Friday, July 17, 2009

Peak Oil Theories

Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. The Peak oil point may actually be reached earlier if supply cannot increase fast enough to meet the rising demand. The effects of the peak oil point will be rising oil prices. M. King Hubbert was one of the first to use peak oil concepts in 1956 to predict that United States oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970.

Optimists in the oil industry argue that peak oil theorists often underestimate the amount of oil reserves. Also, optimists argue that technology should advance quickly enough to create new oil fields and extract oil from currently inaccessible prices. The rise in oil prices will only serve to increase the return from investing in new technology. It is argued that the current rise in oil prices has not yet been reflected in investment decisions. There is a significant time lag between oil prices and investment; the current high oil prices should lead to a boom in oil investment in the near future.

Pessimists (or realists as they like to call themselves) argue that the tipping point has already been reached or will be very soon and the current oil price rise is merely an indicator of future rises to come. Peak oil theorists, such as Mr Simmons, argue that many future predictions of supply increases are merely wishful thinking. Evidence by EIA suggesting the oil industry is close to 99% capacity, suggests that supply is very inelastic in relation to rising prices; this only goes to show that supply constraints are already a problem.

Everyone agrees that oil has to run out sometime. The debate is when this tipping point will occur. If it occurs soon, the price rises could cause widespread economic hardship and stunt global growth. If this scenario were likely to occur, it suggests there is market failure in the development of new technologies and therefore requires government intervention to speed new technologies. If, however, oil prices will stabilise it gives credence to those who believe free markets can develop the necessary technology.

It is worth noting that in 1999, the Economist, like many other economists and oil specialists predicted that oil supplies were plentiful and 'dirt cheap' oil would continue for the foreseeable future.The longer high oil prices are sustained, the more importance people will attach to peak oil theories.


Jan Brown said...

We just have to continue getting these peak oil theories into the heads of decision makers. We have to face up with it. Theories may be wrong by a few years or so but eventually it will happen.

Anonymous said...

Any discussion about oil prices over the next decade must include an attempt to quantify emerging economy demand as an important driver at the margin. Here is a simple thought experiment using Chinese demand to give some idea of the magnitude of the supply issues we face:
- China moves from 3 bbls/person/year to the South Korean per capita consumption level of 17 bbls/person/year
- Transition takes 30 years
- No peak in global production

In next 10 years we must find 44 million BOPD. If you superimpose peak production on top of this demand profile using the following parameters oil prices would increase approximately 250% in real terms over next 10 years:
- Oil demand elasticity of -0.3
- Current production 84 million BOPD, current price US$ 80
- Peak production 100 million BOPD
- Post peak decline rate of 3-4%

If you want to try the model for yourself using your own assumptions it can be found at: