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HEADING FOR A PEAK

Oil’s leftovers won’t supply the next generation.

They didn’t call oil “black gold” for nothing. The mass use of petrochemicals enabled advances like highway travel and air conditioning, revolutionizing life in affluent countries. But after the initial euphoria, worries began about the available amount of oil in the ground. No one knew how much energy — this residue of ancient life on Earth — was underground.

In 1956, M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist working for Shell, crunched the oil production numbers in the United States. Alarm bells sounded when he predicted an even rise in production, culminating in a now-infamous peak oil moment between 1965 and 1971, followed by a steady decline.

After the apex, when production would be highest and price lowest, supply eventually would run out.

Texas Christian University's Tex Moncrief Chair of Engineering Efstathios Michaelides, who studies the sustainability of energy supplies, poses for a portrait in front of a model refrigeration system, Monday, August 13, 2018 in the Tucker Technology Center on the TCU campus in Fort Worth, Texas. Photo by Jeffrey McWhorter, August 13, 2018

Efstathios “Stathis” Michaelides developed a comprehensive model to predict Earth’s irreversible peak oil moment.
PHOTO BY JEFFREY MCWHORTER

 

By the 1970s, oil had turned into a global game, so Hubbert’s model was revised to include the massive reserves elsewhere, especially in the Middle East. The global peak forecast shifted to 1995, then 2005.

But supply and demand continued to rise, with no peak in sight.

“All the predictions have proven to be wrong,” said Efstathios “Stathis” Michaelides, professor and the W.A. “Tex” Moncrief Jr. Founding Chair of Engineering. No disrespect to Hubbert intended: “The analysis he did, for the time, was a very good analysis.”

It just hasn’t proven to be correct. New reports from the energy sector keep increasing the estimates of the amount of resources, spurred largely by advances in technology such as horizontal drilling.

But peak oil is still a relevant concept, Michaelides said. “There is a finite amount of petroleum under the earth.”

Michaelides took 100 years of global oil production data and created a new model to estimate the total amount of oil and gas still available for extraction.

Unlike Hubbert, Michaelides incorporated political and economic variables, including instability in the Middle East and directives such as the Paris Agreement to curtail fossil fuel use.

The real peak, the professor estimated, will happen in 2040. Unlike in Hubbert’s model, where production experiences a slow, steady decline, Michaelides predicts a sharp dive. Observers will not see incremental price increases and concerning production reports from the oil and gas industry. Instead, people across the globe will immediately ditch petrochemicals in favor of renewable energy, which by then will be the cheaper alternative.

Consumers can ease the effect of the transition by conserving and opting for renewable energy now, Michaelides said. “What has happened with my generation is that we have used all these resources indiscriminately. We have taken resources for years, for centuries, for millennia, and we have used them at a very fast pace. We have to think about what the next generations are going to do.”

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BY CAROLINE COLLIER | GRAPHICS BY MIKE DEL VECHIO