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Peak Oil: Facts At Your Fingertips

Peak Oil: Facts At Your Fingertips

By Peter Goodchild

18 February, 2009

The following may indicate some of the more important “names and numbers” in the complex issue of peak oil and its consequences. Besides that of oil production itself, one curve for which the numbers are significant is that of human population, since the interaction of those two curves will be momentous. Other vital sets of figures are those in the quest for alternative energy and those for post-oil survival.

We should first keep in mind that everything in the modern world is dependent on oil. From oil and other hydrocarbons we get fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, lubricants, plastic, paint, synthetic fabrics, asphalt, pharmaceuticals, and many other things. On a more abstract level, we are dependent on oil and other hydrocarbons for manufacturing, for transportation, for agriculture, for mining, and for electricity. When oil goes, our entire industrial society will go with it. There will be no means of supporting the billions of people who now live on this planet. Above all, there will be insufficient food.

Oil Production and Hubbert’s Curve

Global oil production went from about 0.1 billion barrels in 1900 to about 4.2 in 1950, to about 27.0 in 2000. According to most estimates, the peak was (or will be) around the year 2010. The rest is a steep drop: 20 billion barrels in 2020, 15 in 2030, 9 in 2040, 5 in 2050.

Real study of oil production began in the 1950s, with the American geologist M. King Hubbert. He found that, as the years went by, oil production in the United States was decreasing, mainly in the sense that new discoveries became fewer and smaller. The changes in production could be plotted on a graph, forming the left side of a bell curve. Looking at the graph, Hubbert could see that the peak of American oil production would be about 1970; after that, there would be a permanent decline. He was right.

Hubbert also reasoned that the same sort of pattern must be true of oil production in the whole world, not just in the United States. Plotting the available data, he calculated that global production would peak in 1995. He was approximately right: in 1960, about 7 billion barrels were being produced yearly, and in 2000 production had increased to about 27 billion, but the peak is close to that latter date.

In the entire world, then, there are perhaps a trillion barrels of oil left to extract — which may sound like a lot, but isn’t. When newspapers announce the discovery of a deposit of a billion barrels, readers are no doubt amazed, but they are not told that such a find is only two weeks’ supply. And the only event that could ease the demand for oil would be a global depression; reduced oil consumption would then be part of the overall collapse of the world’s economy.

Studies of Peak Oil

About 20 or 30 major studies have been done, and the consensus is that “peak oil” is somewhere between the years 2000 and 2020. Within that period, a middle date seems rather more likely. Among the many who have contributed to that debate are Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Colin J. Campbell, Jean Laherrère, Dale Allen Pfeiffer, and Matthew R. Simmons, and the Association for the Study of Peak Oil did its own appraisals in 2007 and 2008.

The main anomalies are two American government forecasts: those of the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the United States Geological Survey. However, Robert L. Hirsch of the United States Department of Energy in 2005 produced “The Inevitable Peaking of World Oil Production,” the famous “Hirsch report,” which begins with the sentence, “The era of plentiful, low-cost petroleum is reaching an end.” He goes on to say that “oil production is in decline in 33 of the world’s 48 largest oil-producing countries.”

The Myth of Alternative Energy

As John Gever et al. explain in Beyond Oil, and as Walter Youngquist explains equally well in GeoDestinies, alternative sources of energy will never be very useful, for several reasons, but mainly because of a problem of “net energy”: the amount of energy output is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy input. All alternative forms of energy are so dependent on the very petroleum that they are intended to replace that the use of them is largely self-defeating and irrational. Alternative sources ultimately don’t have enough “bang” to replace 30 billion annual barrels of oil — or even to replace more than the tiniest fraction of that amount.

Petroleum is required to extract, process, and transport almost any other form of energy; a coal mine is not operated by coal-powered equipment. It takes “oil energy” to make “alternative energy.”

The use of unconventional oil (shale deposits, tar sands, heavy oil) poses several problems besides that of net energy. Large quantities of conventional oil are needed to process the oil from these unconventional sources, so net energy recovery is low. The pollution problems are considerable, and it is not certain how much environmental damage the human race is willing to endure. Even if these problems could be solved, the human population will continue to increase, and developing nations will be trying to industrialize. With unconventional oil we are, quite literally, scraping the bottom of the barrel.

More-exotic forms of alternative energy are plagued with even greater problems. Fuel cells cannot be made practical, because such devices require hydrogen derived from fossil fuels (coal or natural gas), if we exclude designs that will never escape the realm of science fiction; if fuel cells ever became popular, the fossil fuels they require would then be consumed even faster than they are now. Biomass energy (perhaps from wood, animal dung, peat, corn, or switch grass) requires impossibly large amounts of land and still results in insufficient quantities of net energy, sometimes even negative quantities. Hydroelectric dams are reaching their practical limits. Wind and geothermal power are only effective in certain areas and for certain purposes. Nuclear power will soon be suffering from a lack of fuel and is already creating serious environmental dangers.

Solar Power

The current favorite for alternative energy is solar power, but proponents must close their eyes to all questions of scale. Dr. Gerhard Knies, the director of TREC, the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation, points out that the world’s deserts have an area of 36 million km2, and that the solar energy they receive is equivalent to 300 zetajoules (ZJ). As he also explains, at an 11% electrical-conversion rate this would result in a total of 33 ZJ. The EIA’s “World Consumption of Primary Energy” tells us that total energy consumption in 2005 was approximately 0.5 ZJ.

However, by using those numbers we can calculate that to meet the world’s present energy needs by using solar power, we would need an array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) with a size of 0.5/33 x 36 million km2, which is 360,000 km2 (140,400 square miles) — a machine the size of Germany. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials — a self-defeating process.

Oil Depletion and Famine

The world’s population went from about 1.6 billion in 1900 to about 2.5 in 1950, to about 6.1 billion in 2000. It is now (2009) approaching 7 billion. The skyrocketing of population is not merely coincident with the skyrocketing of oil production. It is the latter that actually causes the former: that is to say, oil is the main source of energy within industrial society. It is only with abundant oil that a large population is possible. It was industrialization, improved agriculture, improved medicine, the expansion of humanity into the Americas, and so on, that first created the modern rise in population, but it was oil that allowed human population to grow as rapidly as it is now doing.

In future years, human population will collapse whenever there is a difference between the initial population and the carrying capacity. The equation is very simple: (A) the previous year’s population (in billions) can be subtracted from (B) the carrying capacity (in billions) to give us (C) the number of deaths (in billions) by famine. The data for carrying capacity can be inserted by looking at similar data for oil production and population in the years 1900 to 2000. Some samples of future years are as follows.

2031 (oil 13.8 Gbbl): (A) 3.5000 minus (B) 3.4465 equals (C) 0.0535

2032 (oil 13.2 Gbbl): (A) 3.4465 minus (B) 3.3937 equals (C) 0.0527

2033 (oil 12.6 Gbbl): (A) 3.3937 minus (B) 3.3418 equals (C) 0.0519

In other words, there will be about 50 million deaths every year from famine directly due to oil depletion, with a total of about 4 billion deaths by the end of this century.

The approach of massive famine is not just a theoretical matter. The FAO, the Earth Policy Institute, and other organizations have shown that world food supplies per capita have already been declining for several years.

The Post-Oil World: Survival Gardening

Localized agriculture might be possible in countries that have an adequate ratio of population to arable land. In a community that lived mainly on cultivated plants, at least 1/4 hectare of farmland per person would be needed. For example, one could live — barely — on about 400 kg of dried non-sweet corn (maize) per year. Without synthetic fertilizer and mechanized irrigation, however, but the yield per hectare of corn is not likely to be over 1,500 kg, far less than that of petroleum-based agriculture, as Pimentel points out.

Unfortunately only about 13% of the world’s land is suitable for crops, no matter what techniques are used, and most of that land is already being farmed. Nevertheless, people have drifted into urban areas to such an extent over the years that many rural areas now have pockets of abandoned but arable land.

As any standard textbook on soil science will show, good soil has (1) sufficient humus and (2) adequate amounts of about 16 elements, especially nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — naturally occurring or otherwise. Compost and animal manure can provide humus, but they will do little to make up for missing elements. “Organic gardening,” therefore, is sometimes little more than folklore, primarily for the reasons mentioned in the previous two sentences.

In terms of the immediate future, a practical idea would be to have the soil on any potential farmland tested by a government-approved laboratory. While prices are still low enough, the landowner could then go to a rural farm-supply shop and buy a lifetime’s quantity of high-grade fertilizer. Obviously in later decades any solutions of this kind would not be possible, and techniques of a more primitive sort would be required.


BP Global Statistical Review of World Energy. Annual.

Campbell, Colin J. The Coming Oil Crisis. Brentwood, Essex: Multi-Science Publishing Company, 2004.

— and Jean H. Laherrère. “The End of Cheap Oil.” Scientific American, March 1998.

Catton, William R., Jr. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Deffeyes, Kenneth S. Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.

-----. Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. 2nd. ed. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003.

“Earth Policy Indicators.” Washington, D.C.: Earth Policy Institute.

Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy. “Renewables in Global Energy Supply. An IEA Fact Sheet.” January 2007.

-----. “World Consumption of Primary Energy by Energy Type and Selected Country Groups.”

-----. “World Energy Reserves.”

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “Food Outlook: Global Market Analysis, November 2007.”

Gever, John, et al. Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades. 3rd ed. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1991.

Hirsch, Robert L. “The Inevitable Peaking of World Oil Production.” Bulletin 16.3, The Atlantic Council of the United States, October 2005

Knies, Gerhard. “Global Energy and Climate Security through Solar Power from Deserts.” 2006. Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation in co-operation with The Club of Rome.

Pfeiffer, Dale Allen. The End of the Oil Age. Napa, California: Lulu Enterprises, 2004.

Pimentel, David, and Carl W. Hall, eds. Food and Energy Resources. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, 1984.

----- and Marcia H. Pimentel. Food, Energy, and Society. 3rd ed. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 2007

Simmons, Matthew R. Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2006.

United Nations Population Fund. “World Population to 2300.” New York: United Nations.

Youngquist, Walter. “Alternative Energy Sources.” Oil Crisis.

-----. Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals. 2nd ed. Portland, Oregon: National Book Company, Education Research Assoc., 2008.

Peter Goodchild is the author of “Survival Skills of the North American Indians.” He is temporarily living in the Sultanate of Oman.