The Hubbert Curve

M. King Hubbert (1903-1989)

Anyone who reads about Peak Oil issues very quickly runs into the name Dr.  M. King Hubbert. And rightly so — his early insights into the fundamental problems to do with oil depletion provide the foundation of much of today’s thinking regarding the limits of any natural resource. (In one science fiction story set at a time about three hundred years from now his name is treated as a cuss word; where we would say “by God!” the people in the story say, “By Hubbert!”) 

As a leading scientist employed by one of the world’s largest oil companies he was authoritative and credible. The four pages of citations in his seminal paper confirm his commitment to thorough and professional research.

 

In the year 1979 Alfred North Whitehead said,

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

 

A similar comment can be made about Hubbert — so much of our current discussions to do with resource constraints has its roots in what he wrote over sixty years ago. Most current Peak Oil writings will eventually be considered as being a series of footnotes to Hubbert, who said,

The fossil fuels . . .  have all had their origin from plants and animals . . . during the last 500 million years. Therefore, as an essential part of our analysis, we can assume with complete assurance that the industrial exploitation of the fossil fuels will consist in the progressive exhaustion of an initially fixed supply to which there will be no significant additions during the period of our interest.

The 1956 Paper

Hubbert wrote a series of papers to do with with oil reserves and the rate at which they decline. He did not use the term ‘Peak Oil’, but he developed the concept. His basic idea — which seems obvious to us sixty years later but which was far from obvious in his time — was that all oil reserves have a finite life and will eventually be depleted. Geologists in his day knew this about individual oil wells, but he scaled up the discussion to consider reserves in much larger regions, such as the States of Texas and Illinois. His insights resulted in the now famous Hubbert Curve.

 

His seminal work was, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, presented at an American Petroleum Institute (API) meeting in San Antonio, Texas in March 1956. In it he showed what is now referred to as the ‘Hubbert Curve’. (It is Figure 29 in the image at the head of this post. Note that the paper was typewritten — he was working long before the use of even the simplest word processors.)

The reason that his paper was so foundational was that it pulled together all the parameters of what is now known as Peak Oil. Key insights included the following:

  1. He discussed the issue of fossil fuel production in a global context.

  2. He recognized the finite nature of fossil fuel reserves.

  3. He developed a generic (Hubbert) curve to show how production of fossil fuels peaks and then declines.

  4. He understood the fact that continued exponential growth in a finite world cannot continue.

  5. He had a grasp of the social implications of his research.

 

A detailed analysis of his paper is provided at the conclusion of this post.

The Age of Happy Motoring

Hubbert was not only creative, he was also courageous. What he said was very much counter to the ‘Happy Motoring’ culture of his times. In the year 1956 oil production in the United States was increasing, the giant fields in the Middle East were coming on stream, and the new energy source — nuclear power — was going to be too cheap to meter. The projected growth of nuclear power is shown in the dashed line in the Hubbert Curve drawing.

Other Resources

Although Hubbert considered just oil reserves in the United States the principles he used can be applied to any non-renewable resource or to a resource that is depleted more quickly than it can replace itself (such as the forests discussed in Peak Forests). For example Hubbert curves have been developed for coal and for fish stocks in the ocean.

The reason that his paper was so foundational was that it pulled together all the parameters of what is now known as Peak Oil. Key insights included the following:

  1. He discussed the issue of fossil fuel production in a global context.

  2. He recognized the finite nature of fossil fuel reserves.

  3. He developed a generic (Hubbert) curve to show how production of fossil fuels peaks and then declines.

  4. He understood the fact that continued exponential growth in a finite world cannot continue.

  5. He had a grasp of the social implications of his research.

 

Analysis of the 1956 Paper

Because of its importance and because many of the issues that he raised are with us still it is worth reading Hubbert’s 1956 paper in detail and analyzing his findings and conclusions.

His paper is in three parts. The first part analyzes the fossil fuel industry of his time (the early 1950s) and provides forecasts as to likely production rates over the next half century. The second part of the paper is to do with the transition that he expected to see from fossil fuels to electricity generated by nuclear power plants. The third part of the paper, an assumption that society will respond to analyses such as his rationally, is implicit in the overall context of his analysis.

Part 1 — Fossil Fuel Reserves

In the first part  of the paper Dr. Hubbert’s analyzed the oil industry in the United States in the early 1950s. He also made forecasts to do with future production that turned out to be accurate. Later, he predicted the timing of peak oil production world-wide. His forecasts as to the amount of oil that would be discovered and produced were low as regards quantity, but the timing was spot-on. (He himself recognized that new sources of oil would be discovered. For example, more than a decade after the publication of his paper the fields in the North Sea and Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay became a major factor in the world’s oil production picture.)

The following quotation summarizes his understanding as to how oil production would change in the coming decades.

. . . world production of crude oil increased at a rate of 7 per cent per year, with the output doubling every 10 years.. . . How many periods of doubling can be sustained before the production rate would reach astronomical magnitudes? No finite resource can sustain for longer than a brief period such a rate of growth of production; therefore, although production rates tend initially to increase exponentially, physical limits prevent their continuing to do so. This rapid rate of growth for the production curves make them particularly deceptive with regard to the future length of time for which such production may be sustained. 

In other words, fossil fuels are a finite resource; they cannot be replaced except over many millions of years.

 

Hubbert drew a clear distinction between the three kinds of fossil fuel (solid, liquid and gaseous) but did not anticipate any issues to do with moving from one to another.

Part 2 — Nuclear Power

The very title of his paper – Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels – illustrates Hubbert’s fundamental optimism. He anticipated that society would make a smooth transition from fossil fuels to nuclear power and that economic growth could continue, as shown in the sketch at the top of this post.

This prediction missed the mark. Although the nuclear power industry now constitutes an important part of the overall energy mix, the optimism that Dr. Hubbert showed regarding the transition from fossil to nuclear fuels has not occurred in the manner that he anticipated.

It turns out that different energy sources are not nearly as fungible as was thought in the 1950s. The world now has close to a billion vehicles (automobiles, trains, airplanes, trucks, ships) that run on fossil fuel. Although we see some attempts to introduce electric cars, the reality is that electricity from nuclear power plants is not a direct replacement for gasoline and other refined products, at least not on a realistic time scale.

The civilian nuclear power industry was just getting started in 1956 with promises of energy that “would be too cheap to meter”. In hindsight it is now evident that Hubbert was much too optimistic. Although the nuclear power industry meets a large fraction of the world’s demand for electricity, it has not been the savior that Hubbert anticipated. Costs have been far higher than anticipated, accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima-Daiichi have shaken public confidence to do with the safety of the industry, and issues to do with the disposal of radioactive waste remain unresolved.

Part 3 — Society’s Response

Throughout Hubert's paper lies an unspoken assumption that, when presented with the facts and analyses shown in papers such as his, then we, as a society, will take the appropriate actions. In 1956 there was sufficient time to make the transition from an oil-based society to one that derives most of its energy from nuclear power. We have since learned to be more skeptical — people generally do not plan for the medium or long-term future. They look mostly to satisfy their own immediate needs and wishes.

We now see that Hubbert was rather too hopeful, maybe a little naïve. It seems as if he thought that, by merely identifying the problem, society would respond appropriately. That did not happen. No serious attempt was made in his day to address resource constraints, and little has changed since then.

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