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Publication date: Aug. 3, 2005

WHAT ARE "PEAK OIL" AND "PEAK GAS," REALLY?

The supply of fossil fuels is finite - but how much is actually left? This question has been debated by scientists and the energy industry in elaborate detail, but the answer depends on whom you ask.

The terms "peak oil" and "peak gas" refer to a theoretical benchmark intended to indicate when we're running out of fossil fuels. These terms are appearing more frequently in energy industry projections, government documents, and the business and consumer press. If you cover energy, you'll probably hear and repeat these phrases at some point. It's important to understand what they mean, and to choose appropriate and credible peak oil/gas assessments when citing statistics. All of peak fuel estimates are not created equal.

BASIC CONCEPT: The concept of peak oil is based on the Hubbert peak theory. M. King Hubbert was a US geophysicist who correctly predicted the 1970 peak of US petroleum production some 15 years in advance. Hubbert predicted that oil production, not just in the US but worldwide, would peak in what mathematicians call a "logistic curve" based on the rate of extraction, and then decline. The actual year of peaking can not be verified until after it has occurred. But Hubbert proved right in that US petroleum production has been declining steadily since 1970.

Wikipedia ("the encyclopedia that anyone can edit" - but don't dismiss this great resource too quickly) offers a robust and diverse discussion and critique of the original Hubbert approach.

WHY PEAK OIL/GAS MATTERS: Once a nation's (or the world's) oil and gas production has peaked, remaining supplies can be extracted only with increasing difficulty and expense, while production steadily declines. This would drastically increase the cost of energy, as well as petroleum products. In the long term, the global energy supply could drop despite rising demand. All of this could lead to major lifestyle changes, economic repercussions, and shifting international dynamics and tensions.

CONTROVERSY: WHEN? In all discussions of peak oil/gas, the most controversial issue is timing. When are we likely to reach this benchmark? This can determine the extent and severity of the impact of peak oil/gas - and also indicate the feasibility of various solutions. Estimates for global peak oil range from 2003 to 2040 or later.

On June 21, 2005, Reuters reported that Exxon claims North American natural gas production may have already peaked.

For decades, the prevailing view was that fossil fuel production peaks were receding continually into the future as higher prices and evolving technology brought new reserves online. For a statement of that view, see "It's Not the End of the Oil Age," Washington Post, July 31, 2005, by Daniel Yergin.

PRIMERS: Several organizations have published primers explaining peak oil/gas from various perspectives:

STATISTICAL RESOURCES: There are many different sources for peak oil/gas estimates for various nations.
  • US Energy Information Administration country analysis briefs. Each country's brief includes statistics relevant to peak oil/gas estimates, but few offer this information clearly. Expect to have to plow through a lot of numbers to cull peak oil/gas estimates.
  • USGS refers to "The Big Rollover" ("when the demand for oil outstrips the ability to produce it") rather than "peak oil," and discusses this issue in less dire tones than many environmental advocates and industry/economic analysts. See "Are We Running Out of Oil?" by L.B.Magoon.
  • Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas (ASPO). ASPO predicts that global peak oil will arrive in 2006, and then worldwide oil production will decline steadily by about 2-3% per year. Contact: Kjell Aleklett (Uppsala, Sweden), +46 704250604. May 2005 conference proceedings. Recent coverage of ASPO founder Colin Campbell in The Guardian (UK).


Last revised January 22, 2013

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