Proper 26: Be Careful What You Ask For

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

Appointed Gospel

The gospel reading from this week’s lectionary is taken from Luke 19:1-10.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

This lesson seems to have little direct bearing on the Age of Limits predicaments that we face. But the gospel readings for the last few weeks all seem to feature the need for faith and persistence in hard times. This reading fits that pattern.

Exploration and Production

Time-Magazine-Climate-Change cover

In the year 2019 the topic of climate change received considerable attention — it is now part of the public discourse, even in the mainstream press (such as Time magazine). The basic idea is that our consumption of fossil fuels generates greenhouse gases (principally CO2) that are leading us toward catastrophic climate change. Therefore, it is argued, we need to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels, and/or we need to replace said fuels with renewable sources, principally solar and wind power.

An unstated assumption is that we actually have a choice in the matter — we can decide whether or not to reduce our fossil fuel consumption. It’s up to us. But maybe that assumption is incorrect. Could it be that we will be forced to reduce our fossil fuel usage, whether we like it or not? In which case,

Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

In the year 1956, Dr. M. King Hubbert, who was working for the Shell Oil company at the time, published his seminal paper Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels. One of his insights is that we need to find sufficient new sources of crude oil to replace what we are currently using. If we fail to do so then eventually we will run into the phenomenon of ‘Peak Oil’. (He did not use that phrase, but his analysis provided the basis for it.)

Oil companies talk about reserves and production rates, but the fundamental challenge that they face is finding enough new sources of crude oil to replace what is being used now. Hubbert forecast that the replacement rate would peak around the year 1970. After that we would consume more crude oil than we find. His prediction was on the nose — he nailed it.

His work led to the development of the now famous Hubbert Curve, as shown in the sketch below, which is for the production of oil in millions of barrels per year for the lower 48 of the United States. The red line is his 1956 prediction. The green line shows actual production. It can be seen that actual production followed his prediction very well until around the year 2008. Then production increased substantially such that production rates in the year 2018 are close to the 1970 peak. The increase is due mostly to the production of Light Tight Oil (also referred to as Shale Oil), primarily in Texas and North Dakota. But, as explained the post The Return of Peak Oil, it appears as if shale oil production is now at its peak, mostly because it has never been profitable; investors are withdrawing their support.Production of oil and shale oil in the United States

Further information to do with new sources of oil in the United States is provided by Jean Laherrère. The chart below shows that exploratory drilling is at just 5% of the 1981 level. And the number of gas exploration wells seems to have dropped to close to zero.

Oil exploration decline - Laherre

This post started by describing the need to cut back fossil fuel consumption. When we look at the rate at which we are finding new sources of oil it would appear as if we are going to have little choice — fossil fuel consumption will go down, not because of environmental concerns, but because we are not replacing the oil and gas that we are using.

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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