Fears that the world is running short of oil aren't going away, but judging by the latest figures on global oil production there's no sign that the peak oil factor is an imminent threat. Global output rose to a new all-time high last December, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA): 75.384 million barrels per day, or just ahead of the previous peak of 75.170 million barrels a day in January 2011.
A new high may ease anxiety over oil supplies for the moment, but it's sure to be a temporary respite. All the challenges that have weighed on the outlook for raising production over the past decade are still with us. Discoveries of big, easily recoverable supplies are dwindling. Yes, U.S. consumption of oil has reportedly fallen 10% since 2005, but world demand keeps rising, mostly because of increasing growth from China, India, and other emerging markets that are rapidly industrializing and using ever larger quantities of fossil fuels.
Yet the peak oil theorists, if not wrong in the long term, seem to have been premature in warning that the summit for production was upon us. In 2009, for instance, one forecast for global oil production via The Oil Drum warned that output was set to fall by more than two million barrels a year. A decade ago, geologist Ken Deffeyes' widely read book Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage opened by stating that "global oil production will probably reach a peak sometime during this decade." The 2009 edition of the book makes the same forecast.
Deffeyes is hardly alone in warning that the end is near for raising global oil production, as a sampling of the many book titles in recent years on the peak oil subject remind: The Party's Over, The End of Oil, and Profit from the Peak, for instance.
There is a peak out there somewhere, of course. Production for every commodity with a finite supply inevitably reaches a crest. The question, of course, is when? Estimating the date of the apex is problematic for several reasons. Technology, for instance, can change the analysis. If you can make cars more energy efficient, that's the equivalent of finding more oil, all else being equal. That leaves us with the troublesome task of predicting what technology will bring in terms of energy savings in the years ahead.
Meanwhile, new and unexpected supply sources are increasingly rare, but they do pop up from time to time, such as the huge discovery in Brazil a few years ago. New finds require new estimates for the peak. Once again, technology must be factored into the analysis. History suggests that a given field's recoverable supply rises with improved technology through time.
Let's not forget that there's always doubt about the data, which further complicates the forecast of the peak. To cite just one example that illustrates the problem: Iran, one of the largest sources of crude oil on the planet. Anyone want to bet a year's salary that the official numbers from Tehran have been accurate over the last 20 years?
In fact, all analytical roads lead back to the Middle East, starting with Saudi Arabia, which holds the title of the world's large supplier of easily recoverable crude oil and the repository for most of the world's spare production capacity. The kingdom, in other words, is the world's great swing producer, allowing the country to effectively raise output relatively quickly. The late Matthew Simmons, a widely quoted oil analyst in his day, warned in his 2005 book Twilight in the Desert that Saudi Arabia's production was nearing a peak. The forecast appeared to be accurate for several years, although the latest data reveals that it was premature after all. The kingdom's crude oil output reached an all-time high at the end of 2011, according to EIA. In fact, one of the key reasons why global production is up is because of the chart below:
As always, there's the enduring question: Will it last? Can the world continue to increase oil production? Yes, according to the BP Energy Outlook 2030 published earlier this year. Good thing too, since total global consumption of crude is expected to rise in the decades ahead as well. How will the oil industry satisfy this thirst? "Rising supply to meet expected demand growth should come primarily from OPEC, where output is projected to rise by nearly 12 [million barrels per day]. The largest increments of new OPEC supply will come from [natural gas liquids] as well as conventional crude in Iraq and Saudi Arabia."
EIA also expects global production to continue rising as far as the eye can see, for both OPEC and non-OPEC sources.
None of this deters the peak oil crowd. "Peak oil is a fact, not a theory," asserts PeakOil.com
From US conventional oil production peaking in 1970 to global conventional oil production peaking in 2006 the figures are indisputable. Even institutions such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) and publications like The Economist that are not known for alarmism have admitted that oil production from conventional sources has peaked. So why are there still commentators out there that refuse to believe peak oil?
Rising production numbers are probably part of the answer.