Hubbert’s Peak Oil Theory

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The Hubbert Curve

M. King Hubbert with behind him the Hubbert curve

The Hubbert peak theory states that the rate of fossil fuel production such as oil tend to follow a bell-shaped curve. The theory was created in 1950 by the American geologist M. King Hubbert.

During his research Hubbert was working for the Shell Oil company. Despite efforts from Shell to pressure him not to publish his work, Hubbert did so anyway. Oil experts dismissed Hubbert’s work and his peak predictions. The Hubbert peak theory is now considered to be one of the main theories on peak oil.

M. King Hubbert noticed that the discovery of oil fields tend to follow a bell-shaped curve. He assumed that the rate of oil production was likely to follow a similar curve, this is now known as the Hubbert Curve.

The theory is based upon the fact there’s a limited amount of oil under the ground in any area, therefore the rate of oil discoveries, which initially increases quickly, must reach a peak and then decline. In the United States, the oil production curve followed the bell-shaped discovery curve after a time lag of 35 years.

The Hubbert curve model shows the phases production of oil goes through over time

Hubbert’s Peak

Hubbert’s peak can be used to observe the peaking of oil production in a particular region. Based on his theory, Hubbert made a report for the American Petroleum Institute in 1956, which predicted that the oil production from discovered oil sources would peak in the U.S somewhere between 1965 and 1970. He described two scenario’s in his report:

  • most likely scenario: a production curve with a growth rate of 6%, a total of 150 Giga-barrels (Gb) of oil and an oil peak in 1965.
  • second scenario: a production curve with a production growth rate of 6%, a total of 200 Giga-barrels (Gb) of oil and an oil peak in 1970.

The United States reached Hubbert’s peak in 1970 as predicted. The U.S production of oil reached a peak of 10,200,000 barrels per day. Since then, the U.S oil production has been in decline.

Hubbert’s peak, better known as peak oil, is often used more generally, to refer to the moment in time when the entire planet’s oil production peak occurs. After this moment, according to the Hubbert Peak Theory, the rate of oil production on the world would enter a terminal decline.

Hubbert predicted in his report, which was published in 1956, global peak oil would occur “about half a century from now”. In a TV interview in 1976, Hubbert remarked that the actions of OPEC might flatten the curve of global oil production, but this would only delay the peak for at most a decade.

M. King Hubbert’s original 1956 prediction of the global oil production

Criticism

The former vice president of the Italian energy company Eni, Leonardo Maugeri, points out that the Hubbert peak predictions do not take into account unconventional oil even though there’s a large amount of these resources available. He admits the costs to extract oil from these sources are very high, but are falling because of new technology. He also argues that the extraction rate from oil sources has increased from 22% in 1980 to nearly 35% because of improved technology and believes this trend will continue.

The economist Edward Luttwak, argues that unrest in nations such as Russia, Iran and Iraq has led to an incorrect estimate of oil reserves. ASPO (The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas) responds by arguing that there is only unrest in Iraq currently and not in Russia and Iran.

Cambridge Energy Research Associates published a paper that criticized Hubbert’s Peak Theory: “Despite his valuable work, M. King Hubbert’s method does not work flawless because it does not take into account resource growth, improved technology or the impact of politics on oil production. His method is not reliable in all cases including on the United States and cannot predict a reliably global oil production peak. In other words, the case for the imminent peak is flawed. As it is, oil production in 2005 in the Lower 48 in the U.S was 65% higher than Hubbert predicted.

How Cuba Survived the Oil Crisis

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Special Period in Time of Peace

 

crop fields in Cuban cities became a common picture

Cuba has already experienced “peak oil” when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. The collapse was an economical disaster for Cuba. Cuba lost its primary trading partner, oil imports were cut by half and food by 80%. The United States made it even worse for Cuba by banning any ship that came from Cuba from entering the U.S. for 6 months. Cuba’s economy shrank by almost 35% within a year.

The crisis is known as the ‘Special Period in Time of Peace in Cuba‘. During this time Cuba was forced to change its society and its economy radically. The major changes were the introduction of sustainable agriculture, decreased use of vehicles, and a different approach towards health, diet and industry. The Cubans had to live their life without many goods they had become used to.

Impact of the Collapse

The collapse of the Soviet Union had a huge impact. Cuba lost around 80% of its exports, 80% of its imports and its GDP(Gross Domestic Product) dropped by almost 35%. Food and medicine became scarce. Cuba completely relied on the Soviet Union for oil imports, Cuba’s oil import immediately dropped to 10%. Before this, oil was the second largest export product of Cuba as it re-exported any Soviet oil it did not used to other countries for profit.

the gap between oil consumption and production shows how important imported Soviet oil was

The administration of the Russian Federation, which emerged from the former Soviet Union, made it immediately clear that it had no intention to deliver any more oil to Cuba. A crisis was unavoidable without the economic agreements between the former oil-rich Soviet Union and Cuba. The effect was felt immediately resulting in a decrease in Cuban consumption to 20%. The major underpinnings of Cuban society completely relied on oil, its agricultural, industrial and transportation systems were paralyzed. There were massive losses of productivity in Cuban agriculture as it was dominated by harvesters and industrial tractors that run on oil.

The development of permaculture, re-localization, and innovative solutions to transportation was crucial. The daily life was completely disrupted, waiting for a bus took three hours, power outages lasted eighteen hours, food consumption was reduced to 1/5 of their normal level and the average Cuban lost about 10 kilograms. Although starvation was avoided, persistent hunger, something not seen since before the Cuban Revolution, suddenly became a daily experience, and initially, malnutrition in children under six was evident after just a month of these food shortages.

Changes in Cuban Lifestyle

monthly wage of a Cuban after the Soviet collapse

In the beginning of the crisis there was a general breakdown in agricultural and transportation sectors, pesticide and fertilizer stocks and widespread shortages of food. During this time there were several permaculturists who traveled to Cuba to give aid and to teach their agriculture techniques to the Cubans. The Cuban government supported the organic agriculture, it had to replace the old industrialized form of agriculture.

Cuba was forced to close factories across the nation, millions of jobs in the industrial sector were lost. The Cuban government tried to create jobs in the agriculture sector and other homegrown initiatives, but these jobs did not pay as well, and Cubans on the whole had less money to spend.

Diet

The production of meat and diary products were very dependent on fossil fuel. These products disappeared from the Cuban diet within a matter of days. The Cubans had to change their Latin American food habits for diets freshly produced, higher in fiber, and more vegan in character. The oil for sugar contract with the former Soviet Union was of course dissipated. Cuba’s agricultural production changed, former cane fields were now replaced to grow fruit and vegetables.

Transportation

The Cuban Camel’, a tractor redesigned as bus

Since there was a lack of oil alternative transportation was necessary to handle the transportation of thousands of people who had to go to work, school and other daily activities. Carpooling and hitch-hiking became a normal activity. Owning a private car became uncommon; ownership became a privilege awarded for performance instead of a right. The most notably vehicle is the Cuban “camel”, this is a big 18-wheeler tractor with trailers redesigned as a passenger bus meant to carry hundreds of Cubans at once. Other common forms of transportation were:

  • Cars – Old American cars were commonly used as taxis in Cuba to transport from six to eight passengers
  • Trucks – Steps and canopies were used to transport more people at once
  • Bicycles – Cuba produced half a million bikes and bought more than a million from China
  • Cars from the government picked up people when needed
  • Horses and mules were used more than before and horse drawn carriages with taxi licenses were used both in rural and urban areas

Cuba Today

local food store in Havana

Today more than 50% of the food needs of Havana’s two million citizens is produced by local urban farmers. There are more than 1,000 local stores in Havana selling locally grown fruit and vegetables. In smaller towns and cities the numbers are even higher between 70 to 100%. Farmers are now among the highest paid workers in Cuba.