50 Years After Hubbert’s Prediction Peak Oil Goes Mainstream

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Derided at the time, legendary geophysicist correctly predicted U.S. oil production peak; new chart shows "Hubbert's Peak" for the world is arriving on schedule.

SF Informatics joins geologists and citizens worldwide in celebrating the 50th anniversary Marion King Hubbert’s famous presentation -- delivered on March 8, 1956 at a regional conference of the American Petroleum Institute in San Antonio -- in which he accurately predicted the 1970 peak of oil production in the United States (lower 48).

Though experts ridiculed Hubbert at the time -- after all, the U.S. was the world’s leading oil producer in the 1950s and production was growing steadily -- his prediction was correct and his legacy has inspired generations of geologists and scientists who now see the world itself reaching “Hubbert’s Peak.”

One of those geologists is Colin Campbell, a leading authority on “peak oil” and energy issues. Hubbert, Campbell explains, “realized that U.S. discovery had peaked in the 1930s, so it was not too difficult to make reasonable estimates of how much was left to find, given the maturity of exploration. Once he recognized that there was a finite total, a little work on the back of an envelope was probably sufficient to sketch a bell-shaped curve peaking when half the total had been produced.”

Another geologist following in Hubbert’s footsteps is Princeton professor emeritus Kenneth Deffeyes, author of “Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage.” Employing variations of Hubbert’s methods, Deffeyes recently concluded that the world already passed its peak in December of last year. “I can now refer to the world oil peak in the past tense,” he declared on his Web site. “My career as a prophet is over. I'm now an historian.”

Others are not so sure we’ve hit the peak just yet. Estimates range from Deffeyes’ past date to as far out as 2037, which is when the USGS states that the world will reach maximum oil production, after which output will begin an irreversible decline. Increasingly, though, experts are finding more indications of a near-term peak -- with predictions of “sometime this decade” becoming ever more common.

Robert Semple, in a New York Times article published March 1, 2006, called the concept of peak oil to be “almost certainly true” and painted a surprisingly bleak picture of what societies could face in the years ahead as energy supplies dwindle. Indeed, President Bush indirectly raised the peak oil issue in his State of the Union address, announcing that “America is addicted to oil.”

A half century ago, Hubbert himself foresaw the dilemma of fossil fuels dependency. “He questioned if the democratic process would throw up a sufficiently skilled form of government to deal with it,” Campbell says. “The United States has led the world in so many ways, but no one seems to have learned the significance of peak oil. At the end of the day, Hubbert's perceptive concerns for humanity may prove to have been a more important contribution than his famous bell-curve.”

With evidence mounting that the world is nearing the oil peak, citizens groups such as SF Informatics, Global Public Media, Post Carbon Institute, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) and others are calling for a broad-based campaign to promote awareness of the looming energy shortfall and to take practical steps to begin the transition to a sustainable, post-petroleum society.

One such effort was the recent release of a comprehensive energy information tool -- a colorful poster called The Oil Age -- created by SF Informatics in association with Global Public Media. The poster traces the history of oil production worldwide and displays relevant energy statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, BP Statistical Review and other industry sources.

“The 50th anniversary is a wakeup call,” says Michael Poremba of SF Informatics. “It’s crucial for citizens to have a general understanding of key issues. The global oil peak will impact everything from our economy to foreign policy to how we manage our daily lives.”

Poremba continued, “I cannot overstate the value of introducing the concept of peak oil to friends and family. This colorful chart makes obtuse numbers clear and understandable. When you look at this poster, it changes how you think about the world.”

Copies of The Oil Age poster can be purchased at http://www.oilposter.org. To date, over 1,600 posters have been donated to teachers worldwide. And thanks to Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, the poster has been distributed to every member of the U.S. Congress.

For more information about Kenneth Deffeyes’ oil-production estimates, visit http://www.princeton.edu/hubbert/the-peak.html.

A new web site dedicated to Hubbert’s legacy is now at http://www.mkinghubbert.com.

About SF Informatics

SF Informatics represents a group of concerned citizens committed to researching and communicating critical ecological and societal trends worldwide. Poster ordering or donation information: http://www.oilposter.org.


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