Peak Oil

In 1956, M, King Hubbert told a meeting of the American Petroleum Institute that the crude oil (petroleum) production of the United States would reach its peak, and start to go downhill in 1970.  This is exactly what happened.  (See graph of U.S. oil production on the right.)  King Hubbert used data that had been gathered earlier in 1956 by Wallace Pratt, a leader in the petroleum industry at that time.  Pratt had asked each of the most knowledgeable 25 men in the petroleum business this question, “How much recoverable oil remains underground in the United States?”  Their estimates ranged from a low of 145 billion barrels to a high of 200 billion barrels.  This estimated range was virtually the unanimous view of the industry at that time.

So it would seem that it is possible to make good predictions regarding future oil production even when there are large uncertainties in the data. The large uncertainties turn out to be unimportant because of a particular pattern that characterizes change in fossil fuel production.

It does not matter whether we are talking about crude oil (petroleum), or coal, or natural gas; and it does not matter whether we are talking about a single oil well, a single coal mine, a whole oil or gas field, a complete stratum of coal, an entire state, a nation, or the whole earth.  When each of these different cases is considered from the moment of discovery to the time of total depletion, fossil fuel production tends to follow the same general pattern: an approximate bell curve.  Here are a few examples: below left – Texas oil production, which peaked in 1972: Hubbert’s 1956 prediction for Texas is the green bell curve.  Below right – Texas natural gas production which also peaked in 1972.

Below left – UK coal production, which peaked in 1932; and below right – European natural gas production, which mostly peaked in 2001. Norwegian gas peaked in 2009.

Below left – oil production curve for Alaska North Slope.  Below center – oil production curves for various nations of the world: the U.S. peaked in 1970, North Sea peaked in 2001.  The red graph line represents total world production on a different scale.  Below right – world oil production.  Can you guess the year that world procuction peaked?

Hubbert Peak Theory uses the professionally estimated total reserve for a given quantity of fossil fuel –say the estimated total of all natural gas still underground in Azerbaijan – to construct a bell curve with an area equal to that quantity.  Data from the first few years of operation is used to determine the initial starting point and slope of the bell curve.  This is all that is needed to determine approximately when the production from that particular reserve will peak, and when it will terminate.  By now, this process has been used thousands of times for thousands of different fossil fuel reserves. It is highly respected in the fossil fuel energy industry, and –within certain limits- it is considered to be quite reliable.

Which all comes down to this: we are going to run out of carbon-based fuel; and we are going to run out of oil sooner rather than later. It does not make sense for us to continue to be so very dependent on oil. If we continue to do this without proper preparation, when the oil runs out, civilization as we know it will come to an end. We need a viable alternative, and that may well be the Polywell.