Hubbert’s Peak Oil Theory


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


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.