peak oil and resource depletion

Every individual gas or oil well, every oil field, and every oil-producing country experiences a similar lifecycle. After a well is drilled, extraction ramps up to its maximum sustained output and eventually begins to decline as the reservoir is depleted. Then we search for the next well, which is generally a little harder to find, a little more expensive to produce. The price of any fossil energy determines what reserves are economically recoverable, and technological innovations can temporarily reverse the decline or extend well life. But as with any finite, nonrenewable resource—coal, natural gas, uranium, etc.—depletion is inevitable at some point.

In recent years, a large body of literature has begun exploring the many ramifications of “peak oil”—the moment when aggregate global oil production reaches its apex. The late American geologist M. King Hubbert predicted in the mid-1950s that U.S. oil production would reach the top of its production curve around 1970 and then begin to decline. That assessment was remarkably prescient: America’s production of crude did peak in 1970 and has been generally declining since, despite the addition of new sources on the Alaska North Slope and in the Gulf of Mexico. The United States, the first great power of the oil age, was also the first nation to explore, exploit, and begin to deplete its conventional oil reserves.

Oil of course is a global commodity. From a global perspective, reaching Hubbert’s peak means that roughly half of the world’s total oil resources are still in the ground, waiting to be tapped. Practically, however, the second half of the global oil resource is more difficult to access, making it less profitable (in terms of net energy) and more environmentally destructive than the earlier-exploited reserves.

The exact timing of the global oil production peak will only be recognizable in hindsight. Some energy experts predict that the peak will occur sometime during the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Others project continued growth in oil extraction through 2050. Based on data published by the International Energy Agency, global conventional oil production has been essentially flat since 2004, despite record-high prices, and likely peaked in 2006. Increased production of unconventional oil (deepwater oil, tar sands, oil shale, and shale oil) is officially projected to help meet growth in demand in the near future, but some energy experts insist that new production from these sources will be unable to make up for accelerating declines in production from conventional oil fields. Whether peak oil has occurred, is imminent, or remains years or decades off makes little difference to the salient fact: The era of abundant, inexpensive oil is closing, and all the systems for modern life designed around that earlier reality are bound to be affected.