Peak Experts

warnings from geologists

Colin Campbell

as we move beyond the age of oil and beyond the economy that is driven by the age of oil, we enter an entirely new world - there really are frankly no experts anywhere who can come forward and say exactly what we do in this situation - it is entirely new to everybody's experience - there are no investors who can say this is a good investment in this situation, there are no politicians who can say this is how we should behave in this situation, even in a humble business way there is no business that can plan its future because every single aspect of its future is going to change and so we are left with a sort of vacuum
-- Colin Campbell, founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil
quoted in Peak Oil: Imposed by Nature Colin Campbell
Peak oil is a turning point for Mankind. The economic prosperity of the 20th Century was driven by cheap, oil-based energy. Everyone had the equivalent of several unpaid and unfed slaves to do his work for him, but now these slaves are getting old and won't work much longer. We have an urgent need to find how to live without them.
It is stressed that we are not facing a re-run of the Oil Shocks of the 1970s. They were like the tremors before an earthquake, although serious enough, tipping the World into recession. Now, we face the earthquake itself. This shock is very different. It is driven by resource constraints, not politics - although of course politics do enter into it. It is not a temporary interruption but the onset of a permanent new condition.

"The poor countries will bear most of the burden [of high oil prices]. But the United States will be in serious difficulties. There is, I fear, a strong danger of some ill-considered military intervention to try to secure oil."
-- Colin Campbell, petrogeologist,
Association for the Study of Peak Oil
, December

The United States is perhaps the most vulnerable to the coming crisis having farther to fall after the boom years, which themselves were largely driven by foreign debt and inward investment. The growing shortfall in oil supply since its own peak of production was made good by soaring oil imports, now contributing more than half its needs, and a move to gas. The rate of import cannot, however, be maintained as other countries pass their own production peaks, putting ever more pressure on the Middle East. The North Sea is now at peak, with the UK being off 7% in 2000 and 16% off October to October, meaning that production is set to fall by one-half in ten years. For every barrel imported into the United States, there will be one less left for anyone else, a situation inevitably leading to international tensions.
The move to gas proved to be only a short-lived palliative. Gas depletes differently from oil. An uncontrolled gas well would blow it all away in one big puff. Production is, accordingly, capped by infrastructure and market, leaving a large, unseen balloon of readily available spare capacity. In a privatized market, trading on a daily basis, production becomes cheaper and cheaper as the original costs are written off and as this almost free spare capacity is drawn down. There were no market signals of the approach of the cliff at the end of the plateau. It accordingly came without warning, causing prices to surge through the roof, and bringing power blackouts to California. Canada is trying to make good the shortfall, but its stocks are falling fast too.
The US has to somehow find a way to cut its demand by at least five percent a year. It won’t be easy, but as the octogenarian said of old age “the alternative is even worse”. Europe faces the same predicament as North Sea production plummets. Although it may draw on gas from Russia, North Africa and the Middle East to see it over the transition, assuming that new pipelines can be built in time, that creates a new and unwelcome geopolitical dependency.
All of this is so incredibly obvious, being clearly revealed by even the simplest analysis of discovery and production trends. The inexplicable part is our great reluctance to look reality in the face and at least make some plans for what promises to be one of the greatest economic and political discontinuities of all time. Time is of the essence. It is later than you think.
--Colin J. Campbell; "Peak Oil: A Turning for Mankind"


"We've arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology.  We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology.  This is a prescription for disaster.  We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."
-- Carl Sagan

"Production" is a nice Orwellian "newspeak" kind of term: we aren't really producing oil, any more than miners "produce" silver. We just pump it out of the ground. It was produced from sunlight by vegetation 300 million years ago.
-- "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: Waking Up to Personal and Global Transformation," by Thom Hartmann (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998), p. 20


Kenneth Deffeyes

This much is certain: no initiative put in place starting today can have a substantial effect on the peak production year. No Caspian Sea exploration, no drilling in the South China Sea, no SUV replacements, no renewable energy projects can be brought on at a sufficient rate to avoid a bidding war for the remaining oil. At least, let's hope that the war is waged with cash instead of with nuclear weapons.
So when does world oil production peak and then start downward? That's the big enchilada. You can use the spacing between the recent production dots and see that four or five more dots will carry us to the plus sign that marks the midpoint. Once we draw that straight line through the year 2000 dot, the logistic curve is fully defined. The mathematical peak falls at the year 2004.7; call it 2005. However, I'm not betting the farm that the actual year is 2005 and not 2003 or 2006. The top of the mathematical distribution is smoothly curved, and there is a fair amount of jitter in the year-to-year production. Remember, the center of the best-fit U.S. curve was 1975 and the actual single peak year was 1970. There is nothing plausible that could postpone the peak until 2009. Get used to it.
--Kenneth S. Deffeyes; Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage; p. 149,157-8.


All our modern science confirms the ancient wisdom, technology and value judgments go together. The illusion of miracles and unlimited free gifts from nature were spawned by the too rapid unlocking of the earth's reserve treasures, a new Fall. We must be well down the path of change to reduce oil dependence during the first decade of the new century. The global day of reckoning will soon be upon us and those nations not prepared will suffer greatly.
--Brian J. Fleay; The Decline of the Age of Oil; p.140


Buzz Ivanhoe

Americans have always been largely isolated from the world's problems, and have had no recent experience of the wars and strife that affect so much of the world. "It can't happen here" is their instinctive reaction. A tankful of gasoline is regarded as their unalienable right, but as shortages grow after world peak, they will have to compete with the rest of the world for precious supplies. I am doing my best to alert people to what is coming. I think that there is much that could be usefully be done, given the understanding and political will. It is a very grave situation that we face. It is madness to ignore it.
--L.F. "Buzz" Ivanhoe, The Coming Oil Crisis; p. 86.

We have depleted most of our high-quality resources; the supply obtainable from low-quality deposits is largely limited by the supply of fuel; and the supply of fuel itself is bound by these constraints.
For the past fifty years at least, the efficiency with which the United States converts energy to goods and services has been primarily determined by the types of fuels consumed and household fuel consumption; over the last ten years fuel prices have also played an important role. For the future, expected changes in the fuel mix will depress the nation's energy efficiency, and the ability of households to reduce fuel consumption without also reducing living standards will be constrained. Rising real fuel prices would encourage greater energy efficiency and offset the effects of declining fuel quality but for obvious reasons do not represent a Utopian solution. Technology-based, painless ways of increasing the nation's energy efficiency are possible but unprecedented.
A substantially reduced rate of population growth in the United States would substantially reduce (but not eliminate) the pressures on the nation's resource base.
The quality of the nation's agricultural resources is deteriorating at an alarming rate, jeopardizing the United States' ability to continue as a food exporter. The decline is the result not only of modern farming methods, but, just as important, also of the consumer desires that determine what and how much food farmers must grow. As a result, farm bankruptcies are accelerating and the rural economy itself is in danger.
Therefore, if we want to be sure that people forty years from now will have enough fuel and other resources to maintain material living standards at a level near ours, we must either cut back our consumption of resources now or achieve some unprecedented technological breakthroughs to increase the efficiency with which we use resources.
The times we live in are often called the Space Age or the Atomic Age or the Computer Age. Yet while the technologies from which these names are derived have often dominated the headlines, they have had only a peripheral effect on our daily lives. How many of us have ever been in space, or known anyone who has been in space, or even used anything that has been in space? Nuclear reactors supply less than four percent of the nation's energy, and nuclear weapons have changed the daily lives and work of only a handful of people in the United States (although they've changed the way in which many more think about the future). Many people now interact with computers in one way or another, but again, the essence of our lifestyles today is little different from that of thirty years ago.
The substance that has affected the lives of more people in more ways than anything else in history has not yet lent its name to an Age. But, centuries hence, historians (or archeologists) will almost certainly refer to the period of 1900 to 2050 as the Oil Age. Oil has transformed practically everything -- our jobs, our homes, our entertainment, our environment. Oil has made the 55 gallon drum probably the world's commonest and most widely distributed object. It is certain that oil has made the United States the world's biggest economic, agricultural, and military power, and the Soviet Union the second biggest. The United States (and Western civilization) is oil.
But people who are voters and decision makers today (including the authors of this book) will live to see the end of the Oil Age. There are only ten or twenty years of per capita economic growth remaining before declining oil and gas production begins to drag the economy downhill. When that occurs, so much time and effort will have to be spent dealing with the week-to-week contingencies involved in meeting people's basic needs that it will be impossible to plan a post-Oil Age economy. Thus, we have now a small and closing window of continued prosperity during which we enjoy the luxury of deciding, consciously and carefully, what sort of economy we would like to have after the oil runs out. Moreover, this window of prosperity allows us to make long-term investments in fuel-saving and fuel-producing technologies with the least pain. Such investments will have to be made sometime: it would be far better to make them while we're still getting richer instead of while we're getting poorer.
It's probably impossible to overestimate the difficulty involved in making people think about and plan for a lean future during a fat present. The task would be made easier if we knew more about the nation's carrying capacity, if we could say with a measure of certainty, "Here is what the future will look like if we pursue strategy A; this is what will happen with strategy B." This book is an early step toward that goal. Further steps, however, will require far more complete and accurate data than is currently available. It is very difficult to track energy flows through the economy because no one keeps consistent, integrated records. And, unfortunately, the one entity with an explicit mission "to promote the general welfare" has, under the Reagan administration, abrogated its responsibility to keep such records by curtailing its data collection in the name of deficit reduction. This shortsighted policy should be reversed forthwith if the United States is to have any chance of making a smooth, equitable transition away from oil and gas.
There should be little doubt that we will miss the Oil Age. The economic superstructure that has grown up around the exploitation of this resource --the concentration of ownership and distribution-- has been widely criticized, and oil has contributed substantially to the pollution problem; but, in its heyday, it was more abundant and more versatile than any other fuel we have or can expect to have in the next forty years. Nostalgia for the hulking, all-steel cars of the 1940s and 1950s that the Oil Age gave us is already evident, and as we give up more and more of the goodies the Oil Age brought us, sighs for the "good old days" will become louder. But there is no doubt whatever that the Oil Age will soon be over and a new age --the Photovoltaic Age, perhaps-- will dawn.
-- John Gever; Beyond Oil: the Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades; 1986; pp. 247-249

The phrase "dinosaur blood" is used in the agricultural world to express appreciation for the ability of petroleum products to power machinery and do work for the farmer. Few are those who have experienced with their own working hours what heavy machinery can make more easily possible, such as the moving of dirt or the harvesting and threshing of a field of wheat, which would require so much hard physical human labor were this energy not available, and fewer even yet are those who have also done that work with only their own strength. It is as if the powerful bodies of the dinosaurs were harnessed in the fields.
Civilization has built its towering structure upon the possibility of few feeding the many. Too little thought is given to the uniqueness of this gift from the ancient past; we do not distinguish between frivolous use and an enduring worthwhile creation. We do not sufficiently concern ourselves with the sustainability of our relations with the planet and its energies.

Dinosaur Blood
This graph is about oil, or petroleum. It is said to have been created from over 200 million years of sunlight falling upon the algae in the sea. In my poetic heart though, I know it is the Blood of the Dinosaurs, for it was made when they roamed the Earth. They gathered together when they knew it was time to die and their blood oozed into the soil; with time changing into reddish-black oil. They could not remain the main form of life upon the Earth because of the inferior structure of their bodies; they were not able to become intelligent enough to stop their destruction from a monster meteor, or at least that's what now is thought.
But they could leave behind something of great value for the more able creatures that would someday come into being. They could leave behind the strength of their massive muscles, that moving of their powerful bodies through those different forests and jungles for so many millions of years. They left behind the gift of their blood, that we now use in our machinery as gasoline and diesel fuel instead of our own weak muscles, that we use to easily make so many million plastic and other products. They gave it to us so that we might have a chance to build a beautiful and intelligent world. That way, they would proudly become a part of us, and go forever with us into the future that they were denied.
For those who aren't used to reading graphs, the thick black line is the estimated amount of dinosaur blood that will be finally recovered from the Earth. 2000 billion barrels. That is a higher number by 150 billion than some of the leading experts now claim.

They'll be Digging it Out with Spoons!

No one is saying that someday there will not be even a single drop that can be gotten out of the Earth, for always there will be that much. What is most important for now is when we have to start taking out less because we've already taken out so much. It's like picking fruit off the tree, the low hanging fruit on the outside edges can be gotten quickly and easily, the harder to reach and more hidden takes a lot more time to pick. And you have to really study and take your time to make sure you get those very last ones.
The thin line that begins at 1900 shows how fast the dinosaur blood is being exhausted every year, and looks like the peak is at about 27 billion barrels. Then, it turns down and takes a nose dive. It doesn't matter how expensive it is, cause when it starts to run out there's just no stopping it. That is one of the hardest things in the world for people to believe; they think "why shoot, if it cost even a 100 dollars a barrel they'd be digging it out with spoons". It all kind of depends on what you use the blood for and the way you've got your society built. If it takes one barrel of blood to grow and haul the food from the farm for a week's supply of food for the dude who's doing the spooning, and he can only grub out one barrel a week, anybody can see that it's just not going to happen on any big scale. If you only wanted the dark blood to put in a crystal tube then you could pay whatever you could afford, but when you use it to make everything else work, there's a whole lot of difference between getting it the easy way and getting it the hard way. When it begins that nose dive is the very moment when it changes from the easy way to the hard way. Before that time comes we had better make sure we're not wasting the gift; that what we are building with it is going to last for a long, long time, because the dinosaurs are not going to come around again.
The vertical gray band means that if you're about ten years old or younger, then you are a child within whose lifetime this gift from the dinosaurs will be almost entirely gone. The way things are now going you might wind up seeing the blackish blood used only for putting in crystal bottles —it sure won't be running all these cars and trucks, all these many machines that we now take for granted, no matter what happens. Once the hard way begins, human life from that point on, if not before, will be involved in learning to create and live in that different world, one way or another.

"In Your Lifetime, but Not in Mine."

If you go around and ask adults about when the gift of dinosaur blood (but saying oil of course) is going to start running out, bets are that they will say, "There's plenty of oil. It's just the oil companies trying to make big bucks when they talk about running out of oil." That is the way they have been taught to believe. But there are some very serious and concerned people who foresee that it is going to turn from easy times to hard times a lot quicker than almost anybody is thinking. In fact, the rumble of the recent high prices of gasoline, heating and diesel fuel, natural gas, and electricity, may be from the storm just over the horizon, just that nobody is talking much about it in an honest way.
The graph above is only one prediction among many different. The so-very-wrong-before USGS, which the Department of Energy relies on to call its shots, is about the only source that imagines the peak to be that far away, and with a much higher peak before beginning an even steeper decline down to the bottom of the barrel. Others believe that the peak occurred in 2000, and that now the rate of exhaustion will remain level for a while, slightly below that past higher rate, before nosediving.
One thing though for sure is true. If we continue to increase the global speed of dinosaur blood exhaustion as every economic plan now envisions, we will run smack into the peak of production, and then the downslope. The only way we can avoid it is to find a way to diminish our rate of exhaustion and lessen our dependence, before we are forced to. The only way to justify using it as fast as we can is if we were building a way of living that will depend much less upon oil.
The higher the peak, the further down we must go.
"The cost of government subsidization of technology to change dependence on the internal combustion engine would be less than the military costs of defending Saudi Arabia."
The Oil Coup: Bush's Master Oil Plan?
A Cyber Research Resource


How much oil is left in the United States of America?

Peak Oil: The Twilight Zone
By Jeremy Leggett
26 April 2005
The Independent

From time to time, the world is taken by surprise by a high-impact phenomenon that ought to have been foreseen. How, for example, did governments not manage to spot that CFCs would attack the ozone layer? What about global warming?
The answer is that some scientists do know these things are happening, but nobody listens. We have failed to learn the lessons made clear by such "oversight phenomena", and are currently facing the biggest short-term threat to our economic wellbeing that the modern world has ever seen, involving the commodity that society is most dependent on.
Almost nothing, however, is heard of the phenomenon of "peak oil". According to conventional wisdom, we have plenty of oil left. The current high oil prices will come to an end, whereafter we will be able to look forward to a return to cheap oil, and continuing supplies of it well into the century. Ergo, our oil-addicted economies can remain healthy and continue to grow. We have plenty of time to develop alternatives to oil. No need for concern, much less panic.
Yet, according to increasingly vocal whistleblowers, oil is depleting fast, and the age of cheap oil will soon be over. Economies can't function without cheap oil. We have no time to develop energy alternatives. Economic depression akin to that of the 1930s lurks around the corner.
But no one can agree when we'll reach the point at which half our oil reserves are used up. Controversy rages as to when "peak oil", or the "topping point", will occur. On that day, the world will pump the most oil ever produced in a 24-hour period. The day after, we will officially be running out.
Natural resources tend to deplete in a bell-shaped curve, and oil is no exception. "Peak oil" is the day when we reach the top of the curve, and the upward arc of expanding use meets the downward arc of shrinking use - the day when growing supplies of generally cheap oil turn into fast-depleting supplies of ever more expensive oil.
According to the "late toppers" - most people in the oil industry, most economists, most in government, indeed almost anybody who claims to know anything about oil - we have more than two trillion barrels of recoverable oil left underground in discovered and yet-to-be-discovered reserves. We can go from the 84 million barrels we burn per day in 2005, to more than 120 million barrels per day by 2025. The topping point will not happen until the 2030s. But, according to the "early toppers" - a few experts, most of them retired or senior oilmen - we have as little as one trillion barrels left, and we will never produce much more than we are at present. Peak oil will happen this decade - probably sooner rather than later. Because of the human propensity to panic, especially if trading floors are involved, there will be no escape from the falling economic dominoes once those in denial wake up to the problem.
I, like most people, have been in denial about oil depletion for years. I was once a creature of the oil industry. I taught for 11 years in one of its elite training houses, at the Royal School of Mines. I did so much consulting for big oil companies that I was once able to buy my daughter two horses. I did not believe the early toppers when their stories first became public in the late 1990s. I was an environmentalist by then, but still had a healthy respect for the oil industry. I made the snap judgement that the early toppers couldn't be correct. How could the industry I had grown up in be so wrong?
Then the Shell reserves fiasco began to unfold in January 2004. [The company admitted overstating its proven reserves by 20 per cent.] It might be a good idea, I thought, to take a closer look at this. Over the year of spare-time investigation that followed, I discovered many shocking things. Here are six of them.

1: No new oilfields
The record of oil discovery shows clearly that all is not well. The world's biggest oil-fields, the giants of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were discovered way back in the 1930s and 1940s. The last time a major oil province was discovered was in the 1970s. The last time we discovered more oil in a year than was used was a quarter of a century ago. Half the world's current production comes from the 100 biggest fields, and almost all of these are more than 25 years old. The recent rate of discovery of "giant" oil-fields, of more than 500 million barrels, is as follows: in 2000 there were 16 discoveries, in 2001 nine, in 2002 just two, and in 2003 none. It takes six years from the discovery of an oil-field for the first oil to come to market. And even if they're called "giant", they still represent less than a week's global supply at current demand rate.

2: Opec claims
The Opec countries have been exaggerating reserves for almost two decades. The common understanding is that the Middle Eastern Opec countries are overflowing with proved reserves. However, a growing number of oil industry insiders claim that they have been inflating their statements of reserves ever since Opec agreed a quota system for production based on the size of national reserves.
A former energy advisor to the Bush administration, the investment banker Matt Simmons, thinks that the Saudis - the nation with the largest reserves in the world - are already past their topping point.

3: BP exaggeration
BP, which publishes one of the bibles of energy statistics, echoes this exaggeration. This year, for the first time in its annual Statistical Review of World Energy, it makes clear that the data produced is anything but its own. It simply copies data used by the Opec Secretariat and other official sources.

4: False hopes
Enhancing reserves by using advanced drilling technology to boost production is commonly put up as a solution, but is in fact a false hope. Techniques such as steam injection and horizontal drilling do enhance flows from oil-fields, but they tend only to be useful in the older fields, because newer fields are developed more efficiently from the outset. As one expert says, those wheels have long since been invented. They are not going to close the gap between shrinking supply and growing demand.

5: No alternatives
Making up the gap by exploiting "unconventional" oil is also a false hope. Unconventional oil exists in huge quantities in several big deposits, notably Canada's tar sands and Venezuela's Orinoco oil belt. Tar sands have to be mined, not drilled, and heavy oil is very difficult to pump and refine. To melt the tar in Canada you would need to heat much more water than Alberta's farmers can possibly spare, and burn more Canadian gas than makes the process worthwhile in terms of net energy, even if you care nothing about the greenhouse implications. Even if you do all this, the International Energy Agency expects only 10 million barrels a day by 2030 from unconventional oil sources. That doesn't come close to bridging the gap between supply and anticipated demand.

6: Global demand
Even if the early toppers are wrong, there is probably no time left to bring enough oil to market anyway. Global oil demand is closing fast on tanker capacity, which was at its highest way back in 1981. Refinery capacity tells the same story. The investment banking firm Goldman Sachs has calculated that the oil industry needs to invest $2.4 trillion every year for the next 10 years to do the exploration and put the infrastructure in place to meet projected global demand. Vastly rich as the industry is, it has never come close to investing such prodigious sums historically. An investment of $24 trillion in a decade is nearly three times the level of 1990s spending. Do the oil companies really believe there is enough oil out there to justify such investment? We will see, in the next few years.
The last energy crisis in 1978-1981 resulted in panic and widespread fears of a depression. But at the time there was plenty of spare capacity, large stockpiles and more oil to come from the North Sea and elsewhere, so the crisis did not last. None of those escape clauses apply today.The irony is that we have to retreat from oil anyway. Gas and coal cannot be alternatives because they, too, give off greenhouse gases when burnt. This is the point at which the oil depletion and global-warming issues conflate. The more optimistic practitioners in the embryonic clean energy industries believe that, 10 to 20 years hence, our technologies could probably power and fuel the world in its entirety, if the political will is strong enough. We certainly couldn't plug the gap in five years, and the grim reality seems to be that the shortfall between expectation of oil supply and actual availability will be such that gas, renewables, liquids from gas and coal, or nuclear - in themselves, or in any combination - will not be able to plug the gap in time to head off economic trauma.
Many will try to turn to coal. Oil can be extracted from coal, at the expense of much cash and greenhouse emissions. Use of renewable energy and alternative fuels, alongside energy efficiency, will increasingly substitute for oil and gas, growing explosively whatever happens. Whether this growth occurs instead of coal expansion, or alongside it, will determine if economies and ecosystems can survive the global warming threat. For environmentalists, this will be the final battleground.
Dr Jeremy Leggett is chief executive of Solar Century, the UK's largest independent solar electric company, and a member of the Government's Renewables Advisory Board. His book Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis will be published by Portobello Books in November.