Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, November 19, 2018

Peak Oil, 20 Years Later: Failed Prediction or Useful Insight?

Peak Oil by Campbell and Laherrere 1998

20 years ago, Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere published an article on "Scientific American" that was to start the second cycle of interest on oil depletion (the first had been started by Hubbert in the 1950s). Their prediction turned out to be too pessimistic, at least in terms of the supply of combustible liquids, still growing today. Yet, it was a valuable warning of things to come, unfortunately ignored by decision-makers worldwide. 

The first cycle of interest in oil depletion was started by Marion King Hubbert in the 1950s. Although it provided successful predictions for the production of crude oil in the US, the interest in oil depletion waned in the 1980s. The same destiny of growth and decline awaited the second cycle, that went under the name of "peak oil movement" and that was generated in 1998 by a famous article published by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere on "Scientific American." 

Today, the second cycle is winding down and even mentioning the concept of "peak oil" is enough to be branded as a diehard catastrophist, unable to understand how the fracking revolution is leading us to a new age of prosperity under America's energy dominance. Yet, there are symptoms that the great peak could be finally arriving and - who knows? - a third cycle of interest in oil depletion could be starting. 

I published some considerations on this subject in an article that appeared on "Energy Research & Social Science" -- it is "open access" and you can find it at this link. After re-examining the story of the peak oil cycle, I conclude that there was no solid reason to reject the peak oil studies, as it was done starting in the mid 2000s. The reasons for the rejection were related more to the incompatibility of the peak oil concept with the (still) current economic views based on the idea that the depletion of natural resources is not -- and cannot be -- a constraint to economic growth. 

It will take time before some concepts percolate from biophysical economics into mainstream economics - if they ever will. In the meantime, humans continue to destroy the resources that make them live, running as fast as they can toward the Great Cliff. 

Here is an excerpt from my paper -- the conclusions

by Ugo Bardi
Energy Research & Social Science
Volume 48, February 2019, Pages 257-261

... Overall, we can say that, even though the role of non-conventional oil sources was not correctly evaluated and the date of the peak missed at the global level, the Hubbert theory produced correct predictions and, in general, a valuable warning of difficulties to come. So, there never were compelling reasons based on historical data to dismiss the peak oil idea as wrong or untenable. Nevertheless, this is what happened.


Peak Oil, Climate Change, and Limits to Growth – are related to each other and have in common the fact that the models on which they are based predict the unavoidable decline of the world’s economy or, at least, the impossibility for it to keep growing for a long time. This view easily leads to a “doomerish” vision of the future and the peak oil movement tended to regard peak oil as an apocalyptic watershed for humankind, an interpretation surely not based on anything that the model in itself could support. Perhaps in agreement with this millenaristic attitude, the peak oil movement mostly failed to generate a political proposal. This point is well described by Schneider-Matherson [10] who shows how the members of the movement tended to prepare for the event in individual terms, emphasizing local and personal resilience. In some cases, they adopted or proposed a survivalist strategy, including stocking food, guns, and ammunition in expectation of the imminent collapse. Needless to say, this attitude didn’t endear the movement to the mainstream decision makers.

We may therefore conclude that the peak oil predictions were considered incompatible with the commonly held views that see economic growth as always necessary and desirable and depletion/pollution as marginal phenomena that can be overcome by means of technological progress. That was the reason why the peak oil idea was abandoned, a victim of a “clash of absolutes” with the mainstream view of the economic system. In the clash, peak oil turned out to be the loser, not because it was “wrong” but mainly because it was a minority opinion. The future will bring new data and, with them, the concept of peak oil might regain popularity for a second time, just as it did for the first time with the 1998 work of Campbell and Lahérrere.


  1. Nice stuff.

    For the moment we are closer to a FALSE RETURN TO GOLD 'AGE SCENARIO: it is a place where the need for a global energy reconversion is blocked by the energetic inertia of shale oil / gas, and by finance. The fossil fuel prices do not incorporate the cost of climate change disasters. The realignment prices of energy and commodities will be null until an instantaneous and abrupt movement of markets will show the scarsity, this abrupt prices movement will be an element of direct confrontation with nations, in a very competitive world. In this scenario, the problems of climate change would come from the greenhouse gas stocks already emitted, from human activities, as from the melting of methane hydrates in Siberia with positive feedback.

    May be in the next decade, mankind can slight out to ULTRAVIOLET CATASTROPHE SCENARIO.

    ULTRAVIOLET CATASTROPHE SCENARIO; It is a dynamic and competitive scenario where energy reconversion is attempted by the First World, but the Second World and the Third World do not follow the efforts of the First World so greenhouse gases emission still will continue to rise. In this scenario, the problems of climate change would come from the greenhouse gas stocks already emitted, from the anthropic activities of the II °, III ° world, while the issues of methane hydrates and their melting would be irrelevant. The prices mouvement on commodity markets (raw materials, energy, fresh water, fertile lands) will grow such as a strong and competitiveness in the world for overpopulation, climate change damages, a progressive resources scarsity.

    Personally, I think mankind will remain into FALSE RETURN TO GOLD AGE SCENARIO, or in the next decades, the rate of hydrate methane bomb because of north pole ice free, it will appear EXPLOSIVE INERTIAL SURROGATION.

    EXPLOSIVE INERTIAL SURROGATION: It is a dynamic and competitive scenario, where the need for a global energy reconversion will fall down into a false innovation of synthetic fuels derived from coal with very low emission of greenhouse gases. Those stuffs will not solve anything because the aggregate greenhouse gas emisssions for anthropic activities will grow up because 1st, 2nd, and 3rd world would all be producing and burning synthetic fuels!. In this scenario, the problems of climate change would come from the greenhouse gas stocks already emitted, from the current anthropic activities, as from the melting of methane hydrates in Siberia with positive feedback. The prices mouvement will increase on commodities (raw materials, energy, fresh water, fertile land) such as the critical competitiveness in the world. Dramatic mankind situation, not solved by the free giving of patents on synthetic fuels from the 1st world to the 2nd and 3rd world.

    For sure, the absence of facts and trends, and for the existence of other kind of facts and trends, the most part of the things inside of the EFFICIENT TECHNOLOGICAL SHARING OF AUSTERITY SCENARIO are fully out of range. That is a pity, because this stuff was an adverse scenario of WWIII and PUNIC WARS II.

    EFFICIENT TECHNOLOGICAL SHARING OF AUSTERITY: It was a very technological, collaborative scenario that could emerge for political will of the First World or because of the gravity of the climate change issue, or because of long-term vision of a birth control policy in Africa and for the saling of the Russian territories of Siberia to various Asian competitors. In this scenario, the climate change problems would come from the greenhouse gas stocks already emitted, such as from the melting of methane hydrates in Siberia with positive feedback.

  2. Ugo, good to keep this in perspective, nothing has changed really, sure some changes here and there to so called production/discoveries but we were at peak, the rest is mere artful levitation.

    As the later Professor Alf Bartlett was fond of saying, " So how we doin? Yep we are right on schedule".

  3. I use to go out on the ocean for extended periods. Some of the most wonderous experiences of my life. Most are frightened to death of the prospect of venturing out on the sea, leaving sight of land. As long as you prepare as well as you can for what you know can happen you have a very good chance of having a wonderful time.

    Keeping track of fuel consumption is right at the top of the list. You always know how much it would take to either get back to home port or to your other destination. You always keep a large margin of surplus fuel for contingencies. If you are going out and coming back you know for certain where the turn back home fuel level is and only a fool would push this point. A true prudent seaman will even keep an extra drum of fuel stowed for absolut emergency, not as a factor in navigating.

    Humanity has burned well past the turn around point and even started to burn the emergency drum and we call that proof that there are no restrictions.

  4. So at the end of the day

    because of *Game Over for the Climate? Can we control the climate crisis in time? Updates from Permafrost Report 2017*

    because of *Il bug di sicurezza delle CPU Intel VS Geo-engineering debate on Climate Change*

    because of *Survivable IPCC projections RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 are science fiction: reality is far worse!*

    Mankind will never ever see terraforming technologies with massive and effective impacts on climate change, because since industrial revolution mankind never ever had a zero gas serra emissions, so it's quite unrealistic in overpopulation earth under the pressure of scarsity and climate change damages, thinking of mankind will have negative gas serra emissions.

    For sure mankind will continue on the path gas serra rising, and because a north pole ice free during summer/fall since 2030 (or since 2040), IMHO from this tipping point the things about gas serra emissions will turn from bad to worse, becase the methane hydrate bomb will detonate at growing rate in uncontrollable way for mankind.

    So, it's quite realistic thinkinf that from nowdays until polo north ice free condition (it means 10 years - 20 years more or less of BAU) mankind will remain with high probability under the FALSE RETURN TO GOLDEN AGE SCENARIO or at least, mankind will slight out to EXPLOSIVE INERTIAL SURROGATION.

    At the moment, IMHO it is possible but not probable thinking at ULTRAVIOLET CATASTROPHE SCENARIO, as Trump policy show, I don't think 1ST WORLD will suicide its economy while 2ND+3RD WORLD will continue to use fossil fuels. Fossil fuels mouve economy, and economy offers the financial resources for hard power. It is not a good time for 1ST world to give up its military hard power, while mankind is entering into an overpopulation issue, with climate change damages rising.

    EFFICIENT TECHNOLOGICAL SHARING OF AUSTERITY SCENARIO was still possible 5 years ago, but necessary conditions fade away quite rapidly, so IMHO nowdays EFFICIENT TECHNOLOGICAL SHARING OF AUSTERITY SCENARIO is totally out of range for mankind. It's too late and too hard for reaching.

    In few words: mankind is stable trend for being SNAFU by the pressure of overpopulation and climate change damages rising, and Mediterranean area is already FUBAR for same reasons.

    If God will touch russian heart and mind, may be russian people will defuse WWIII conditions in Asia, but frankly I'm not optimistic about that, because russians are nationalistic people and I don't think they will drop out easily their CSI borders as they represent the URSS border memories.

  5. Truly useful and insightful article, Ugo! Thanks for sharing.

    It seems that we will be hitting peak oil from the opposite side - as in peak oil demand. Most OECD countries have declining oil demand - even the US has not increased theirs. China is electrifying its fleet at a fast pace and yet prices are generally low. So it is possible to see peak oil demand in transport being the driver creating a series of undulations where expensive suppliers like tar and tight oil are squeezed out and thus prices spike.

  6. Ugo, again thanks. I have been thinking about this lately and the issues your raise, specifically, how wishful thinking has wished away the obvious a seriously depeleted finite resource. What dissappears in the aggregate data is the reality that high levels of consumption of this resource are restricted to fewer and fewer, the poor and failing state residents go without, that is the demand destruction that began before 2008 but has accelerated since, in the meantime apart from a few ups and downs in total output, the plateau continues but down the other side it will go, it already has, fracking and shale oil and even gas as a substitute cannot hid the fact that the major oil fields are all in decline in relative terms.

    The longer we pretend this is not the case the more impossible and therefore disruptively painful will be the adjustment to less, along with everything else the planet provides us. There are a lot of countries around the globe, who firstly never got their fair share but now are permanently deprived of access because it is beyond their per capita means, that is they throw away the outboards and revert to sail to fish and walk to commute. These countries actualy are in far better condition to survive the slow motion but inescapable collapse of the our industrial civilisation and all it encompasses.

  7. I would add to my first comment that water is also the issue as we all discovered during the hay days of TOD no water without FFs and no FFs without water.

    Any prudent bluewater voyager hoards their water supply knowing that it is the #1 cargo on the boat for survival. Sure you can catch rain but you don't gamble on that and sure there are some desal plants on some boats but again you don't count on it for survival and no fuel no water. Desals are mostly on charter boats and mega yachts anyway.

    We are well past sustainable fresh water supply yet we increase pumping exponentially and pump toxic crap back down into aquifers too.

  8. Well, I believe hat peak oil takes a lot of place in the European energy strategy, just with another name : climate change. Europe follows mainly long term objectives (housing, electrical motors, appliances...), but the low hanging fruits, like the size of the internal combusion engines, the weight of the cars... are not issues in the climate change strategy. Why if it is not that it is a peak oil strategy, and that in this context, the problem is expected in a delay that is longer than the lifespan of the cars.

  9. Hellow...ellow....ellow....ellow?

    I make a comment and no reply even though it becomes the topic of the next post?

    Confirms my current belief that I simply need to QUIT.

    No one gives a fuck, even those who profess to give one not.

    1. Jef, dont take it ill, somehow comments are a little rare in this blog, even though we have a reasonably high level of contacts. I don't know why, but the discussion is more lively on my facebook group "The Seneca Effect" -- why don't you subscribe to that?

    2. Except for 65C02movies who evidently suffers of a form of glossolalia, but it happens!



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)