What the Hubbert Peak means

(an old play to be mounted as a podcast soon).

Nine years ago, I wrote about oil and its peak. It was during the Obama administration, and there was serious concern that we would never get past a price of $100/barrel, which means that the economies of the world would never get out of the economic doldrums that followed the Housing bubble of 2008. James Howard Kunstler had written that high oil prices (over 100 a barrel) would put the economy in a permanent worldwide recession.

The play was titled the HUBBERT SLOPE. If you don’t know, M.King Hubbert was one of the smartest of petroleum geologists in the world. And he’d thrown the geology field into an uproar by predicting in 1956 that we were heading toward a crash of oil availability as early as 1970. His contemporaries laughed at him.

Then came 1973 and the OPEC oil embargo. And at that point, we realized we Americans weren’t self sufficient on oil anymore. Starting in 1970, the US was using more oil than it produced, and it couldn’t find enough oil to keep everyone ‘happy motoring’ (a term from James Howard Kunstler). And suddenly gas prices doubled. They doubled again with the OPEC embargo after the US attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages in 1979-80.

There were a few hiccups along the way before prices of gas evened out. The big one, which no one in the GOP wants to talk about, was under W and arguably lead to the Crash/ recession under W. When the Congressional budget office tried to suss it out in 2013, it was their estimation that we’d lost TWENTY TWO TRILLION DOLLARS IN US WEALTH. but the recent COVID19 pandemic and the economic dislocation from it, has put gas prices at the center of economic debate.

So there’s this. about nine years ago I did an article about the Hubbert predictions on oil. It looks like we need to come back to the discussion about oil and our limitations. One of the geologists who predicted all of this is featured in a monologue play in the making.

This is the raw materials for that piece. Is it of interest to you, let me know if you want to see a monologue play, let me know.

The Hubbert Slope: a play about oil and running out.

DM Kinch

Copyright © 2014 Daniel M Kinch

(Lights up. Bertram is seated at the bar. He’s a man in his early seventies, not especially healthy looking. He is dressed in the sort of clothes one would expect an old college professor to be in—an ill-fitting blazer and khakis from a decade ago, out of style now. There is a whiskey bottle in front of him, about half full, and a tumbler glass he is drinking from. He takes a long draw on his drink and then pours himself another. He is aware of the audience after a moment. He turns, tips his glass to the audience)

To your health. (Takes a drink)

Welcome. I’m Bertram, but people here call me Bert. Sometimes ‘Doctor Bert’, as if I would be able to help them with a canker sore or something useful. I’d ask Peter to pour you a drink on my tab, but Peter excused himself from his bartending duties about… (looks at his watch) about an hour ago. One of the nice things about being a regular in the only pub in a small Irish village is that you’re trusted to lock up after you’re finished. Peter has a family waiting for him. My children and grandchildren are spread across the planet. I don’t have a family to go home to, and my wife really doesn’t want to listen to me. Seems fair to let Peter go home. My usual poison of choice is a Murphy Stout, but Peter was smart enough to turn off the tap. So Jameson’s it is.

Yes, I’ve driven everyone else out. I don’t mean to. People start talking to me, and I answer their questions for a while, and then everyone drinks until they can forget what I’ve said and they stagger home. Peter hasn’t decided whether I help or hurt business. But tonight, I got everyone to go home before ten. Some Yank tourists on holiday came in, chatted me up, but they left too.

(Takes another drink)

Welcome to my adopted home in the Irish Republic. Small farming village next to the coast that’s been here for centuries. Oral history has it that it was something of a thriving gathering place for the surrounding farms. Had some copper mining, too. In its heyday, there were over 20,000 residents. But in the heyday, the locals were completely dependent on their best crop, which was the potato. After Black 47, and the repeated failure of the potato crop, people who could leave, left. Most who stayed, died. Our tourist trade is almost entirely people looking up their ancestry here. Current population is around 800 and I don’t think the village has added more than a few dozen people in the last fifty years.

We’re rather close to the Arctic Circle. But thanks to the Gulfstream, we don’t have Siberian winters. Just long nights. And my friend Mister Jameson here doesn’t help as much with my sleep anymore. The sleeping tablets from my GP don’t let me wake up properly. I’ve been advised not to combine the tablets and the Jameson’s. Actually, some people think I should, but a story for another time. So whether here or at home, I sit and wait for the sun to come up.

The sun. Burning for another five point four billion years. Providing all that heat and light using fusion, something we haven’t got the hang of except when we explode hydrogen bombs. But five dot four billion more years of energy. That dwarfs any other timescale we have on earth. Human civilizations, the industrial revolution… And then at the opposite end of the energy spectrum, there’s my specialty. I was—I still am—a geologist. I found our sun substitute. Oil.

(He pulls out a small lapel pin)

A souvenir I’ve kept since the 1960’s–America’s friend Ready Kilowatt. This effusive and shiny American came up to me at a conference to chat me up. He was part of the Atoms for Peace project and he’d

The Hubbert Slope

heard of the Hubbert Peak—that oil would be gone in our lifetimes. Assured me that mine was a sunset industry, pardon the pun, that nuclear would make electricity too cheap to meter. Tried to convince me I’d made a dreadful career choice. And he gave me this pin. Ready Kilowatt, it says. But no—I chose to find oil instead.

Haven’t you heard of Hubbert’s peak? Back in the late fifties, as I was starting my first job, a respected geologist named M King Hubbert put out a widely read paper in the oil industry. He said that the world’s oil supply would peak sometime within the next forty years. By ‘peak’ he meant that we’d get to a point when we would extract the most oil we could in a given year, and after that… After that, we’d have growing demand and shrinking supply. And perhaps some serious social disorder as people had to pay most of their income to keep the oil running. At the time he presented his paper, we had more oil than we knew what to with. He was reviled, marginalized.

Am I boring you? I’m a bore. My wife tells me that I’m boring, which is why I drink alone. Shall we try a geology joke? What do you call a periodic table with gold missing? “Au revoir”

(pause)

You see, AU—it’s the periodic table symbol for gold. All right then, this? “It’s all right if you don’t understand fossil fuel strata. After all, “Igneous is bliss”.

God help me, I’m in a roomful of liberal arts majors.

What I did, while I was in the game, I chased new oil. Chased it all around the world. I did it until I couldn’t and so I found the right place to retire. I will live out my days here in a little Irish village with one decent pub, the occasional tourist, and not much car traffic because petrol is currently going for one and a half euros per liter. For you who aren’t conversant with exchange rates, that’s nearly nine American dollars per gallon. Cuts down on traffic jams.

I was paid good coin for my work. People said I was a genius for finding oil where others didn’t. But that ability was-is- mostly luck. And geology keeps you humble. A geologist who gets things right doesn’t shout out Huzzah. I don’t recall if I ever… well, time’s wasting, true?

(Puts his glass down) all right then, everyone with me. Raise your hands and shout Huzzah. HUZZAH! (Hopefully the audience goes along with this. He pauses) Huzzah!

I think those are my first two shouts of huzzahs. That calls for a refill.

(Pours his glass full again)

Again, I never shouted Huzzah, and neither do most people in the oil business. Shouting Huzzah will jinx you. You see, you’re the lead geologist at a new play. You’ve told the roustabouts where to site that very expensive platform and where to drill. Millions are on the line. Humility is the order of the day. And whether your roustabouts strike oil or not, you nod and walk back to your trailer. And once in your trailer, you breathe a sigh of relief or if you fail, you vomit out of sight of your colleagues. Many years ago, the Luce Family… The people who brought us Life magazine? Anyway, they contacted J Paul Getty, America’s supreme oil baron. And Life magazine offered him a not insignificant sum– ten thousand dollars which at the time was about what a white collar college man was making in a year. And they offered him the ten thousand dollars tell Life’s readership the secret of his success. Getty cashed the check and wrote the following words: “Some people find oil. Others don’t”.

I think that works out to… sixteen hundred sixty six dollars and sixty six cents per word. (Lifts his arms)

Huzzah.

I found oil. I found a lot of oil for most of 30 years. As you sat in your idling cars and your warm houses, you counted on people like me to keep finding oil.

Short history lesson. The first oil found was in Titusville, Pennsylvania, leaking out of the dirt. When we’d almost drained Pennsylvania dry in 1892, there were discoveries in Ohio and then Oklahoma and California, and New York State. Not hard to find a black liquid that leaks out of the ground. And once we understood the science, we could find oil even when it wasn’t leaking of the ground. And in 1961, a Mexican fisherman named Rudesindo Cantarell phoned up Pemex, the Mexican National oil company, to complain that one of their wells in the Gulf of Mexico was leaking and the fish in his nets were covered in oil. Pemex didn’t HAVE a well anywhere near to Cantarell’s fishing spot. But they started looking. And in 1976 they found a giant field where Cantarell had been fishing. And they named it Cantarell in his honor. It’s the second largest field in the world after Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar field. Cantarell field is why Americans aren’t buying Saudi oil.

How many of you Americans have ever heard of Cantarell?

How many of you knew that Cantarell and the Canadian oilfields are where America’s oil has been coming from since the 1970s?

Ah. Too bad. The winner would’ve received a swallow of this. Makes Jameson’s look like ginger ale. (With that, he pulls an expensive looking flask out of his coat)
All right then, a consolation prize. Everyone a taste only, perhaps. Pass carefully.

(He walks over to the first person in the front row, offers the flask. He thinks for a moment, puts it back in his pocket)

Do you think I’m mad?

All right then, another joke. Why did the geologist take his girlfriend to the quarry? He wanted to get boulder. Boulder, spelled with a U. It would be funny if you were engineers. Chemists. Geologists. Or drunk. Drunk would help. You’d laugh then.

The Sixties– a marvelous time to be alive. Get in your eight-cylinder Detroit powered muscle car and floor the gas pedal, because oil is four or five dollars a barrel in 1971. America was pumping out ten million barrels every day. And Oil made you Smart, didn’t it? Americans had to be the smartest people in the world, because you were the ones sitting in your Chevy Impalas while people in Britain and France were sitting on the bus. Never mind the Italians, who were belatedly upgrading from Bicycles.

And it was a marvelous time to be in the oil business because until the 1970’s, most people didn’t care what we did to the landscape to get it out. Oil production was hidden in places like Saudi Arabia and off the main highways of Texas. The first time anybody even thought about what damage oil could cause was when that tanker—the Torrey Canyon—lost a few million gallons off the coast of Britain. But it took a long time–perhaps a hundred and ten years for anybody to think there was something dirty about oil.

And there was an odd thing that happened around that time. Actually, two. The first, is that after 1971, America no longer produced as much oil as it used. The old fields were drying up and we in the Geology business weren’t finding new ones. It’s why the US couldn’t tell off OPEC when they shut off oil in 1973. That’s easy enough to understand, and there has even been some press about it over the years. The second one isn’t as well known. But in 1969, everybody in the oil business had an awakening. Because in 1969, for the first time since the oil came up through the ground in Titusville, all the geologists working all over the earth found less ‘new oil’ than we used. It wasn’t an accident. It meant we hadn’t found enough oil to replace the stuff we used that year. And it never went back into balance.

Remember Mister Hubbert? I mentioned him awhile ago. In the 1950’s he predicted we’d be running out of oil that was easy to reach. He said the US would produce its top amount somewhere around the early 1970’s, and the world would follow as early as the late 1990’s. THAT is peak oil. He predicted peak oil because he saw the same growth and decline patterns in all oilfield plays. And the bigger plays were simply going to decline at the same rate. He was an object of scorn, of course. We all joked about Hubbert’s peak. And the 1960’s up to 1971 America had never produced as much oil.

Huzzah.

But Hubbert was right. In 1971, the US produced about ten million barrels of oil a day. And then, as predicted, we hit Hubbert’s slope. Each year after that we produced a little less.

After the OPEC price shock of the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the World economy stagnated for about a decade, then cheaper oil comes online from Cantarell and the North Sea and OPEC’s monopoly fades. Then roughly two decades of stasis. And geologists like me are quietly looking over their shoulders at the Hubbert Peak. After all, he called the US oil decline on the money. What if he was right about the world?

World oil didn’t peak in the 1990’s. It didn’t peak because we had nine years of economies showing no growth thanks to OPEC. No, the peak of oil happened perhaps in 2005 or six. We know that because that’s when prices went off the rails. We produced something like eighty six or eighty seven million barrels of oil a day in conventional oil and conventional natural gas in 2006. Peak doesn’t mean we’ve run out. Peak means we’ll never produce that much oil again. Now we’re beginning a long slide in production. And meanwhile, we got more and more clever at getting the oil out of the ground or the sea. That doesn’t solve the problem, of course—it makes the depletion come all that much quicker.

I have another joke. I promise you this isn’t one of mine. It’s one that the oil executives in the Kingdom of Saud tell each other when the help isn’t listening. Even some of the royals have told it, I’m told.

“My grandfather rode a camel,
My Father rode a horse,
I drive a Mercedes Benz,
My son flies a Gulfstream jet plane,….and…

My grandson will ride a camel.”

Not a joke, exactly. But worth hearing in context.

And most Americans don’t believe me. They tell me this is all a hoax, that there’s plenty of cheap oil around but they aren’t getting it. That like Little Orphan Annie the sun will come out tomorrow and such. And we’ll be able to do these things that we so love to do right now, such as driving or turning on an air conditioner or… well about everything. Even your president says things like ‘clean coal’ and ‘one hundred years supply of natural gas’. As if you’ll be able to frack your way out of this dilemma. That you’ll figure out how to get oil out of rocks and sand and there are billions of barrels waiting to be rescued for a temporary home in your gasoline tank. And if that runs out, you can grow hemp and change it to ethanol. Unconventional fuels will not save us.

(Takes a last draw on his drink. Looks around)

I saw a lot of blank looks just now. I forgot you’re all liberal arts majors. Conventional oil is what bubbled up in Titusville, Pennsylvania or even in Cantarell. You find a likely spot, you throw a pumpjack on the field, and you get oil. If it’s underwater, you put up a platform. Or if you’re getting natural gas, you stick a pipe into the reservoir and coax it up. Unconventional is shale oil or tar sands oil or ultra-deepwater oil and fracked natural gas. You have to take multiple steps to coax it out. You have to pulverize the shale and heat it up several hundred degrees and then the oil comes out. Or the tar sands have to be heated and then filtered and then re-refined at the factory. And with the gas, you force-pump thousands of gallons of a toxic stew of water and corrosives into a pocket of earth and hope it fractures the rock that’s keeping you from getting the methane out.

And here’s the problem– Absent the ‘unconventional’ oil and gas, we’re on Hubbert’s slope—the slow downhill move to less and less. Conventional oil wells and gas fields are drying up and we aren’t finding new ones. The oil we get is going to be increasingly expensive and it will take more and more oil to get it out.

Some people here have already accepted that we’re out of cheap fuel. Now, up the coast a few score miles, there’s a fishing village town called Kinsale. And in Kinsale, some astute community leaders and people in government researched what I’m telling you. And they decided they wouldn’t wait. They wrote their plan B—for how to survive if oil is in short supply. And Kinsale now has a power-down plan for what they’ll do for money when the tourists stop arriving every summer.

And why won’t the tourists arrive? Because the tourist industry requires cheap oil. People don’t understand the math. There might be fifteen billion barrels worth of oil in the shale under the Bakken range. That’s a huge amount of oil but it will take upwards of a few billion barrels to turn the rock into oil. And the world burns through thirty billion barrels of oil a year. After we burn through Bakken in six months, the people downstream from Bakken will never have drinkable water again. And the geologists who’ve replaced me, and the politicians who care to notice, can see the writing on the wall—all that ‘unconventional’ oil and gas will eventually be too expensive to dig out and refine. So when oil goes to a hundred ninety dollars a barrel WHEN YOU CAN GET IT, how much of society can you run? Can you keep the lights on? Can you turn on your air conditioner? And as for food, our crops are fertilized with nitrogen derived from oil and sprayed with pesticides derived from oil. We’ll be eating light.

Coal can’t fill the gap. Nuclear is a problem insofar as its fuel is limited. What then–wind power? How much can you run with windmills and photovoltaic cells and the occasional engine run on alcohol from corn squeezings? We will probably find out, perhaps in what’s left of my lifetime.

I’ve known this would happen. I’ve planned for it. My children and grandchildren, scattered across the US and Europe, they know that I’ve set aside a bit of land for them here. It won’t be like the present, but it won’t be like sitting in suburbia when the oil runs out. My village came into existence before the ROMANS arrived. And the one piece of communal knowledge that has survived for nearly 200 years is that depending on any one thing is a huge mistake. The people of Ireland thought potatoes would feed them forever, and built most of their existence on that single crop. I don’t think the village ELECTRIFIED until after World War Two. They don’t depend on things that are beyond their control. They’ve learned.

And you know, we’ll miss oil. But we’ll have science that we didn’t have before Titusville. We still have a rail grid—you can run trains on almost any sort of fuel. We won’t have our electronic toys so much. We’ll live in smaller communities and we’ll find out what local food tastes like. Maybe I’ll be wrong and one of the breakthrough technologies for energy will truly work—maybe blue algae will be scalable. Maybe we’ll figure out fusion for something other than hydrogen bombs. But if we don’t… life will be hard again. But I’ve made my plans and I’m set.

And when I think that way, I can sleep.

(He sits down on the bar stool, carefully sets down his glass. He closes his eyes for a moment)

(He crosses his arms over his chest as if to sleep. He feels something in his jacket and digs it out—the Ready Kilowatt pin)

And then I remember our friend. Mister Ready Kilowatt. As I said before, the sun will be heating us for another five billion, four hundred million years. As if our time scales will mean anything to the hydrogen fusing at the sun’s core. Against that, my life isn’t a twitch. The age of oil is a mere three figures. The industrial revolution—nothing. Eleven thousand years of human agriculture and farming—a pop. Our relatives haven’t even been on earth for more than a few hundred thousand years. Against five billion.

But I’ve been thinking of the number two hundred fifty thousand lately. Not all that much compared to five billion years, but a pretty large chunk of time nonetheless. I think of that number when I remember Mister Ready Kilowatt. Because it will take about two hundred fifty thousand years for the fuel rods bubbling away in the cracked pools around Fukushima Daiichi power plants to stop emitting radiation. It will take perhaps two hundred fifty thousand years until the plutonium casings at the bottom of the Chernobyl containment vessel will be as easy to handle as lead. Because all over the world, the five hundred or so nuclear power plants are going to be hot for thousands of years, even if there are no accidents.

What has kept the nuclear monsters at bay so long is our dead dinosaur friends. They keep the coolant running, and power the massive earth moving machines and cranes burying the doomed plants and reactor vessels in the Ukraine and on the Sea of Japan. You see, humans can re-learn to do the things that kept our ancestors alive. We can hunt and farm and built encampments and shelter. These are the things our ancestors did to stay alive on the savannahs of Africa and the great Steppes of Russia or even the Dakotas. But what our ancestors didn’t know, and what we still don’t know, is how to keep the nuclear monsters at bay as we slide down Hubbert’s slope.

(He looks out the window).

Eight hours until I see the sun again. Perhaps he’ll find me asleep. Huzzah.

FIN

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