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27th September, 2005
In 1956, at a meeting of the American Petroleum Institute in San Antonio, US geophysicist, M King Hubbert predicted that US oil production – which until then had been constantly increasing – would peak in the early 1970s, and then start to fall.
To describe this he drew a graph of the total volume of oil discovered each year in the US; the result was a bell-shaped curve that started at nothing, climbed as more oil was found, then peaked and started to decline. What shocked his audience was that Hubbert went on to argue that the same bellshaped curve model that governed the rate at which discoveries would be made could also be used to predict US oil production itself, with production of any particular oil reserve peaking and declining some years after the same points were reached for discovery, but following a similar bell curve. The reason, he explained, was that companies would naturally exploit those big, easily accessible reserves first, before turning to smaller reserves that cost more
to work and produced much less oil.
At the time, almost everybody inside and outside the oil industry rejected the idea. Hubbert later said that Shell head offi ce was on the telephone right down to the last five minutes before his San Antonio talk, asking him to withdraw his words. He refused. The controversy raged until 1970, when the US production of oil started to fall. Hubbert was proved right. The big difference between Hubbert’s day and now is the number of senior analysts within the oil industry who have come to the same conclusion as him and now also predict a looming peak in global oil production.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2005
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