Will we ever run out of oil?

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What is "peak energy", and does it exist? What effect does it have on the global community's drive to develop sustainable energy technologies?

Peak energy is the theoretical proposition that at some point - past, current, or future - our capability to extract and process fossil fuels will reach a maximum, and then start to decrease until reserves are wholly depleted. Peak energy has become a widely discussed and disputed subject as carbon emissions and alternative energy have become ubiquitous topics in today's society.

The idea was first introduced in the 1950s, when M. King Hubbert proposed that the production of a fuel roughly follows a bell curve, with a distinct maximum - and hence, a distinct total reserve of fuel that is known to exist and be economically feasible to extract. This idea has become widely accepted, despite that substantial historical evidence points to a more adaptive theory most notably defended by Morris Adelman at MIT. His proposal is that Hubbert's peak energy theory posits two major flaws: (1) humans will never know, or be able to know, the entire supply of fuels that exists on earth, a value that is required or assumed in Hubbert's model, and (2) the model neglects that development of technologies will continue to expand the reserves in a balance with demand and cost.

Proponents of both theories cite historical reserves and production data as evidence in support of their respective positions. Many Hubbert enthusiasts point to the peaking of U.S. oil production in the 1970s as proof that his peak energy theory pans out. However, those observers may neglect to consider that the U.S. is not a self-contained universe, and production has dwindled over the past few decades because cheap and abundant oil is available from the rest of the globe. Technologies have developed that make off-shore oil production possible where it wasn't just decades ago, but government involvement undeniably plays a role in which of these types of technologies are utilized (i.e., the lack of drilling into Alaska's massive fossil fuel reserves). In this latter case, domestic production is a choice, not a necessity.

Adelman enthusiasts point to surprising data that, on a global scale, both oil production and global fossil fuel reserves have continually increased over the past 50 years. In fact, oil reserves today are larger than they were ever known to be. This sole fact seems to support Adelman's argument that a peak will never occur; that effective technology will always find a means for development of fuel at a cost equal to demand, and hence fuel supplies are unlimited. The practical implication of this theory is that the peak date (the time at which the peak is achieved) is continually pushed further into the future.

In my opinion, it is more realistic that a combination of these two theories better describes the balance between supply and production ability. While technology certainly continues to expand our knowledge of (and access to) global reserves, the nature and scope of future technology is unpredictable. It is very possible that technology will not be able to balance our demand for fuel, resulting in insufficient production and higher prices. This idea produces a mix between Hubbert's theorized symmetric bell curve and Adelman's continually rising production curve by adding a time-dependent "technology" factor. The new curve is one in which the peak likely reaches a plateau or is muted, such that there is a slow loss of production after the peak at a rate much less than the slope directly preceding it.

The debate between the Hubberts and the Adelmans is simply theoretical. Yet, its practical effect has been a very real stirring of the general public's fears. The fear of reaching the peak fuel level causes speculators to overvalue fuel and prices to rise. While that sounds purely negative, the stirring has also resulted in another significant - and in my view, extremely positive - effect: as the public and the government grow wary of reaching the peak fuel level, they become increasingly cognizant of the need to develop alternative and sustainable energy sources.

A recent article in Nature by Kurt Kleiner addresses the impact of peak energy on the global community and the development of sustainable energy technologies. Some argue that the diminution of fossil fuels is undoubtedly a good thing in terms of the movement of energy production towards technologies with minimal carbon emission. I disagree, to the extent that diminution occurs when alternative energy and an accompanying infrastructure are still mere "goals" in society. The dwindling of fossil fuels, without alternatives in place, harms the economy. And while the necessary endgame of fossil fuel reduction is the advancement and increasing cost-efficiency of alternative energy fields, the technologies in general have less room for growth and less capital for investment when the economy is fragile. The ideal environment for sustainable energy development exists when the economy is strong and growing, driven by low fuel costs, and the public and government understand and want to switch to alternative energies.

Instead of actual diminution, the mere fear of the depletion of fuel reserves best drives sustainable energy research and development. When temporary fuel cost crises end and prices go down, as they have every time in the past, we need the global community to have internalized that fear of depletion. In this respect, then, the debate over the peak energy theories may have an important and lasting contribution to our environmental policies and economic prosperity.  Hopefully, the idea of peak energy will spur change well before the theory becomes our reality.

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