“After all, misguided energy policy can have very bad outcomes. For instance, in the 1970s, the U.S. thought it was running out of natural gas, and Congress prohibited building any new power plants that used it. Instead, we built lots of coal plants…
– about half of the modern coal fleet—that burdened us with a legacy of dirty air in some cities. Not to mention that in the past few years, we have tapped an abundance of natural-gas supplies.”, Russell Gold, “Why Peak-Oil Predictions Haven’t Come True”, Wall Street Journal
“Time and again, whether its predictions about the world running out of oil, or mainstream U.S. views about our salt or fat intake or that bankers were the primary cause of the financial crisis…the mainstream view has been flat out wrong. This is partly why I am a man-caused global warming skeptic.(I am not saying it’s wrong. Just not proven and therefore not prudent to change our entire lifestyle and economy, until it is.) Did anyone but I notice that the LA Times just published an article that noted some of our top climate experts have concluded that warming (for the past 100 years) on the West Coast of the U.S. was mostly caused by natural events (wind), not man-made carbon emissions???”, Mike Perry, former Chairman and CEO, IndyMac Bank
Why Peak-Oil Predictions Haven’t Come True
More Experts Now Believe Technology Will Continue to Unlock New Sources
By Russell Gold
Have we beaten “peak oil”?
For decades, it has been a doomsday scenario looming large in the popular imagination: The world’s oil production tops out and then starts an inexorable decline—sending costs soaring and forcing nations to lay down strict rationing programs and battle for shrinking reserves.
U.S. oil production did peak in the 1970s and sank for decades after, exactly as the theory predicted. But then it did something the theory didn’t predict: It started rising again in 2009, and hasn’t stopped, thanks to a leap forward in oil-field technology.
To the peak-oil adherents, this is just a respite, and decline is inevitable. But a growing tide of oil-industry experts argue that peak oil looks at the situation in the wrong way. The real constraints we face are technological and economic, they say. We’re limited not by the amount of oil in the ground, but by how inventive we are about reaching new sources of fuel and how much we’re willing to pay to get at it.
Whether peak oil exists is more than just a point of intellectual debate—although it certainly has proved to be a heated and divisive one for decades. The question—and how we think about it—also has a big potential impact for governments, oil producers and ordinary people across the globe, all of whom depend on the vagaries of oil production and would be threatened by soaring costs and shortages.
The peak-oil boosters argue that instead of plowing money into new ways to find oil, we should be conserving what we have and investing in alternative energy sources so that we’re prepared when supplies run low and costs soar. Most of the naysayers agree that we shouldn’t stick with oil forever. But they think it’s wiser to invest in technology to keep expanding the available supply, until it gets too expensive to do so. At that point, they’re confident, we’ll be able to come up with an economical alternative.
The History of an Idea
Peak oil was most widely popularized by M. King Hubbert, a brilliant—and egotistic, by some accounts—geologist who worked for years at Shell Oil. In a 1956 paper, he predicted that U.S. oil production would peak, probably in the early 1970s, and then decline. It would resemble a bell curve.
Photos from left: Getty Images, Corbis, Statoil, Schlumberger
This came to be called Hubbert’s peak and later peak oil. The idea gained enormous popularity when U.S. oil output did in fact peak in the early 1970s. It took hold at a time when the nation was prepared to believe the worst: Drivers were waiting in long gas lines, and the nation felt it was groaning under the yoke of OPEC. Forecasters like Paul Ehrlich became celebrities with dire warnings of overpopulation and exhaustion of natural resources.
As the theory took hold, it helped justify increased investments in alternative energy, and informed some expert thinking about the future of energy. More recently, the theory saw a surge of interest a few years ago when oil prices were high and seemed stuck there.
“Welcome to the world beyond Hubbert’s peak,” wrote Kenneth Deffeyes, one of the adherents of peak oil, in 2008.
Then the data took a detour from the bell curve. In 2008, the U.S. produced five million barrels a day. In 2009, U.S. oil production began to rise—at first slowly, then quickly. It is still rising today. Through the first half of 2014, it averaged 8.3 million barrels a day.
What changed? An innovation in oil-field technology, which peak-oil theory didn’t anticipate. Energy companies combined hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to wring oil out of super-tight rock formations in North America. The industry figured out that pumping chemically slickened water and sand into shales could create thousands of fractures, each one a tiny path for energy molecules to travel into a well.
At first, drillers targeted natural gas because they thought oil molecules were too big to be extracted. But fracking worked to make oil wells, also. Innovations allowed the industry to locate its frack jobs better and increase density. Now other countries are starting to apply the same techniques and may see the same kinds of gains.
A Different Take
With the recent boom have come arguments that peak oil underestimates the power of innovation. Indeed, many oil experts say, the industry has a history of turning up new supplies just when prospects look bleak.
A century ago, the energy industry found giant new oil fields in Texas and California just as fears spread that oil output had peaked. As production in the U.S. began to decline, other regions picked up the slack: the North Sea, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Technical innovations such as using sound waves to locate oil fields through thousands of feet of water and rock spurred a boom in deep-water drilling.
More broadly, peak-oil naysayers argue, the theory looks at the problem in the wrong way—focusing on the physical supply instead of our ingenuity in being able to reach it. “There has to be a finite limit” of oil and gas in buried reserves, says George King, a global technology consultant for Apache Corp. But the constraint on how much oil can be produced isn’t geological, he believes: “We face technical and economic limits more than anything else.”
And Mr. King is an optimist about our ability to overcome technical limits. “This is an inventive industry,” he says.
One of his responsibilities at Apache, a Houston-based oil and gas company, is to stay abreast of new technologies that could boost output in years ahead. For example, he is paying attention to new ways of squeezing more oil out of tight reservoirs. When rocks are fracked, a large amount of oil remains left behind. Fracking tends to free the lighter, smaller gas and oil molecules but leaves behind heavier and stickier molecules.
One idea calls for using carbon dioxide to flood into the tight rocks and push oil out ahead of it. Another is to use nanochemistry to reduce surface tension and lift oil molecules off rock, much like a detergent lifts stains. “Some companies have really neat ideas” along these lines, he says.
To be sure, the peak-oil naysayers don’t think we should wholly embrace oil for all time, just that we shouldn’t try to speed up any transition to alternatives in anticipation of short supplies. After all, misguided energy policy can have very bad outcomes. For instance, in the 1970s, the U.S. thought it was running out of natural gas, and Congress prohibited building any new power plants that used it. Instead, we built lots of coal plants—about half of the modern coal fleet—that burdened us with a legacy of dirty air in some cities. Not to mention that in the past few years, we have tapped an abundance of natural-gas supplies.
And naysayers agree that while they don’t believe supply limits loom, economic limits remain. When the oil industry overcomes an obstacle and boosts oil production, costs typically increase. That opens the door for a better and cheaper energy source that will eventually displace crude oil.
So at some point, the cost of getting more and more oil likely will get so high that buyers can’t—or won’t—pay.
This is an issue the late petroleum economist Morris Adelman wrestled with. “No mineral, including oil, will ever be exhausted. If and when the cost of finding and extraction goes above the price consumers are willing to pay, the industry will begin to disappear,” he wrote in “The Genie out of the Bottle: World Oil Since 1970,” a book published in 1995. Mr. Adelman, a professor emeritus of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, died earlier this year at 96.
Already, economics is bringing about some changes. Despite the abundance of oil that fracking has delivered, global oil prices remain high. This has kept the door wide open for alternative sources of energy and spending on energy efficiency. Natural gas has been grabbing market share from oil for years. A few decades ago, heating oil kept American homes snug; now it’s natural gas. And gas is making inroads in transportation—trucks and trains—as are electric cars.
What’s more, climate change has altered the calculus. More advocates are pushing for alternative, low-carbon fuels to slow the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They argue that the possibility of running out of oil isn’t the only reason to reduce its use; in fact, they worry that the expansion of supply is dangerous, hindering efforts to take action on the long-term threat of climate change.
“There will be peak oil, but it will be [because of] peak consumption,” says Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, an energy and climate think tank in Oakland, Calif. “What we all want is to move to better, cheaper and cleaner sources of energy.”
Mr. Shellenberger suspects that oil’s long dominance in transportation is weaker than most people suspect. When something better comes along, he says, oil’s days are numbered. “We will be leaving a lot of oil in the ground, in the same way we are leaving coal in the ground,” he says.
If M. King Hubbert were alive today—he died in 1989—would he admit defeat? Probably not, says Mason Inman, who has written a biography of Mr. Hubbert that will be released next year. He argues that the recent shale boom is just a temporary respite in a long march downward. U.S. oil production could be about to hit a second peak, and then return to its terminal decline.
The production boom “makes things better for a while, but it doesn’t change the long-term picture,” Mr. Inman says.
If Mr. Hubbert were around, he might be dumbstruck by what he sees, Mr. Inman says. Mr. Hubbert, he says, advocated turning to solar power and energy efficiency to break the dependency on oil.
As for the power of innovation to reach new oil reserves, Mr. Hubbert believed that technology would help extend the limits of oil production, but thought its impact was exaggerated, Mr. Inman says. He felt people would invoke technology as a kind of panacea—which it isn’t.
There will eventually be diminishing returns, Mr. Inman says, since oil is a finite resource, even though we don’t really know its limits. “He would probably say, ‘You guys are crazy to be drilling this so fast and using it up and pretending it’s a solution,’ ” says Mr. Inman.
Mr. Gold is a Wall Street Journal staff reporter in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.