Peak Oil theory: What is it and why should we care?

In a world that runs on oil we are very dependent on this finite resource. Could the world as we know it crumble apart once the oil is depleted; will we face even more energy motivated wars? Or will we finally manage to grasp the enormity of the problem facing us and act before the decline begins?



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What is peak oil?

Peak Oil is a theory predicting the point where we have reached maximum extraction of oil to satisfy our ever growing energy needs. The theory was put forward by Marion King Hubbert in 1949 (although the term “peak oil” was coined much later: in 2002 by Colin Campbell) and it describes oil production as a bell curve that will reach a plateau at a particular time after which it will continue to decline. This is due to the finite resources that come from tens of millions of years of compression of organic matter – not a process we can repeat and therefore the very definition of finite.

However, there is no wide consensus on when the demand for oil will surpass its supply. Some scientists believe that we have already reached peak oil while a research commissioned by BP comes to the conclusion that we have reserves that will last for decades to come. However, nearly all agree that the peak will have been reached by 2050.

Why should we care about peak oil?

The answer to the question as to why we should care about peak oil and its various predictions is quite simple. Global economic growth and development is leading to higher energy demand and emerging countries such as the BRIC nations are driving the development. With an ever growing global demand for energy, a decline in oil supply needs to be compensated by other resources. Major investment in renewable energy is therefore held back by predictions that overestimate future global oil supply. The further back we put peak oil, the more of a barrier it becomes for investment in renewable energy.

While new oil fields are being discovered in the arctic and the extraction of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing becomes more prominent the peak is being pushed further back. This artificial prolongation of the oil era is counterproductive in terms of human development and sustainability but the huge corporations behind oil production are doing their best not to make us feel the squeeze that will inevitably come.

We should be going with the more pessimistic predictions of peak oil, many of which predict that we have already reached the plateau and that it’s all downhill from here. There is nothing to gain from delaying investment in renewable energy and the sooner we begin and develop large-scale alternatives the less conflict and suffering will follow in the decades to come.


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