Peak Oil: Defined

Understanding Peak Oil

By Colin J. Campbell

Oil was formed in the geological past under well understood processes. In fact, the bulk of current production comes from just two epochs of extreme global warming, 90 and 150 million years ago, when algae proliferated in the warm sunlit waters, and the organic remains were preserved in the stagnant depths to be converted to oil by chemical reactions. Natural gas was formed in a similar way save that it was derived from vegetal material. It follows that these are finite natural resources subject to depletion, which in turn means that production in any country or region starts following the initial discovery and ends when the resources are exhausted. The peak of production is normally passed when approximately half the total has been taken, termed the midpoint of depletion.

Oil has been known since antiquity but the first wells were drilled for it in the mid 19th Century in Pennsylvania and the on the shores of the Caspian. The Industrial Revolution was already in progress being driven by the steam engine, fuelled by coal. But then in the 1860s, a German engineer found a way to insert the fuel directly into the cylinder inventing the Internal Combustion Engine, which was much more efficient. At first, it used benzene distilled from coal, before turning to petroleum refined from crude oil, for which it developed an unquenchable thirst. The first automobile took to the road in 1882 and the first tractor ploughed its furrow in 1907. This cheap and abundant supply of energy changed the world in then unimaginable ways, leading to the rapid expansion of industry, transport, trade and agriculture, which has allowed the population to expand six-fold in parallel.  These remarkable changes were in turn accompanied by the rapid growth of financial capital, as banks lent more than they had on deposit, confident that Tomorrow’s Economic Expansion was collateral for To-day’s Debt, without necessarily recognising that the expansion was driven by an abundant supply of cheap largely oil-based energy.

The peak of oil discovery was passed in the 1960s, and the world started using more than was found in new fields in 1981. The gap between discovery and production has widened since. Many countries, including some important producers, have already passed their peak, suggesting that the world peak of production is now imminent. Were valid data available in the public domain, it would a simple matter to determine both the date of peak and the rate of subsequent decline, but as it is, we find maze of conflicting information, ambiguous definitions and lax reporting procedures.  In short, the oil companies tended to report cautiously, being subject to strict Stock Exchange rules, whereas certain OPEC countries exaggerated during the 1980s when they were competing for quota based on reported reserves.  Despite the uncertainties of detail, it is now evident that the world faces the dawn of the Second Half of the Age of Oil, when this critical commodity, which plays such a fundamental part in the modern economy, heads into decline due to natural depletion. A debate rages over the precise date of peak, but rather misses the point, when what matters — and matters greatly — is the vision of the long remorseless decline that comes into sight on the other side of it. The transition to decline threatens to be a time of great international tension. Petroleum Man will be virtually extinct this Century, and Homo sapiens faces a major challenge in adapting to his loss. Peak Oil is by all means an important subject.


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