“Hubbert’s Peak,” pages 2-3, emphasis in the original). Belligerence in the face of criticism is almost as effective a technique as launching ad hominem attacks against your critics. Unfortunately neither technique addresses the underlying criticism, namely that if the predictions made by the theory are wrong, then the theory itself must be wrong.
Not surprisingly, Kenneth Deffeyes titled his 2005 book “Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak.” Deffeyes is locked into the idea that we are going to run out of oil, no matter how huge our proven reserves grow to be. Here’s how the book starts:
The supply of oil in the ground is not infinite. Someday, annual world crude oil production has to reach a peak and start to decline. It is my opinion that the peak will occur in late 2005 or in the first few months of 2006. I nominate Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, 2005, as World Oil Peak Day.
In just a few days, we will be at Thanksgiving 2005. What happens when oil production doesn’t peak then? Will Kenneth Deffeyes finally admit his prediction missed the mark and his theory is wrong?
At the World Petroleum Congress held in Johannesburg on Sept. 25-29, ExxonMobil admitted that world oil resources are so huge that they cannot be fully estimated. ExxonMobil offered their best guess, however, estimating that the level of conventional oil-in-place is today between 6 trillion and 8 trillion barrels, plus an additional 3 trillion barrels in oil shale deposits. This doesn’t sound like we’re not going to run out of oil anytime near soon.
Kenneth Deffeyes better get ready to start eating crow for this year’s turkey dinner.