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The Beat of the Oil Drum




Final thoughts

References and Links


Over the past century the consumption of oil has provided the industrial world with an unmatched source of cheap energy. Thousands and thousands of barrels of this black liquid have been unearthed each day to fulfill this need. This resource has sustained our seemingly infinite desires at a relatively low cost until recently. Now, however, the situation has changed. Gasoline prices have already creptover four dollars in California, and some expect they will be much higher before the end of summer. To understand what is happening to cheap oil production it is helpful to understand the theory behind the term Peak Oil, and the history of our love affair with cheap oil.

How did we get hooked on Oil?

From the mid-1800s to the early-1900s, the industrial revolution was fueled by coal. Oil wells were producing only 50-100 barrels a day, [1] not nearly enough to fuel the growing demands of the industrial world. Around the turn of the century, large quantities of cheap oil were discovered in Texas. Paul Roberts book, The End of Oil, recounts the story. In 1901 a man happened to drill a well on a hill named Spindletop that yielded “five thousand barrels every hour- one hundred thousand barrels a day.”[1] This astonishing quantity of oil drew interest from supporters and skeptics alike. Never before had such a plentiful well been found. The skeptics thoughts were dashed when more drills were dug which yielded comparable quantities of oil. No longer scarce, oil became an easily extracted and transported high-energy fossil fuel. The “Age of Oil” had begun.  Soon, petroleum-based products became the primary fuel for heating, transportation, and farming. Existing and new supplies met increasing demands without a lot of concern until a scientist proposed a bold idea in 1956.

Peak Oil Origins:

The person credited with conceiving the term “Peak Oil” is M. King Hubbert a top geologist for Shell Oil company. In 1956 he published a paper that stated that the oil production would “culminate” between 1965 and 1970. [2] He was the first to draw oil production as a bell curve with oil production reaching the peak at the top of the graph. Hubbert based his prediction on the science of how oil is created. In his paper, he described how it has taken over five hundred millions of years [2] for the current amount of fossil fuels to accumulate. He made the point that “even though the same geological processes are still operative, the amount of new fossil fuels that is likely to be produced during the next few thousands of years will be inconsequential…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 addictions during the period of our interest.”[2] His point was that fossil fuels, such as oil, are non-renewable resources that have a finite supply. This idea of oil production peaking was highly contested until 1970 when the oil production in the U.S. started to decrease. From that day on, Peak Oil was no longer an outlandish theory it was reality. Hubbert’s forethought on fossil fuels began a drumbeat that continues to call concerned citizens together under a common discussion of Peak Oil.

Hubbert's Peak diagram that appears in his published paper in 1956
(the red text was added by and outside source)

[1]Roberts, Paul. The End of Oil. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
[2]M. King Hubbert, "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels," Publication No. 95, Shell Development Company, Houston, TX (1956)

Last updated:  5/6/2008
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