Nature takes on peak oil (pun somewhat intended)

There's a new article in Nature on peak oil here.
(sorry, it's behind a paywall, [ED by PG] but I've discovered you can find excerpts of it here at EB. Thanks BA.)
Consider this a discussion thread for quotes from that piece and an open thread as well...

Well, I could upload it ... but maybe that's a bad idea?

perhaps. :)

(a brief summery for those who can't access it)

I think that this is quite a step in the right direction - its an acknowledgment by (practically) the top scientific journal in the world that peak oil is at the very least something that should be looked at, and it isn't even dismissive of what peak oil is about containing comments like

"But this is not an easily dismissed fringe. Respected geologists with lifetimes of experience are genuinely concerned that the world is about to see an unprecedented crisis"
"“I don’t know if we are all Hubbertists now, but we are all recognizing that there is a finite quantity of oil.” — Robert Kaufmann"

it also contains an overview of Huberts prediction and how it played out and general "pro peak oil" vibe in places.

for the other side Cera's prediction is mentioned. it also talks about the problems that occurred with the Hubert prediction : the actual peak amount was 20% more than what was predicted, even if the year was right, and the tail has had much more production.

Also mentioned are how various peoples predictions have been wrong repeatedly concerning peak oil, although it does mention Deffeyes prediction of the end of 2005.

It also mentions how uncertain the reserve estimates are, specifically mentioning the inflated oil reserves in opec.

All in all, i think it is quite a well balanced piece, without overly pushing one side or the other, but definitely does not dismiss or even play down the possibility of peak oil soon.

my 2c on this (interesting) article

ps. whats with the price of oil - down to about $55 by the little ticker on the right atm

ive been watching the price fall today as well. that cant be good...

Interesting that oil has dropped so far and so fast, perhaps there will be hints in the coming weeks why that has happened, I haven't seen any that explain it to me. A good part of it may be due to warm weather in US and Europe but cold is forecast to push south over most of the US in about 10 days. US crude stocks are, I think, now back down to their average levels for this time of year. Provided support at the $55 to $56 level holds there could be a buying opportunity soon before most traders see the cold snap coming. This Friday's NFP is a risk - if it prints low there could be further downside for oil since it would intensify fears of a US slowdown - so I wouldn't be tempted to buy before then.

Prices at peak and slightly post peak are very volatile.

Their is no reason to expect prices to trend smoothly upwards.

Oil prices have been extremely volitile over the past 5 years, has anyone noticed? Volitility to the extent Matt Simmons has suggested that the price-signaling mechanism is broken (from 9/06):

"To have these wild fluctuations in oil prices – and natural gas prices, which make oil prices look modest – is very dangerous and in my opinion has destroyed any sense of price signaling that’s one of the basic premises of efficient markets at work."

I remember this drop clearly: late Sept 2005 to Oct 2005 from $68 to $55 right after Hurricane Katrina: according to the market, Katrina improved our oil supply!

it could also be that "developing" countries have given up on buying oil they cant afford at $60/barrel, thus leaving more supply for the richer nations of the world...

Or it could be that third world nations have given up.

Many believe that oil pricing is arrived at by a free market process, where demand and supply from buyers and sellers of equal pricing power meets, to arrive at a balanced price. This is clearly not the case.

Production and - more crucially - export supply, comes from a handful of national oil companies in countries where oil export income comprises the largest part of GDP. They are almost all authoritarian (some populist, some hereditary) dictatorships whose leaders remain in power by the distribution of oil munificence in exchange for popular acceptance - if not always genuine support. Continued survival is the primary concern of such regimes and their practices are not always informed by the pure commercial logic of free markets.

This oil export oligopoly cannot even properly be termed a commercial cartel, because its members' agendas frequently include major political and social objectives far removed from the consistent control of supply and demand. Complicating this arrangement is the fact that only one member (Saudi Arabia) possesses true swing export production capability and large reserves, combined with the financial wherewithal to use them for extra-commercial reasons; its oil export revenue under "normal" pricing conditions far exceeds its domestic fiscal needs. Other major exporters need the money to sustain large, mostly poor populations: Russia, Iran, Iraq, Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Libya, Algeria and others are in that category. Those producers are ultimately relegated to following the pricing lead of Saudi Arabia.

There was a period in the 1980's-90's when high production from non-cartel nations like the UK, Norway and the US's Prudhoe Bay combined with energy conservation temporarily reduced the cartel's power but it ended quickly, along with western oil reserves. However, this period of low prices and plunging revenue left very lasting impressions on Saudi Arabia and Russia. The first one came very close to national bankruptcy and the second one imploded from a world empire (USSR) to a second-rate has been (at the time). There is no question whatsoever that the price increases in 1999-01 were at least partly engineered in co-operation with the G-7 consuming nations to salvage the Saudi regime and to avoid Russia's slipping into chaos while still possessing nuclear weapons (see "The Shocks of a World of Cheap Oil" in Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2000). The subsequent rise of China as the manufacturing center of the globe brought demand nearer to production capacity and strengthened Saudi Arabia's pricing power.

Today, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the undisputed oil pricing "king". It could, if it wanted to, remove significant amounts of oil from the market and still maintain roughly the same level of revenue through higher prices for some time. But that would be against its longer term interests, which include political survival of the House of Saud for as long as possible.

This brings us to a seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion about oil prices and KSA's role: it does not want oil prices to become so excessive as to permanently destroy demand and thus have to cut production even as prices drop. Such an event would drastically reduce oil revenue available for domestic spending and threaten the Saud's hold on the throne. Other export nations do not face the benefit of this "royal dilemma" and are mostly forced to pump nearly at maximum, at all price points.

Is there a bottom line to this, relevant to recent price action?

Emphatically, yes. Despite apparently continuing high global consumption (as shown in steady production volumes)prices have dropped 30% from the high in a very suggestive "waterfall" pattern. Part of it can be ascribed to speculative de-frothing, itself somewhat brought about by Goldman Sach's timely Commodity Index re-balancing and general profit-taking. But the rest must be traced back to the one exporter that can make all the difference when it comes to physical oil supply and does not want consumers to permanently switch their energy sources to PHV's, PV's and the like: Saudi Arabia.

Like the elephant in the refrigerator, it may not be seen by those of us who just happen to open the door now and then, but its footprints are certainly all over the butter.


In your diatribe againgst the big, bad "export-oligopoly" it is curious you never mention the international oil companies. Certainly they have some power/agency?

Also, the Saudis could care less if we all installed PV electricity/heating systems. Everyone knows the crux of oil demand is in the tranposrt sector.

PHV stands for plug in hybrid vehicles. The private big oil companies control extremely little oil themselves - not that they are innocents in the woods, of course.

Rumours of a hedge fund in trouble in a big way by betting on an increase in price and not covered. No idea how true, but it does seem to give an added boost to the drop in price over semi expected figures and mild weather with colder weather approaching.

That's the sort of thing ELRM, though it may or not be true this week's price action smells strongly of something like that. Just like the Amaranth effect on NG after Goldman Sachs changed their commodity index weightings - as Hellasious mentions above. It's always difficult to guess how far such effects will go, could briefly drop to near $50 or bounce from $55; whichever, I'd bet WTIC oil will be back at $60 in a handful of weeks then go higher towards the late March / April recently normal seasonal peak.

NFP printed high: $ bounced, gold tanked, stocks might take mild fright as the spectre of no rate cuts for at least 6 months jumps out of a corner of their minds.

High temperatures in the Northeast and many other places around the country / world - no need for heating fuel.

Robert Kaufmann is an ecological economist. Not a geologist. He's certainly respected though.

Actually, sometimes one side is right, and the other wrong.

The Nature article is just so ironic to me, as my geology professor, Craig Bond Hatfield, published an article in Nature in 1997 (vol 387) called "Oil back on the global agenda," which was about peak oil before "peak oil" was even a term.

Here are excerpts:

Geological data indicate that, during the next ten years, oil production outside OPEC countries will remain incapable of significant, sustained growth and is likely to begin a permanent decline during the first decade of the twenty-first century...

The mid-point, at which half of the ultimate [global] production will have been consumed, would be the year 2011, IF PRODUCTION REMAINS AT ITS PRESENT LEVEL (my emphasis.)...

...The past century of unprecedented economic growth has been based largely on increasing availability of cheap but rapidly dwindling petroleum resources. It is unfashionable in energy policies and economic theory to recognize a time limit on growth in oil consumption rate. But the arithmetic on which my argument is based must be acknowledged. The coming era of permanent decline in oil-production rate and the economic and social implications of this phenomena demand serious planning by the world's governments.

I spoke with Professor Hatfield as his home last summer and asked him if he had written anything about peak oil lately. He said no, because "it's too late."

Hatfield also co-authored another article in 1998 on peak oil:

Published on 28 Feb 1998 by Scientific American. Archived on 28 Feb 1998.

by Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrère

the full text of which can be found at

Unfortunately i was unable to find a free full text link for either the article mentioned by the parent or the original article (not surprising considering everything in nature is behind a pay-wall)


All up i think it is a chicken-and-egg situation. Most people won't respond to peak oil without some type of market signal, which will only come about by a) people suddenly realizing that peak oil is close and changing what they do (not likely to happen, because no market signal) b) peak oil causing legitimate supply concerns on a short term basis, but by then we are in a 'spot of bother'.

wow, I didn't know there were EB articles numbered *that* low! :)

SciAmer exerpt:
"GLOBAL PRODUCTION OF OIL both conventional and unconventional (red), recovered after falling in 1973 and 1979. But a more permanent decline is less than 10 years away, according to the authors’ model, based in part on multiple Hubbert curves (lighter lines). U.S. and Canadian oil (brown) topped out in 1972; production in the former Soviet Union (yellow) has fallen 45 percent since 1987. A crest in the oil produced outside the Persian Gulf region (purple) now appears imminent."

The graph that went with this article is at our website comment on Peak Oil (see 1998):

A little known fact that i discovered in my research was that altho the graph shows a peak in 2003 for "all liquids" of 71-mbd (26-GB/yr), it was in fact the wrong graph. The published graph is for Regular Conventional Oil. The correct one is also at our website (labelled 1989) and shows the correct 93-mbd Peak in 2009.

This 93-mbd Peak is the highest that Colin Campbell ever published. He was heavily influenced by Jean Laherrere on this collaboration. By June 2004, Campbell had reduced his estimate to 80-mbd. That's when i had to publicly slap him on the side of the head with some reality checks. Within 24 months, he was back up to 90-mbd. Laherrere, with a better grasp of URR, did not join with ASPO on this roller coaster spectacle which bottomed (in more ways than one) with Campbell declaring an all liquids Peak for 2006 (in June 2004). He has since moved it to 2010.

Excerpts from the article are posted on Energy Bulletin:

It seems a better article than most, but still has a ways to go. The issue is framed as one side versus another side - just as global warming has been. Hopefully, as the story gets more coverage, journalists will go beneath the surface and make judgments as to the quality of different arguments, rather than just repeating them.

To me the most interesting part was the impact of $60-$70 oil on the third world. They are dropping out of the oil age, to the extent they were ever in it.

One wonders how it will play out in the first world? Actually, one doesn't wonder. Same thing: the bottommost will drop out of the oil age while a shrinking middle class will continue partying. So Heinberg is wrong -- the party is not over, it's just that ever more party goers are going to have to leave.

Here is the full text:

Energy: That's oil, folks...

by Alexandra Witze

Alexandra Witze is Nature's Chief of Correspondents, America.

Optimists see oil gushing for decades; pessimists see the planet's energy future already drying up. Alexandra Witze reports.

Don't say they didn't warn us. The poster for the meeting of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas in Boston this October featured American revolutionary Paul Revere on his midnight ride, bringing news of imminent calamity. Only this time it is not the British who are coming, but the end of the oil era, and with it much of western civilization. Many attendees at the meeting were people who could tell you how to stock a bunker to survive the inevitable collapse of civilization, and then opine at length about the extent and characteristics of the great tar-sand deposits of Canada. Some of them conduct a thriving mini-business in preparing for the coming apocalypse — "deal with reality or reality will deal with you", as one website claims — while scrutinizing table after table of data on world oil production.

But this is not an easily dismissed fringe. Respected geologists with lifetimes of experience are genuinely concerned that the world is about to see an unprecedented crisis — a reduction in the supply of a primary fuel before an alternative is available. When we moved from wood to coal, it was not for a shortage of forests; when we moved in large part from coal to oil and gas, it wasn't because the pits were empty. But many people are convinced that the flow of oil is destined to start falling, and soon.

Matthew Simmons, an energy investment banker in Houston, Texas, and self-described "petro-pessimist", argues that the world's great oilfields are moving quickly towards the end of their production, or have already passed into rapid decline. The North Sea, for instance, is the only place that a significant new discovery has been made outside of nations in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Russia and Alaska in the past four decades. It is now in eclipse — production in the region peaked in 1999, which is earlier, Simmons says, than expected. The United Kingdom no longer exports oil, he notes, and production in Norway — the North Sea's long-term stalwart — is also declining. And no new giant oilfields are taking the place of those that have already passed their peaks, says Simmons.

Some people think that the declines we are seeing are indicators that the world is on the verge of, or has already passed, the maximum amount of oil that can physically be produced. In their view, oil production follows a bell-shaped trajectory, with the peak occurring when half of the total reserves have been consumed. Therefore, it should, in theory, be easy to determine whether the peak has already occurred or whether it is yet to come. Total up the world's oil reserves, estimate the rate at which countries have produced oil, and you'll know where you are in the trajectory. If the reserves are more or less equal to the amount already pumped, then production is at its peak.

If you accept this principle, then the issue of when the peak comes depends mainly on the amount of reserves that remain untapped, and that in itself gives room for disagreement. But some don't accept these premises. To them, these arguments are simplistic geological determinism that does not take into account the role of oil prices. To the dissenters, reserves are not a geological given but a function of the current price and the extraction technology that price can buy. New reserves will be developed as the market demands.

Opposites attract

Both sides issue regular, well-referenced reports that come to opposite conclusions on whether the world is running out of oil. "There's just no middle ground," says Kenneth Deffeyes, a geologist who has retired from Princeton University in New Jersey, and is a leading supporter of the peak-oil theory. His personal belief is that we are already a year past the peak. If he's wrong, though, he's sure that it will prove not to be by much: the peak is imminent, and unavoidable.
EnergyThat's oil, folks...

[missing CERA graph]

Twin peaks: peak-oil supporters think we have already reached or will soon reach a historical maximum of oil production (red line); others argue that oil production will not peak until at least 2030 (blue lines).

Meanwhile, a study from energy analysts Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) in Massachusetts sees no sign of any peak in production occurring before 2030. And, crucially, CERA doesn't see a peak with a steep downside — rather a crest followed by an undulating plateau (see chart), which would be much less apocalyptic even if it happened today.

I don't know if we are all Hubbertists now, but we are all recognizing that there is a finite quantity of oil.

Robert Kaufmann

It's not that CERA thinks that oil production has no constraints, or that the geological resource can't be depleted. Even oil company executives say publicly that they see a problem. T. Boone Pickens, the maverick Texas oil magnate, has said that he thinks oil production may already have reached its maximum. And in October, during an address to the National Press Club in Washington DC, Shell Oil president John Hofmeister acknowledged that "the easy stuff is running out". "We may argue about when the peak is, but it doesn't change the argument that it's coming," says Robert Kaufmann, an energy economist at Boston University in Massachusetts. "I don't know if we are all Hubbertists now, but we are all recognizing that there is a finite quantity of oil."
EnergyThat's oil, folks...

[missing hubbert figure and photo]

Fan club: M. King Hubbert (above) gained instant notoriety for his 1956 prediction that oil production in the 48 contiguous US states (purple shaded area) would peak around 1970. It did, but production was much higher that year and in later years (red dots) than Hubbert foresaw.

Hubbert, in this context, is M. King Hubbert, the geophysicist who first predicted that oil production would peak quite suddenly — and that when it did, it would slump sharply thereafter. In 1956, while working in Shell Oil's research laboratory in Houston, Texas, Hubbert predicted1 that oil production in the contiguous 48 states of the United States would peak in the early 1970s. Hubbert's calculations produce a bell curve to describe the rate of oil production, with a sharp rise on one side of the peak and a symmetrical drop-off on the other (see chart).

At the time Hubbert made these calculations less than half of this two-sided curve had been seen. Oil exploration and discovery were booming, and Hubbert's prediction looked implausibly pessimistic. But he turned out to be right; production in the contiguous United States reached its peak in 1970, and almost overnight Hubbert gained his own personal fan club.

Those in favour of the peak-oil theory argue that Hubbert's methods for analyzing US oil output can also be used to analyze the global production peak. Deffeyes, known to many as the charismatic protagonist of Basin and Range, the first of John McPhee's great popular accounts of modern geology, has emerged as a particularly prominent Hubbertist. In Hubbert's Peak: The Impending Oil Shortage2 and Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak3 he used the same mathematics as Hubbert to calculate the total oil reserves worldwide that remain to be produced. With a flourish of exactitude, Deffeyes estimated that the world reached peak-oil production on 24 November 2005. He later pushed this back — but only to 16 December of that year.

"I'm not declaring victory just yet," he says hastily. He's saving the victory announcement until he sees world production numbers drop for three years in a row. "If I'm right, it will be very transparent in five years."

Changing with the times
[generic picture of oil well]

But not everyone buys Deffeyes' interpretations. "The technique that Hubbert used in the 1950s is simply not applicable on a global basis in 2006," argues Peter Jackson, an oil and gas analyst who works for CERA near London, UK. Jackson authored CERA's background briefing paper "Why The Peak Oil Theory Falls Down" in November 2006.

Jackson notes that proponents of the peak-oil theory have changed their dates several times before; as production numbers come in year after year, for instance, leading peak-oil theorist Colin Campbell has postponed his estimates for the peak in all hydrocarbon production from around the turn of the millennium to 2010. Others point out that predictions of an unavoidable slump are almost as old as the oil business; John Strong Newberry, chief geologist of the state of Ohio, was predicting that America's oil would soon be tapped out back in 1875.

Jackson, Deffeyes and everyone else in the debate agree that nearly 1.1 trillion barrels (175 trillion litres) of oil have been produced worldwide. A key difference is that supporters of the peak-oil theory argue that roughly that same amount remains to be pumped out of the earth's reserves, whereas CERA's report estimates those reserves at 3.7 trillion barrels, a number that would place the world well on this side of any peak in production.

One reason for the difference is that CERA is much more optimistic about the amount of oil that can be recovered from operating oilfields through the use of new technologies. Jackson points out that the expected recovery estimates for operating oilfields often grow with time. The total estimate of recoverable oil from the North Slope of Alaska, for instance, used to be 9.6 billion barrels; today it is 13.7 billion barrels.

"If I were to say we are not finding enough oil every year through exploration to replace what we are producing, you would be alarmed," says Jackson. "And that is correct. But peak-oil supporters don't talk about field reserve upgrades — in a lot of the producing fields around the world, companies are constantly updating estimates of reservoir reserves."

Reserves change in size even after the initial geological mapping of an oilfield because the amount of oil that's recoverable — and thus deserves to be counted as reserves — depends on the skill of the oil companies and the effort they are willing to put in. Globally, about 35% of the oil present in established fields is actually produced. Nearly every oilfield matures through the same sequence: first, the easily recovered oil is extracted through traditional drilling. When that runs low, engineers begin a process of secondary extraction, using techniques such as injecting water or carbon dioxide to drive more oil out of the rock. Many fields also undergo tertiary extraction to squeeze out yet more oil, usually by injecting steam to lower the viscosity of the oil. Oil wells are abandoned once the cost of extraction is no longer worth it. "We will still have oil in 100 million years," says David Hughes, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada in Calgary. "It just won't be recoverable at an energy profit."

But the fluctuating price of oil means that fields abandoned after secondary production can be re-opened for tertiary production when demand calls. The current high price of oil — just over US$60 a barrel — provides an incentive for companies to start tapping into their reserves and pushing into more areas for discovery. In general, those against the peak-oil theory claim that the Hubbert-curve approach underestimates changes in extraction technology brought about by both natural developments and changes in the price of oil, which can turn fields that are too costly to pump from into valid reserves.

As the great oilfields of the world age — most of them are now undergoing secondary, if not tertiary, extraction — other discoveries could help to plug the supply gap, argues Jackson. In 2000, an analysis by the US Geological Survey of petroleum reserves estimated that there were 1 trillion more barrels of oil worldwide than previously thought. The survey estimated that any worldwide peak in oil production wouldn't happen until 2030 at the earliest. In part as a result of the high prices of the past few years, roughly 500 oil-development projects are slated to start producing oil in the next five years, says Jackson, and these will range in size from an estimated million barrels per day down to 10,000 barrels per day.
In the deep

Energy optimists point to recent discoveries such as the seven new oilfields uncovered in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico last year — reserves that are only accessible because of new technology. The biggest oilfield found there to date, the Thunder Horse field, is estimated to contain 300 million barrels of oil. Such exploration may also soon be helped by the US Congress, which voted on its last day of session in 2006 to approve expanded drilling into previously off-limits areas in the Gulf of Mexico. "There's a lot of new capacity coming to the market," says Jackson. "That's one of the reasons I'm not too concerned about a peak."

Another reason for doubt is that Hubbert's model was not perfect even when applied just to the contiguous 48 states of the United States — its great claim to fame. Although the date predicted for the peak was roughly correct, the model predicted an amount of production at the peak that was 20% less than reality. And, in part because of unforeseen discoveries in the Gulf of Mexico, the amount of oil produced in the United States after the peak was much greater than Hubbert had predicted.

But the peak-oil theorists are not convinced. "The problem is, if you go and talk to people whose job it is to actually go and find this stuff, they have no clue as to where these trillion barrels of reserves actually are," says Michael Rodgers of the energy analysis firm PFC Energy in Washington DC.
Who to trust?

Estimates of reserves that are published by oil companies, national governments and researchers such as the US Geological Survey are not to be trusted, according to the peak-oil supporters. Jeremy Gilbert, former chief petroleum engineer for BP, says that not all oil companies work to the same standards. The US Securities and Exchange Commission sets rules for how to report reservoir estimates, but only US and major international companies generally abide by those standards — and they don't always do so reliably. "The standards for other national companies are unknown," Gilbert says. "If someone tells you the reserves in Kuwait are 75 billion barrels, he has no idea how that 75 billion was calculated." Peak-oil supporters are eager to point out that after a sharp drop in the oil price in the mid-1980s the estimated reserves of various OPEC countries — including Iran and Iraq, which had a mutual war to finance at the time — were jacked up by their governments.

Partly as a result of such manoeuvres, Simmons is particularly pessimistic about whether OPEC nations can continue to slake the world's thirst for oil. Currently, OPEC countries provide about 40% of the world's oil. Non-OPEC countries have been consistently producing more oil than they've been finding since the late 1980s, Rodgers told the meeting in Boston. He thinks that production from non-OPEC countries will peak between 2010 and 2015; after that, no amount of OPEC production can make up the gap between supply and the world's growing demand. The fact that such predictions have been made before does not necessarily mean that they are wrong now.

Most of the attention on OPEC focuses on Saudi Arabia, by far the biggest producer and the driver of oil prices worldwide. The country gets most of its oil from seven giant maturing oilfields. The three biggest fields have been producing oil for more than 50 years, and the oil industry constantly swirls with rumours that the biggest of all — the Ghawar field — has been increasingly cut with water to drive its production even higher. Simmons, after studying technical reports published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers, has argued that the state-run oil company Saudi Aramco routinely overestimates the country's oil reserves. Saudi Arabia, he argues, is closer to running out of oil than most people think.

The 1970s oil crisis, when OPEC slapped an embargo on countries that had supported Israel, was only a taste of things to come, says Rodgers. At the time, the United States was the only country that had already peaked in oil production. Now, many more countries — including Peru, Argentina, Norway, Congo and Mexico — have also passed their peak. Countries such as Canada, China, Brunei and Malaysia are currently undulating around a plateau of oil production and could soon decline, he predicts.

New discoveries, such as in the Mexican section of the Gulf of Mexico or in Angola or Brazil, could change the date of an imminent oil peak, says Rodgers, but only slightly. "All you can do is take the cliff facing us in the next few years, and push it farther out over time. This has already happened." Fields of the size now being discovered, though, will not be large enough to push the peak back far. The 300 million barrels at Thunder Horse provide less than a week's consumption at the world's current rate of use.

All you can do is take the cliff facing us in the next few years, and push it farther out over time.

Michael Rodgers

Another way Russia helped out in the 1990s, Simmons points out, was by producing less oil than had been expected. That apparently helpful drop, though, was an exception. "[Misstated reserves] wouldn't be so bad if demand remained steady," says Simmons, "but instead it soared." The world produced 16% more oil in 2005 than it did in 1990 — and none of that production, Simmons argues, came from any major new discovery. Instead, it came from a compilation of much more incremental discoveries and increased production from a number of countries. Meanwhile, demand is expected to continue to grow as more and more families buy cars worldwide.

A dipstick for the future

Some of the oil production to meet this future demand may come from alternative approaches — extracting oil from oil shale, for example, or liquefying natural gas or coal for fuel (see Nature 444, 677–678; 2006). These 'unconventional' sources of oil are some of the reasons that the CERA outlook is so optimistic. But many of the other sources, say peak-oil supporters, are not good alternatives — certainly not the sort of thing that can easily be used in vast quantities as a replacement for sweet Saudi crude, a high-quality oil with a low sulphur content, even if the price is right. In Alberta, Canada, geologists have focused on extracting oil from tar sands which could, in theory, help supply the world's needs for decades. But the process is expensive, both financially and environmentally; three barrels of water, for instance, are needed to produce each barrel of oil from the sands, and the production releases large amounts of greenhouse gases.

Thinking along those lines raises a parallel question: can we afford, in environmental terms, to put the peak off, and to keep turning oil into atmospheric carbon dioxide at an ever-increasing rate? From an environmental point of view, a peak might almost be welcome. If the subsequent rapid drop in production crashed the world economy, though — in the way that peak-oil supporters fear — those benefits might be hard to appreciate. What's more, the resources needed to develop the alternatives on which economic recovery would depend might not be available.

Those problems might be lessened if the peak could somehow be predicted. But Kaufmann, the economist, says not to expect any financial or other indicators. Oil prices didn't rise sharply or otherwise indicate an imminent depletion of US oil resources just before the peak in 1970, he says, mainly because the cost of production was staying stable. To predict peak oil in advance, "you need some kind of nice price signal," he says, "and we don't see any of those signs yet."

One place to look for such signals might conceivably be in the prices for which oil is bought and sold on the futures market. And at the moment, the New York mercantile exchange is settling on prices around US$67 a barrel. It's a price high enough to make alternative fuels interesting, but in real terms not remarkably high compared with long-term averages. If oil production does start to collapse, peak-oil supporters who want to stock their bunkers with luxury goods have the opportunity to make a killing, by buying tomorrow's oil comparatively cheap and selling it, when the time comes, much more dearly. If, that is, the time does actually come.


1. Hubbert, M. K. Shell Development Company Publication 95, June 1956.
2. Deffeyes, K. Hubbert's Peak: The Impending Oil Shortage (Princeton University Press, 2006).
3. Deffeyes, K. Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2006).

Note CERA is missing since they have zero peer reviewed publications.

"The current high price of oil — just over US$60 a barrel — provides an incentive for companies to start tapping into their reserves and pushing into more areas for discovery."

the $55/barrel we are seeing this week cant last for long, especially if the oil companies want a profit on top of their exploration and drilling costs.

could the falling price be an economic blow to iran, which is struggling with its dwindling oil revenues and lack of outside investment?

too many variables in the oil equation methinks

So Nature uses the words "peak-oil supporters who want to stock their bunkers" ...

Interesting, but unfortunate for those of us who had hoped that the peak oil and catastrophist connection might be broken.

The y2K-like allusion is painful.

The y2K-like allusion is painful.

Only because everyone forgets we did have an entire industry mobilized and every major entity acted on a mitigation plan and we will never really know what was avoided. If only we were working this problem with such caution. Pity geologists lack the mysitcal following of IT gurus.

"Only because everyone forgets we did have an entire industry mobilized and every major entity acted on a mitigation plan and we will never really know what was avoided."

Yeah, we know what was orderly replacement cycle in the tech industry, which would have allowed the industry to come down from the stupidly inflated bubble it was already at. Instead, the Y2K hoax provided it a marketing tool to race off to idiotic heights that were unimaginable before.

The "entire industry" mobilized, all make sales that were not needed, replace software that was just fine and sell hardware that would not need to be replaced for a decade, often replacing year old hardware that SHOULD NOT have been replaced for a decade.

It was the most idiotic waste of American capital, ingenuity, and business time in history, and no offense to you, urbanize, but it makes me sick to hear those talk of how the great genuises in the IT trade saved the world, when they did nothing of the sort....what they did was create an emergency, create a percieved "need" and then filled the mythical need with their products, most of which were inferior to the products they replaced, and walked away from a crashing tech industry with boatloads of ill gotten gain.

I have very little respect for the IT industry, which always promises more than they can deliver, and then get rich delivering less than anyone could have imagined was marketable and at a higher cost than anyone thinks the market can bear. Any comparison between "peak oil" and "Y2K" would be catastrophic to the integrity of those who are truly concerned about peak oil.

It is easy to claim that you avoided an emergency that never hapenned. But some causal connection must be made. Let me tell you what I did for a country: I had a a petite redhead for a mistress. The Berlin Wall fell while I was with her.
Now, if I had not had not had that little redhead for a mistress, the East Germans would still be in Communist serfdom! (I MEAN THEY BOTH OCCURED AT THE SAME TIME, DO YOU NEED MORE PROOF!!) But do I EVER get thanked for what I did for the German people and the future of misery I averted for them?
helll no, there's no respect in this world for a person's efforts....
Roger Conner known to you as ThatsItImout

if the IT industry says the world will end unless WE all buy brand new motherboards, then we can just go down to the local computer shop and pick up a new motherboard right? the IT industry makes big bucks in the process, whether or not the world actually ends.

now if the oil industry says the world will end unless THEY find more oil reserves, what do we do?

there is no money to be made by telling us there is an oil crisis.

Roger, lemme tell you about them red-headed gals. When its natural its God's warning, when its not natural its their warning, but in any case its a warning, and thats one of the reasons my hair is now grey. And, just knowing the truth doesn't stop me either.

But I sure have to agree with you about the veracity of the computer folks, and can even give a little credibility to your red-headed mistress story, a lot more than the neocons trying to give their patron saint Ronnie Reagan credit. My actual belief about the real cause for the downthrow of the Soviet empire is MTV. Once the young eastern Europeans and Russians could aim a satelite and get shows of tight clothing and rock and roll then Dialectical Materialism was doomed! It all comes down to the Holy Trinity of Western culture, Sex, Drugs and Rock n' Roll.

Gee, I have grey hair too...and I was blaming it on stress from now I know...but as you said, knowing won't stop me, a man has to have priorities in life....;-)

RC known to you as ThatsItImout

Only because everyone forgets we did have an entire industry mobilized [...]

I was one of those mobilized, and was on beeper patrol new year's eve, so I don't forget that part.

On the other hand, I did not then, and do not now, own a "bunker."

On the other hand, I did not then, and do not now, own a "bunker."

Yeah, but if you did would it look like this?

Or how abou this real-life private fortress in Washington state?

Nature labels PO a "theory". That says it all.

'Theory' means more to scientists than lay people, shouldn't they then start publishing research on it? I take it as progress, and thank Realist for reproducing full text (TOD will surely inform us to act if Nature gets nasty).