Blog Post

The End of Peak Oil?

With new oil discoveries and more effective extraction methods, the world is probably many decades away from peak oil.

A "Hubbert Curve" of world oil production, showing the peak in this decade, which was widely predicted just a few years ago. Click to enlarge.Photo Credit: Energy Watch Group, UK.

I first wrote about “peak oil” in 1998, reporting on an in-depth article in Scientific American by petroleum geologists Colin Campbell, Ph.D. and Jean Laherrère. Campbell and Laherrère believed that up to that time the world had consumed about 800 billion barrels of oil (BBO), and the known reserves of conventional crude oil totaled about 850 bbl in 1996 and another 200 BBO of conventional oil was yet to be discovered.

The result, they argued, was that the world would reach the half-way point—or the peak—in (conventional) world oil production within the first decade of the 21st century. That peak would occur, they argued, when cumulative world oil consumption reached about 925 BBO. (At that time the world was consuming 23.6 BBO per year.)

The significance of peak oil is that once that point is reached, so the proponents argue, annual oil production will begin an inexorable decline with a concomitant rise in cost. It would become too expensive to use oil for many uses and the “end of the oil age” would be in sight.

This was a resonant chord for a lot of people—myself included. The end of cheap oil would mean the shift to cleaner fuels and a slowing of the release of greenhouse gasses. It would result in improvements in fuel economy of vehicles; it would encourage homeowners to shift to cleaner heating fuels; and it would spur the development of plug-in hybrid vehicles that could be powered by solar electricity. “Peak Oil” became a rallying cry and the subject of dozens of books.

So where are we today, relative to peak oil?


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Statistics on world oil production, consumption, and reserves are tracked by various entities; one widely quoted source is the BP Statistical Review of World Energy; I am pulling numbers from the 2012 edition, which includes data through 2011. Unlike The Campbell and Laherrère statistics quoted above, the BP statistics include unconventional oil, such as tar sands and very deep deposits.

Proven reserves of oil, according to the BP report, totaled 1,653 BBO at the end of 2011. This compares with proven reserves in 2001 (ten years earlier) of 1,267 BBO and proven reserves in 1991 (twenty years earlier) of 1,033 BBO. In other words, since 1991, the proven reserves have increased 60%. (Some challenge the BP statistics; you can read a contrasting view in this post on The Oil Drum.)

Global consumption of oil in 2011 totaled 32.1 BBO, up from 26.1 BBO in 1996 (according to the BP statistics). As a point of reference, 32.1 billions of barrel per year converts to about 1,000 barrels per second. (One barrel is defined as 42 gallons, so that’s about 42,000 gallons per second.) Big numbers.

Since the end of 2011, as more deep-sea Brazilian oil and oil recovered through hydraulic fracturing (fracking) comes online, I’m guessing that the rate of increase in proven reserves will only increase for the next few decades.

Furthermore, I predict that the once all-important distinction between “conventional” and “unconventional” oil will break down over time. As technologies improve for very deep drilling (measured in miles rather than feet), such wells will become more common. Fracking will become more common as a strategy for rejuvenating oil fields that had been considered depleted. I don't like this, particularly given the huge risks and environmental impacts of such extraction methods, but I fear that it's the reality.

Reduce Oil Production for Other Reasons

What all this means, I believe, is that we should shift away from the motivation of peak oil as our reason for promoting alternatives. A peak in world oil production—due to supply limits—just isn’t going to happen anytime soon, perhaps not even in our lifetimes. We need to use other arguments for curtailing our consumption of oil and other fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas.

Fossil fuels are highly polluting in their extraction, combustion, and (especially with coal) waste disposal. More importantly, these energy sources release into the atmosphere vast quantities of carbon dioxide, the most significant of the greenhouse gasses that are contributing to global climate change.

While the political world has shifted away from climate change as an issue, I believe that is a very short-lived phenomena that will evaporate as quickly as those rare showers on Nebraska corn fields this summer. It wouldn’t surprise me if climate change returns as an issue of debate as soon as the November elections this year.

Temperature records are being broken by the thousands this year, with July the hottest month ever recorded in the U.S.—going back to 1895, when widespread recordkeeping began. Drought covers 63% of the nation, and is driving up the cost of food worldwide (see the Drought Monitor, which is updated weekly). Dry conditions are fueling record fires in Colorado and elsewhere. Scientists are almost universally accepting of the role humans have played in creating this climate change; as more of the public feels the effects I believe they will force politicians to finally stand up and do something about it.

Forget about peak oil. Let’s get on with dealing with climate change.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

Published August 15, 2012

(2012, August 15). The End of Peak Oil?. Retrieved from

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August 29, 2012 - 2:25 pm

Using California's Cap N Trade bill ("establishes a system of market-based declining annual aggregate emission limits") as a national model will be just as divisive and unproductive as adopting Romney's market-based health insurance mandate (first proposed in 1989 by the Heritage Foundation) as a national model.

August 28, 2012 - 8:49 pm


I have a lot of respect for Richard, have heard him speak, and have read "The Party's Over" some years ago. I enjoyed the video. He and I have the same goal: to dramatically reduce oil consumption and the resultant carbon dioxide emissions from that consumption.

The difference is that I believe that we can't afford to depend on limits to our oil supply to curtail our consumption of it. I fear that, as Richard says, with higher prices it will be cost-effective to extract harder-to-get and more environmentally damaging deposits. These are the unconventional sources of oil, whose inclusion in statistics is debated.

If we (those who want to reduce oil consumption) continue saying that oil is running out (or reaching a near-term peak), we will lose credibility among the mainstream when they hear that, quite the opposite, production is increasing. Statistics on oil production and consumption are readily available, and I (respectfully) disagree with Richard that presenting those numbers is a PR battle.

Of course, on a geologic time scale, we are reaching a peak in oil production. If you look 10,000 years into the past and 10,000 years into the future and graph oil production over that period, it will look like a needle-sharp spike. So, yes, of course peak oil is a real think--it's just that the scale is slightly different fromwhat Richard and Colin Cambell and others were telling us it would be ten years ago.

I think we need to accept that oil isn't running out (any time soon) and get on with other reasons to stop using it and other motivations to do so. What we really need is a carbon tax. That's the topic of some future blog--when I want to take on the ire of the no-taxes crowd.

August 29, 2012 - 2:45 pm


Thanks so much for your thoughtful response.  I look forward to your future blog about a carbon tax.  I'd especially like to hear your take on James Hansen's "tax and dividend" model v. a simple carbon tax with no designated allocation and, in general, on carbon tax v. cap and trade?  Should we focus now on making California's AB32 (which goes into effect next year) a success and then on using it as the basis for a federal model, a la Massachusetts and health care?

August 28, 2012 - 2:13 pm

Alex, I'd like to hear your response to the argument in this video recently put out by Richard Heinberg at the Post Carbon Institute countering the kind of "End of Peak Oil" revelation you seem to be posing. 

I have great respect for both you and Richard Heinberg, and you seem to be at odds on this issue.  Or maybe not?

August 17, 2012 - 12:25 pm

The Hubbard Curve and the concept of peak oil are no less real because economics and politics have encouraged the harvesting of the remaining, hard-to-extract (and more ecologically damaging) reserves. Human industrial civilization is on the downslide of a carbon-based economy.

While it seems that climate change is the most pressing and dire outcome of our high-energy, carbon-addicted lifestyle, it is one of many forms of ecological (mis)engineering that result from our extravagance, including the generation of billions of tons of petrochemical toxins, air and water pollution, water depletion, soil depletion, rain-forest decimation, loss of ocean fisheries and coral reefs, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and the sixth great extinction of species.

There is certainly good reason to consider a shift to alternative, solar-based, energy generation, but there is a mythology among the "green" community that is as dangerously misleading as predictions of peak oil global armageddon.

For the foreseeable future, the manufacture, delivery, installation and maintenance of alternative energy technologies - including PV and windpower - require carbon-based energy inputs. While it's true that the initial "embodied" carbon energy in such technologies (as well as the use of petrochemical foam insulation to save future HVAC energy) is eventually replaced by carbon-neutral energy, climate change is not a future problem but a current catastrophe.

Not only are we beginning to live into the very real daily impacts of climate change - in the form of weather extremes, floods, droughts and wildfires - but the carbon we put into the atmosphere today, according to a study by Univ. of Chicago geophysicist David Archer and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institute for Science, published in Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Sciences and explained in the book, The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth's Climate (Princeton University Press, 2008), suggests that global warming will continue for millennia even if we stopped all CO2 production today.

So the bottom line to save the planet has far less to do with which kind of energy we use as it does how much total energy (and material resources) we consume. According the the unviersal Second Law of Thermodynamics, all energy transformation results in entropy, or waste heat and molecular disorder. Jeremy Rifkin warned us in 1980, in his seminal book Entropy, that "civilization creates islands of order amidst seas of disorder". It is not just our carbon addiction that must stop, but the entire human culture based on material affluence and energy use.

August 17, 2012 - 11:15 am

Whether it be peak oil or plateau oil, I do expect Brent is correct that we are going to see overall rises in the real cost to extraction, however that is not likely to lead to the rapid transformation of our energy infrastructure that we need. We don't pay the true cost of oil at the pump now and due to both corporate control of the political system and to consumer dependence on very imbedded fossil fueled systems, the pressure to keep subsidizing the industry in the US and abroad will remain high, confounding the market signals and keeping consumption under what the rising prices might dictate.

The fundamental problem is that there simply is not room in the atmosphere for the amount of carbon in the current reserves without paying a serious price in livability of the planet for humans and our market system too broken for pricing signals to be sufficient to force the transition away from carbon based fuels. It is going to take strong political will that plays off the natural feedback signals to take the necessary preemptive action to address climate change. Mother Nature is providing plenty of fodder for that this year

August 15, 2012 - 11:09 pm

The appropriateness of your article title depends greatly on what you mean by "Peak Oil".  I will grant that these recent findings probably rule out the "doomer" scenario of rapid production collapse and oil running to hundreds or thousands of dollars per barrel.

Thing is, that scenario (though common in some circles) was never really credible in the first place.  Even with conventional oil, the amount that is "available" is in large part a funcition of price - as the price goes up, previously shut-in wells become economical again at the higher price point.  The result is, as many expected, a bumpy plateau of production rather than a sharp cliff.

(Note that production is only a function of economics to a degree.  There are also geologic limits on the rate of production from a given well. It is possible to push the well to a higher rate of production, but this can actually damage the well structure such that, as the rate of extraction goes up, the total available for extraction actually goes down.)

However, the fact that we have, apparently reached the peak (or, accurately, the plateau) of conventional oil production means that we have reached the end of cheap oil.  And for practical purposes, this is the equivalent of most non-doomer "peak oil" scenarios.

The  problem is that, while the unconventional oil (and biofuels) are available, they are not cheap to produce.  This is not surprising - we very naturally pumped all the easy stuff first, so what is left is hard to get at.  And while technological advances may help control price escalation to an extent, I don't believe they will ever make the alternative liquid fuel sources cheap.  Many of them (oil sands, kerogen shale even more so, and all biofuels which require distillation) are intrinsically energy intensive processes.  They have poor enery return ratios, in many cases for reasons which are fundamental to the production process involved, and as such, they can never be cheap on a sustained basis because if the price drops too low they will no longer be economical to produce.

So while it's true that peak oil is not likely to provide a quick end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, oil isn't going to get cheap again, ever.  Which means that oil-dependent economies will remain under steady and increasing pressure - the price of oil touches on every part of the economy and so it acts in a way analogous to aerodynamic drag.  The pressure at any one point may be low, but the cumulative effect is very significant.

For more on this topic, I recommend writings by Robert Rapier (an engineer formerly of the oil world, now working on pyrolysis-based bioenergy) on the subject of what he calls "Peak Lite":