Down the Hubbert Curve

M. King Hubbert. Peak Oil.
M. King Hubbert (1903-1989)

Within the Christian community there is considerable concern to do with environmental changes — particularly global warming. This is all to the good. But one of the themes of this site, and of my book A New City of God, is that no single issue such as global warming can be handled by itself. Each is part of a complex system involving many feedback loops — many of which are difficult understand, or even to identify .

The Venn Diagram below provides a very high level view of some of the elements that interact with one another. They are resource availability, the environment and the economics behind all this. Behind these three elements lies the issue of population.

Venn-AOL-2-300

With regard to oil and the crucial role that it plays in our economy let’s take a look at the work of a remarkable man: Dr. M. King Hubbert.

M. King Hubbert

Over the centuries various publications have been seminal, i.e., they planted seeds for a new way of thinking about the world. An example of such a paper is that written by Galileo Galilei in the year 1632 in which he explained the workings of the solar system. Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia of 1687 was equally important. It provided a mathematical framework for the scientific world that was good until the early 20th century until the introduction of the theory of relativity.

Future historians may well look back on Dr. Hubbert’s 1956 paper Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels (Hubbert 1956) as being of equal importance. Hubbert identified many of the issues that oil plays with respect to the Age of Limits.

• He discussed the issue of fossil fuel production in a global context.
• He recognized the finite nature of fossil fuel reserves. His interest was not so much in oil production rates as in the rate at which we are finding new reserves, and whether the discoveries compensate for the oil that is being used (they don’t).
• He developed a generic (Hubbert) curve to show how the production of fossil fuels peaks and then declines.
• He understood the fact that exponential growth in a finite world cannot continue.
• He had a grasp of the social implications of his research.

So, who was this potentially famous author? (A sign of his fame is that in at least one fictional story set in the future, Hubbert’s name is used as a swear word. The people in the story say, “By Hubbert!” in the way that we would say “By God!”)

Hubbert was a senior technical advisor to the Shell Oil Company. Therefore he was part of the oil industry establishment — he was not some critic “crying in the wilderness”. In the year 1956 he presented the paper that we have just discussed to the American Petroleum Institute. In it he projected that the production of oil from conventional wells in the United States would follow the trajectory in the first of the two curves shown below (they are reproduced directly from his paper).

Hubbert-Curve-1
The Hubbert Curve

The first curve shows that, when a new source of oil is found, further exploration in the same area leads to increased production. Eventually, however, production eventually peaks and then declines.

Hubbert predicted that the production of conventional oil in the United States would peak around the year 1970. His prediction was remarkably accurate, in fact he nailed it. (Since his time other sources such as tight oil and deepwater offshore oil have been developed. But his prediction to do with land-based, conventional oil was and remains correct.)

The following are some quotations from his seminal paper.

The evolution of our knowledge of petroleum since Colonel Drake’s discovery of oil . . nearly a century ago, resembles in many striking respects the evolutions of knowledge of world geography . . .

This opening passage is interesting for two reasons. First, it shows that Dr. King was not just a “dry scientist”. His imagery is unusual for a paper of this type. Second, by comparing the petroleum world with geographical charts he is suggesting that there are continents (giant fields), large islands (medium fields) and small islands (small fields). The continents were discovered early on and no more remain to be discovered. All that is left are the small islands/oil fields.

The fossil fuels . . . have all had their origin from plants and animals . . . during the last 500 million years. Therefore, as an essential part of our analysis, we can assume with complete assurance that the industrial exploitation of the fossil fuels will consist in the progressive exhaustion of an initially fixed supply to which there will be no significant additions during the period of our interest.

. . . world production of crude oil increased at a rate of 7 per cent per year, with the output doubling every 10 years . . . How many periods of doubling can be sustained before the production rate would reach astronomical magnitudes? No finite resource can sustain for longer than a brief period such a rate of growth of production; therefore, although production rates tend initially to increase exponentially, physical limits prevent their continuing to do so. This rapid rate of growth for the production curves make them particularly deceptive with regard to the future length of time for which such production may be sustained.

These two passages summarize the concept of Peak Oil in a nutshell.

It was not a big intellectual leap to move from “Peak Oil in the United States” to “Peak Oil Worldwide”. Indeed, we can develop Hubbert curves for other kinds of resources such as rare earths needed to make electronic equipment, or even fish in the sea. (Resources such as fish and forests are renewable, but we are depleting them so quickly they are not actually being renewed quickly enough; hence the Hubbert Curve can be applied to them.)

Happy-Motoring-1

Not only was his technical analysis remarkably insightful, he had the courage of his convictions. These were the days of “Happy Motoring” — his message was incomprehensible to the culture of his time. And he talked about these issues against the will of his employer (Shell Oil). He continued to speak out until the end of his life.

The chart that Hubbert published actually has two curves. The one on the left, the one that we have discussed, is to do with production of oil within a given area. The curve on the right is to do with nuclear power. He was writing in the early 1950s when the nuclear power industry was just getting started; society at the time was full of optimism to do with this new source of energy that would be “too cheap to meter”. Hubbert anticipated a smooth transition from fossil fuel power to nuclear power.

Our Friend the Atom

We now know that this particular prediction was a miss. Nuclear power makes up less than 10% of the world’s electricity production, and it is unlikely to increase much for the following reasons:

  • The problems (actually predicaments) to do with nuclear waste are intractable.
  • The capital costs associated with nuclear power make the business uneconomic and dependent on government subsidies.
  • Energy sources are only fungible to a limited degree. Considering just road transportation, it is impractical to consider that the world’s motor fleet can be converted to electricity in just a few years. (Any attempt to do so would require a huge consumption of fossil fuels.)
  • Supplies of uranium and other nuclear source materials are subject to their own Hubbert Curve.
M. King Hubbert Peak Oil
M. King Hubbert

Peak Oil Update

Hubbert published his ground-breaking work three generations ago. That’s a long time ago. So how has his work held up?

In March 2018 Ugo Bardi published Peak Oil, 20 years later. In the paper he looks as the forecasts of Hubbert and his successors. Of course, those predictions were not completely accurate — no one can predict the future, except in broad outline. We will probably look at this paper in greater detail in future posts. For now, a key statement is,

Overall, we can say that, even though the role of non-conventional oil sources was not correctly evaluated and the date of the peak missed at the global level, the Hubbert theory produced correct predictions and, in general, a valuable warning of difficulties to come. So, there never were compelling reasons based on historical data to dismiss the peak oil idea as wrong or untenable. Nevertheless, this is what happened.

Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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