Credit: Illustration by Slug Signorino

What’s the current thinking on peak oil? Your column six years ago led me to think the petroleum tap was running dry and we’d soon be trading in our cars for bikes and roller skates. Now high-profile opinion types like David Brooks and Fareed Zakaria are making it sound like we’ve got nothing to worry about, what with fracking and dropping natural gas prices. Were you being an alarmist then, or are the optimists kidding themselves now? —David Wargo

Me, alarmist? Never. I just emphatically point out the facts. However, the situation has changed since my 2006 column on peak oil. Let’s take it step by step:

  1. Peak oil is the point when oil production stops increasing and starts falling, with potentially dire economic consequences. That day will arrive eventually; the question is when.
  2. Pessimists note oil production is tapering off or declining in many parts of the world and anticipate a peak soon—not long ago, some thought it would happen any day. However, people have been making gloomy forecasts for years, and virtually none have panned out.
  3. The exception was in 1956, when geophysicist M. King Hubbert introduced the concept of peak oil in a famous paper. Drawing on analyses of U.S. petroleum reserves plus some informed conjecture, he correctly calculated domestic oil production would peak in 1970.
  4. Global petroleum estimates were much fuzzier. Hubbert thought the “ultimate recoverable resource” for world oil was 1.25 trillion barrels; most reports I see now say it’s at least 2 trillion, perhaps much more. His prediction that global oil production would peak in 2000 was accordingly way off.
  5. The official word is we haven’t reached peak oil yet, and probably won’t for a while. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says world oil production was about 85 million barrels per day in 2011, and predicts a steady if slowing increase to 99 million barrels per day by 2035—as far out as the forecast goes.
  6. Now for the part no one anticipated in 2006: U.S. energy production has jumped in the last few years due to improved recovery techniques such as hydraulic fracturing of shale rock, also known as fracking. EIA statistics show a 24 percent increase in U.S. production of petroleum and natural gas between 2006 and 2011. Domestic natural gas is now so abundant the EIA predicts the U.S. will be a net exporter by 2022.
  7. This puts matters in a new light. Oil has been the focus till now because transportation relies heavily on liquid fuels—currently natural gas is mostly used for heating and electricity generation. However, it can also be used to power vehicles—some transit agencies use compressed natural gas to fuel buses. So we should really be talking about peak oil and gas. When might this occur?
  8. My assistant Una dug through the statistics and established the following. First, as of 2005, ultimate recoverable natural gas in the world was between 8.5 and 12.5 quadrillion cubic feet. Second, between pre-fracking 2000 and frack-happy 2010, U.S. proved natural gas reserves increased 72 percent.
  9. We then commenced arguing. I noted fracking was now mainly confined to the U.S., due partly to scruples about contaminated groundwater and such. Let’s suppose the world gets over all that and starts fracking as much as we do, with the result that world recoverable gas reserves jump at the same rate as U.S. proven reserves. That would give us 17 quadrillion cubic feet.
  10. This was too cavalier for Una. The most she’d concede was 12.5 quadrillion feet, the equivalent of 2.3 trillion barrels of oil.
  11. Fine, I said. But another fossil fuel can also be liquefied and used for transportation in a pinch, namely coal. What’s the recoverable world stash of that? One trillion tons, Una said, the equivalent of 3.3 trillion barrels of oil.
  12. By now it had dawned on us the limit of importance wasn’t oil, or oil plus gas, but all fossil fuels taken together. We computed global recoverable fossil fuels as follows: 2 trillion barrels of oil + 2.3 trillion barrel-equivalents of natural gas + 3.3 barrel-equivalents of coal = 7.6 trillion barrel-equivalents total.
  13. Finally we (well, I) took a stab at estimating peak fossil fuels, which I called PFF, or “piff.” Much depends on developments in the world economy, conservation, alternative fuels, and who knows what else, but I optimistically predicted PFF wouldn’t occur till 2100.

That kicks the can down the road. However, let’s remember a few things. One, if we’ve burned through half the planet’s fossil fuels by 2100, our problem won’t be global warming, it’ll be global scalding. Two, fossil fuels provide the bulk of the energy for everything—transportation, heating, electricity. Looked at in that light, 2100 isn’t that far away.

The market will remind us. Although natural gas now is cheap, long-term energy prices due to growing world demand will inexorably rise. That noise you hear? Perhaps you thought it was the ringing of the cash register. Ah, no. It’s tick tock.

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