Overview of Peak Oil Theory

Shell Oil scientist M. King Hubbert made a remarkable prediction in 1956. He had analyzed the depletion patterns of various natural resources, and proposed that the production rates of a given resource from a given region would tend to follow a roughly bell-shaped curve.  More specifically, he used what is now called the “Hubbert curve”, which is a probability density function of a logistic distribution curve. This curve is like a gaussian function (which is used to plot normal distributions), but is somewhat “wider”:

Normalized Hubbert Curve. Source: Wikipedia.

Hubbert used various reasonable assumptions (which we will not canvass here) in formulating this model curve. Notably, it predicts that the peak production rate will occur when the total resource from that region is 50% depleted, and that the fall in production on the back side of the curve will be as fast as the rise in production on the front (left) side of the curve.

In 1956, while U.S. oil production was still rising briskly, he fit his curve to the data to that point in time, and predicted that U.S. production would peak in 1970 and thereafter enter a rapid and permanent decline. His prediction was somewhat ridiculed at the time, but it proved to be uncannily accurate over the following 25 years; oil production peaked right when King said it would, and then declined per his curve until about 1990:

Lower 48 U.S. Oil Production: Actual (Green curve) vs. 1956 Hubbert Prediction (Red Curve). Blue Arrow marks deviation ~ 1990-2008, and green arrow marks acceleration of shale oil production. Source: Wikipedia, with arrows added.

I drew in a red arrow at 1956 to show when King made his prediction, and also a blue arrow showing a significant deviation that starting to show after about 1990. Once production had declined maybe halfway down from its peak, the production started to flatten out and decline much more slowly. More on this “fat tail” feature below.

Another feature I called attention to with a green arrow is the remarkable resurgence in production after 2008, which is mainly due to “fracking” of tight shale formation. That new-to-the-world technology has unlocked a new set of oil fields which had previously been inaccessible for production. This illustrated a well-recognized feature of Hubbert curves, which is that a given curve can (at best) apply only to a given region and for a “normal” pace of technological improvement. Fracking production should sit on its own up-and-then-down production curve.

The  plot above is for lower 48 states only; a big find in Alaska gave a bump in production 1980-2000 (not shown here) which distorted the whole-U.S. production curve. That Alaska oil peaked by about 2000 and is now in its own terminal decline pattern.

The shape of production curve on the back (declining) side is of particular interest in trying to do economic modeling of future oil production. If the declines really follow a Hubbert curve, the prognosis is pretty scary – – oil production is slated to crash to practically nothing in the near future. However, it seems that in reality, after an initially rapid decline, production can often be sustained much longer than predicted by a simple symmetrical curve. We saw that pattern in the lower 48 curve above, starting around 1990, even before the fracking revolution. Below I show two other examples showing the same feature. The first example, from Hubbert’s original paper, is Ohio oil production 1885-1956:

A second example is oil production in Norway:

I am not prepared to make quantitative generalizations, but there does seem to be a pattern of sustained production at reduced levels, following the initial rapid decline from the peak. Others also have noted that  asymmetric curves may give better fits to real-world production. These “fat tails” on production from various oil-producing regions should help us keep our cars running longer than predicted by simple peak-oil models. How this pertains to future U.S. shale oil production, and to global oil production, are (since oil and gas are the main energy sources for the world economy) key questions, which we may address in future articles.

The Congress That Berated Oil Companies for Producing Oil Is Now Berating Them for Not Producing Oil

Oil production is a difficult, risky business even under favorable regulatory regimes.  For instance, here is a chart of cumulative bankruptcy filings of exploration and production (E&P) companies for 2015-2021:

A few companies go bust every year, but there are some years like 2015-2016 and 2019-2020 when a lot of companies go bust. That happens when the oil industry collectively has overproduced and driven the price of oil below the effective cost of production. Even the mighty ExxonMobil ran deep in the red in 2020, losing an eye-watering 22.4 billion dollars. With all that in mind, shareholders since 2020 have been pressuring companies to show “financial discipline”, which means “drill less”.

Beyond these basic business realities, there is a whole new set of pressures to inhibit petroleum production. Environmental activists have pushed banks to withhold funding from petroleum companies, to strangle further oil production. It was big news in 2020 when activists, alarmed by ExxonMobil’s plans to actually (gasp) increase its oil production, successfully elected several alternative members to the board of directors with the specific goal of curtailing further drilling.

There have been attacks on the oil industry on the political front, as well. Joe Biden ran on a platform of banning drilling on public lands, and one item he checked off his to-do list on his first day in office was to issue an executive order killing a pipeline that would have facilitated imports of oil from the abundant reserves in Canada. One of his nominees for a top financial regulatory post remarked regarding oil producers that “we want them to go bankrupt if we want to tackle climate change”. All these are the sorts of things that make execs less willing to commit capital for expensive drilling programs that may take years to pay back. (The counter-claim by the administration that the U.S. oil industry is just sitting on thousands of unused oil leases is a red herring).

There is only a finite amount of oil in the ground, so it makes sense to move with all deliberate speed toward renewable and nuclear energy (which emits little or no CO2). However, our European friends who have installed lots of solar panels and windmills have discovered  that the sun does not shine at night (!) and the wind does not always blow strongly (!!) , and so during their energy transition they need to maintain an adequate supply of fossil fuel power in order to keep the lights on. They elected to let their own oil and gas production dwindle, and rely instead on gas and oil purchased from Russia. We warned back in September that this European policy would give Russia leverage for harassing Ukraine, but apparently not enough EU leaders read this blog. Anyway, even back in the fall of 2021, Russia had restricted natural gas deliveries to Europe, causing sky-high prices there for gas and power.

The European experience ought to have been a cautionary tale for America, but political attacks on oil production continued in the halls of Congress itself. In an October 2021 hearing over climate change prevention, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Ro Khanna (D-CA) insisted that Big Oil commit to reducing US oil and gas production by 3-4% annually (50-70% total by 2050). In a follow-up February 8, 2022 hearing,  the two legislators again demanded concrete commitments from oil companies to reduce their domestic production (although, strangely, Mr. Khanna supported President Biden’s call for other regions, such as OPEC and Russia to increase production).

With oil drilling having been curtailed for the past several years (as desired by environmentalists), the world has now flopped from an oil surplus to an oil shortage, exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions. And of course world oil prices (which are not under the control of U.S. companies) have gone up in response. Oil companies are actually making money again instead of going bankrupt like two years ago

In 2021 Apple had a 26% net profit margin and an effective tax rate of only 13%, while the oil industry had an average profit margin of 8.9% and an effective tax rate of 26.9%.   Yet Congress (mainly Democrats) “investigates” price gouging every time gas prices go up, without hauling in Tim Cook to grill him over the price of each new iPhone model. Repeated previous investigations have shown that domestic gasoline prices are mainly a function of world oil prices, which are not under the control of U.S. companies. Nevertheless, after berating oil execs for increasing oil production,  here come the grandstanding Congressional attack dogs, holding a hearing last week titled (wait for it…) “Gouged at the Gas Station: Big Oil and America’s Pain at the Pump”.

The oil producers patiently explained that “We do not control the price of crude oil or natural gas, nor of refined products like gasoline and diesel fuel,” and “”It [the U.S. oil industry] is experiencing severe cost inflation, a labor shortage due to three downturns in 12 years, shortages of drilling rigs, frack fleets, frack sand, steel pipe, and other equipment and materials.” But it is not clear that anyone was listening to the facts.

Russia, The US, and Crude Data

Overall, I’ve been disappointed with the reporting on the US embargo against Russian oil. The AP reported that the US imports 8% of Russia’s crude oil exports. But then they and other outlets list a litany of other figures without any context for relative magnitudes. Let’s shine some more light on the crude oil data.*

First, the 8% figure is correct – or, at least it was correct as of December of 2021. The below figure charts the last 7 years of total Russian crude oil exports, US imports of Russian crude oil, and the proportion that US imports compose.  That 8% figure is by no means representative of recent history. The average US proportion in 2015-2018 was 7.8%. But the US share as since risen in level and volatility. Since 2019, the US imports compose an average of 11.9% of all Russian crude oil exports.

As an exogenous shock, the import ban on Russian crude oil might have a substantial impact on Russian exports. However, many of the world’s oil importers were already refusing Russian crude. The US ban may not have a large independent effect on Russian sales and may be a case of congress endorsing a policy that’s already in place voluntarily.

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