What Ever Happened to Peak Oil?
The fourth in a weekly series of articles RCP is publishing through Election Day to explore policymakers’ decisions regarding this crucial sector of the economy
In 1957, Tulsa celebrated Oklahoma’s golden anniversary of statehood by placing in a concrete vault under the county courthouse a host of mid-20th century artifacts, including a 16mm movie, a six-pack of Schlitz better, and a woman’s purse with bobby pins, lipstick, and a pack of cigarettes that retailed for 50 cents a pack.
The beer was packed into the trunk of the time capsule’s centerpiece: a spanking new 1957 Plymouth Belvedere Sport Coupe. It was all to be unearthed in another 50 years, so the organizers included a commodity they figured might not be around in 2007: five quarts of motor oil and 10 gallons of gasoline.
For more than two generations, schoolchildren were assured by their science teachers, elected officials, and the media that the world’s supply of oil—the great fuel of America’s car culture, not to mention U.S. economic prosperity—was finite and would soon be exhausted.
This perception that we would run out of oil, and sooner rather than later, became more than a theory, one that went by the name “peak oil.” It became a kind of catechism. It was included in the prayer books of the environmental movement and incorporated into the legislative history and language of U.S. federal energy policy. It became an underlying basis for everything from Jimmy Carter’s admonition to turn down the nation’s thermostats, the enactment of 55-mile-per-hour speed limits, and federal mandates on gasoline standards for cars and trucks.
Today, the question is how policymakers should one react when the conventional wisdom is proven so spectacularly wrong, as is the case here.
It wasn’t that the peak-oil hypothesis defied common sense. And it wasn’t only environmental doomsayers making the claim. That gold-and-white Plymouth sports car was in a time capsule in the energy-friendly oil-patch city of Tulsa-by-God-Oklahoma. The closer one got to the oil industry, the more talk one heard of peak oil.
The theory itself was promulgated and then popularized by M. King Hubbert, a Shell Oil Co. geologist who predicted in a 1956 scientific paper that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s at 10 million barrels a day—and then begin a long inexorable decline. It came to be called “Hubbert’s peak” and eventually “peak oil.” When U.S. oil output did peak for a while in the early 1970s, this seemed confirmation of his theory. Americans stuck in long lines at the gas station during OPEC-induced shortages were in no mood to argue.
Later, Hubbert extrapolated the theory globally, arguing that worldwide peak oil production would occur in the 1990s. With help from doomsday futurists such as Paul Ehrlich, citing additional work by Hubbert, “peak oil” entered the non-energy sector lexicon as a shorthand for the inevitable exhaustion of the world’s natural resources, most especially fossil fuels.
But an unexpected development occurred in the 21st century, a century that the naysayers had said would be one with scarce crude oil resources: The supply instead exploded.
The apocalyptic future promised by the “peak oilers” simply did not come to pass. In 2004 the world produced nearly 84 million barrels of oil a day; by the second half of 2016, roughly 97 million barrels of oil is being produced daily, with more on the way as OPEC, Russian and U.S. oil producers do battle for market share with prices at the gasoline pump more than 40 percent lower than they were two years ago.
In 2007, the U.S. produced 5.1 million barrels of crude a day, while Oklahoma produced 175,000 barrels a day. A short eight years later, the U.S. produced 9.4 million barrels a day and Oklahoma had more than doubled its production to 432,000 barrels a day.
“Welcome to the world beyond Hubbert’s peak,” wrote Kenneth S. Deffeyes, a Princeton geologist who was a Shell Oil colleague of King Hubbert—and someone who had believed in peak oil himself.
Yet, old creeds die hard. Mason Inman, Hubbert’s biographer, believes that peak oil’s originator, who died in 1989, would still not concede that he was wrong. He was hardly alone. During the period of 2007-2008, many in the oil-trading community in New York and London became convinced that crude oil was entering a permanent period of shortage, and bid up prices well into the triple digits.
A decade later, a new generation of analysts is putting a fork in the peak-oil theory and calling it done, at least for the foreseeable future. Vast amounts of petroleum – perhaps trillions of barrels worldwide – have been unlocked from shale basins in North Dakota, Texas and elsewhere in North America, thanks to technological innovation. The combination of fast computers, 3D seismic surveys and especially hydraulic fracturing have enabled engineers to find heavily laden source rock thousands of feet underground. Drillers then send high-pressure water to break apart these oil-laden shale rock deposits, releasing oil and natural gas to the surface.
Earlier this month, analysts with asset manager Sanford C. Bernstein reported that the search term “peak oil” has fallen to near zero hits on Google after spiking for much of the past decade, and had even been surpassed by such search terms as “too much oil,” a far cry from the summer of 2008, when prices peaked above $140 a barrel.
“As interest in shale-led supply peaks, then naturally interest in the old concern of ‘Peak Oil’ has all but disappeared after the surge in focus on this during the mid-2000s,” wrote analysts Oswald Clint and Mark Tabrett in a note to Bernstein clients.
The Obama administration, while generally critical of the oil industry’s impact on the environment, never fully embraced the peak-oil theory, even though the president makes no secret of his desire to shift the U.S. economy away from fossil fuel dependence.
The closest Obama came to outright support was during a speech in Florida at the start of his re-election campaign in 2011 when he argued that “we can’t just drill our way to lower gas prices.” His statement happened at exactly the time when unconventional oil production began adding roughly 1 million barrels a day of growth each year through 2014, which in turn helped cause the decline of prices to their current levels.
By 2005, a spate of books such as “The Party’s Over” by Richard Heinberg and “Twilight in the Desert” by Matthew Simmons recycled the doctrine of scarcity. These authors gave credit to their patron saint Hubbert, whose wisdom they touted because his original estimate of U.S. oil production peaking in 1970 at 10 million barrels a day seemed so prescient. To these true believers, the high prices after 2004 were evidence of peak oil’s accuracy. Deffeyes actually picked the exact day – Thanksgiving 2005 – that global oil production would start its terminal decline.
One factor the peak-oil adherents never seemed to consider was that the supply of oil, like many commodities, was directly influenced by price—and that drillers and investors previously not searching for it would return to exploration if market prices became high enough.
“The biggest supporters of Peak Oil almost all are petroleum geologists; almost none of them are economists,” said Ronald Bailey, an author and science correspondent with Reason magazine who has written extensively on climate and energy. “They really don’t understand markets.”
One of the most prominent peak-oil critics, longtime energy analyst and author Daniel Yergin, called the price spike of the early 21st century the fifth “peak oil” panic since the late 1800s. He anticipated that prices would again fall as soon as enough investment began to target shale deposits in the U.S.
Perhaps the advent of hydraulic fracturing has upended the entire paradigm of oil development, possibly for good. Indeed, if markets were the only factor, that might be the case. But energy policy involves politics, too, and fracking has become a target of environmentalists, who have blocked it in France and Germany, and are seeking to do the same in many parts of the United States.
What has happened is that conservationists’ arguments have changed, but not their goals. For decades, environmentalists insisted that we had to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels because we had no choice—the resource was finite. Now, global warming apostles such as Jeffrey Sachs concede there is a choice. Sachs agrees that oil and gas resources are not in short supply, at least not in the short run, but says they should be left in the ground—and that we should stop looking for more.
This is a relatively new argument, one that seems to go against human nature. But Sachs is an economist, and he is making it directly. “Oil in the ground is a non-wasting asset,” he and his co-authors write in “Escaping the Resource Curse.” “…The ground just might be the safest place for the asset, especially if there exists the risk that governments may use revenue for their purposes rather than for the good of society.”
Meanwhile, Tulsa dug up its time capsule in 2007. The vault that was supposed to be able to withstand a nuclear attack couldn’t even keep out rust and sand, and the sports car was not drivable. It is now in a museum. Oklahomans are wrestling with earthquakes caused by the disposal of water produced by fracking. And the great debate over oil continues.