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Oil Prophets: Looking at World Oil Studies Over Time

in Peak Oil by

2nd International Workshop on Oil Depletion
Paris, France, May 26-27 2003
Organized by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas
The workshop was held at the Institut Francais du Pétrole, Rueil-Malmaison, Paris.

If information and other material from this proceeding are used the following reference should be given:
Proceedings of the 2nd International Workshop on Oil Depletion, Paris, France, May 26-27 2003,
Edited by K. Aleklett, C. Campbell, and J. Meyer

Oil Prophets: Looking at World Oil Studies Over Time
by Steve Andrews

All great truths begin as blasphemies.

George Bernard Shaw

Early reports of world oil assessments date back to the 1940s. In the intervening 60 years, the number of studies projecting Estimated Ultimately Recoverable (EUR) oil reached well over 50. A detailed search would undoubtedly lengthen the list that will be provided with this paper. How have their estimates fared? Given general agreement that we haven’t yet reached the halfway point in future production, it’s too early to offer definitive assessments. However, several factors stand out:

  • The learning curve. It took over a decade of effort for projections to emerge that are in line with lower-end projections of more recent studies. The learning curve has flattened.
  • For those individuals and groups who conducted multiple studies, their subsequent EUR numbers trend higher.
  • The analyses lack a common definitional framework. Beyond crude oil, what liquids are included? Heavy oil and tar sands? Some or all gas liquids? Polar and deepwater oil?
  • While the ability to locate, evaluate and extract oil in the field has drastically improved over time, analysts continue to be hampered by a lack of access to definitive data plus disagreements about assessment methodologies.

Striving to determine how many petroleum liquids we have left is a useful exercise, but primarily as a means to help determine when daily worldwide production is likely to peak. To that end, the key point is that “not all liquids resources are created equal;” many of the larger new fields are located in harsh and remote regions, in politically unstable environments, or require large energy inputs during extraction. Production rates and costs will vary dramatically. Since demand is somewhat fickle, identifying a year or range of years when liquids production will peak qualifies as part art, part science. That said, the paper will list estimates by “oil prophets” as to when they project that petroleum liquids production will peak. The estimates range from 1995 to 2025.

How have their estimates fared? Projections for an early peaking of production, during the mid-1990s through today, have not proven out. That provides critics with ammunition. We’re steadily approaching the time — 2010, plus or minus a few years — when the largest grouping of analysts projects that daily petroleum liquids production will peak. Peaking is a matter of “when ” not “if.”

The “grandfather of oil prophets” was M. King Hubbert, a former employee of Shell and the U.S. Geological Survey. First in 1948 and later in 1956, Hubbert projected an EUR figure for the U.S. that led him to project a peaking of U.S. oil production by 1970, plus or minus a year. By 1961, the USGS countered with an EUR figure nearly three times as large as Hubbert’s, implying that his near-term peaking projection would not be a problem. History proved Hubbert right and the USGS to be wishful thinkers. This paper draws a warning parallel between the Hubbert-USGS debate of the 1960s and the current disagreement: between those who project a world oil peaking around the year 2010 and those who accept the less worrisome EUR figures in the USGS’s year 2000 World Energy Study. (The USGS does not project a peaking date for world liquids production.)

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