In 1956, M. King Hubert made a bold and now-famous prediction. He predicted that oil production in the lower 48 states would peak in the early 1970s and decline steadily from that point on. In the years since that decline began -- right on schedule in 1970 -- there have been many attempts to apply Hubert's reasoning to the overall global oil supply, in order to determine when we will reach the peak that will mark the beginning of the end for global petroleum use.
According to Kenneth Deffeyes, a former professor of geophysics at Princeton University, we're going to hit the peak sooner rather than later, and worldwide oil production will have fallen 90% by 2019.
Obviously, one factor that will mitigate against hitting the peak is finding new sources of oil:
Part of the controversy lies in the fact that to know what fraction of the world’s oil we’ve used up, you have to know how much there was, initially. That includes undiscovered reserves, plus known ones from which new extraction techniques will improve our ability to wring the last drops.
Ideally, you’d do this with a careful geological survey of the entire world, adding up everything you find. Instead, you have to estimate. The estimates are all over the map. Most geologists believe there are at least a trillion barrels left. The U.S. Geological Survey thinks there are a trillion more, undiscovered, for a total of 2 trillion remaining.
By the first estimate, we’re at the midpoint now. By the second, we’ve got several more years – 15 at present consumption rates, fewer if consumption continues to increase.
Another important mitigating factor will be trends in oil usage. If we use less oil, the peak gets pushed back. And the numbers seem to confirm that, worldwide, we're using less oil:
Fresh data from the International Energy Agency show oil consumption in the 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development fell 0.6 percent in 2006. Though the decline appears small, it marks the first annual drop in more than 20 years among the OECD countries, which drain close to 60 percent of the 84.4 million barrels of oil used globally each day.
Fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles are one step that Americans have been taking towards consuming less petroleum. A new generation of plug-in hybrids will help us to burn a lot less gas, particularly if other sources of energy -- coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind -- are used to generate the electricity we plug into.
The there's the idea of alternatives to oil. Over the past couple of years, we've written about how biodiesel, shale, and methane hydrates, all of which might provide part of the solution.
And now here's an idea that might prove to be another major mitigating factor. FuturePundit Randall Parker asks:
How about an energy technology that will reduce the need for landfills while replacing as much as a quarter of the gasoline burned in the United States?
The technology, developed originally by researchers at MIT and at Batelle Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL), in Richland, WA, doesn't incinerate refuse, so it doesn't produce the pollutants that have historically plagued efforts to convert waste into energy. Instead, the technology vaporizes organic materials to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide, a mixture called synthesis gas, or syngas, that can be used to synthesize a wide variety of fuels and chemicals.
There is enough municipal and industrial waste produced in the United States for the system to replace as much as a quarter of the gasoline used in this country, says Daniel Cohn, a cofounder of IET and a senior research scientist at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center.
Implementing this kind of technology would represent a huge win-win. Let's ward off the peak oil problem while reducing landfill waste. Wastefulness is a criticism often leveled against Americans (not without good reason.) Reclaiming a significant amount of the energy we consume from what we throw away would be an excellent place to start addressing the waste problem.