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Engineering in an Age of Limits, Pt. 6: A Journey – Hubbert

By: , Posted on: June 4, 2015

king hubbert
M. King Hubbert

Engineers did not invent the steam engine — the steam engine invented them.
What will a post-oil society invent?

This is the sixth post in the series “Engineering in an Age of Limits”. We are facing limits in natural resources, particularly oil; there are limits to our finances (money seems to be increasingly disconnected from actual goods and services); and there are limits to how much we can continue dumping waste products into the air, the sea and on to land.

We are also facing a transition as the Oil Age comes to an end. This is not the first time that society has faced such a changeover. At the beginning of the 18th century the principal source of energy in northern Europe was wood. However the forests had been mostly depleted so a new source of energy, coal, had to be developed and exploited. The extraction of coal from underground mines posed new technical challenges particularly with regard to removing the water that flooded those mines. So new technologies, particularly the steam engine, had to be developed. Necessity was indeed the mother of invention. These technological developments led to many changes in society, including the creation of the profession of engineering. The transitions that we are currently experiencing as we look for alternatives to oil are likely to generate equally profound paradigm shifts. How this will impact the engineering profession remains to be seen.

These posts are published at our blog site. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join.

Previous Posts

The posts in this series so far are:

1) Reverse Engineering

2) Peak Forests

3) The Mechanical World View

4) Four Strands

5) A Journey – Twilight

We have also, during the course of the last two years, published other posts to do with these topics. They are listed at our Welcome page.

A Journey — Part 1 described my the start of my personal journey into learning about and understanding the Age of Limits. I discussed the following:

-My decision to to take a Masters Degree in literature. This exposure to different ways of thinking and to different types of technology highlighted the importance of an eclectic approach to the problems that we face.

-The article I read about ethanol as a fuel. The article noted that what we now refer to as ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) of ethanol was low — so low that the use of ethanol really doesn’t seem to make much sense on strictly technical grounds. It is necessary that the resource provides more energy than is used to obtain it. Resource exploitation has to make economic sense as well as technical sense.

-The posts written by Matt Simmons and his book Twilight in the Desert. They introduced me to the concept that oil is a finite resource and that we are using it up.

I continue my journey with an introduction to M. King Hubbert and his seminal work on the decline of oil reserves.

Like anyone who reads about Peak Oil issues very quickly runs into the name Dr. M. King Hubbert (1903-1989). And rightly so — his early insights into the fundamental problems associated with oil depletion provide the foundation of much of today’s thinking. (In one science fiction story set at a time about three hundred years from now his name is treated as a swear word; where we would say “by God!” the people in the story say, “By Hubbert!”) In the year 1979 Alfred North Whitehead said,

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

A similar comment can be made about Hubbert — so much of our current discussions to do with resource constraints has its roots in what he wrote over sixty years ago. Most current Peak Oil writings will eventually be considered as being a series of footnotes to Hubbert.

The Age of Happy Motoring
The Age of Happy Motoring

It is also important to understand the culture of the time in which he lived. Oil production was increasing and the Age of Happy Motoring was well underway. Nuclear power was going to be too cheap to meter and no one questioned whether infinite growth on a finite planet made sense. Hubbert was courageous.

The Hubbert Curve

Hubbert Curve
The Hubbert Curve

Born in the year 1903 he was at the peak of his powers in 1956. As a leading scientist employed by one of the world’s largest oil companies he was authoritative and credible. The four pages of citations in his paper confirm his commitment to thorough and professional research. He published many papers to do with oil reserves and the rate at which they decline. But his seminal work was Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels presented at an American Petroleum Institute (API) meeting in San Antonio, Texas in March 1956. It can be downloaded here.

His basic idea — which seems obvious to us sixty years later but which was far from obvious in his time — was that all oil reserves have a finite life and will eventually be depleted. Geologists in his day knew this about individual oil wells, but he scaled up the discussion to consider reserves in much larger regions, such as the States of Texas and Illinois. His insights resulted in the now famous Hubbert Curve. Although Hubbert considered just oil reserves in the United States the principles he used can be applied to any non-renewable resource or to a resource that is depleted more quickly than it can replace itself (such as the forests discussed in Peak Forests). For example Hubbert curves have been developed for coal and for fish stocks in the ocean.

The reason that his paper was so foundational was that it pulled together all the parameters of what is now known as Peak Oil. Key insights included the following:

-He discussed the issue of fossil fuel production in a global context.

-He recognized the finite nature of fossil fuel reserves.

-He developed a generic (Hubbert) curve to show how production of fossil fuels peaks and then declines.

-He understood the fact that continued exponential growth in a finite world cannot continue.

-He had a grasp of the social implications of his research.

Analysis of the 1956 Paper

Because of its importance and because many of the issues that he raised are with us still it is worth reading Hubbert’s 1956 paper in detail and analyzing his findings and conclusions.

His paper is in three parts. The first part analyzes the fossil fuel industry of his time (the early 1950s) and provides forecasts as to likely production rates over the next half century. The second part of the paper is to do with the transition that he expected to see from fossil fuels to electricity generated by nuclear power plants. The third part of the paper, an assumption that society will respond to analyses such as his rationally, is implicit in the overall context of his analysis.

Part 1 — Fossil Fuel Reserves

In the first part Dr. Hubbert’s analysis of the fossil fuel industry was profound — the forecasts he made with regard to the future production of oil in the United States were accurate (he also predicted the timing of peak oil production world-wide almost exactly, although his forecasts as to the quantities of oil that would be produced were low, mostly because some major new oil prospects had not yet been discovered in the 1950s.) The following is a quotation from his paper.

The fossil fuels . . .  have all had their origin from plants and animals . . . during the last 500 million years.Therefore, as an essential part of our analysis, we can assume with complete assurance that the industrial exploitation of the fossil fuels will consist in the progressive exhaustion of an initially fixed supply to which there will be no significant additions during the period of our interest.

. . . world production of crude oil increased at a rate of 7 per cent per year, with the output doubling every 10 years.. . . How many periods of doubling can be sustained before the production rate would reach astronomical magnitudes? No finite resource can sustain for longer than a brief period such a rate of growth of production; therefore, although production rates tend initially to increase exponentially, physical limits prevent their continuing to do so. This rapid rate of growth for the production curves make them particularly deceptive with regard to the future length of time for which such production may be sustained. 

The above statements lie at the heart of his thinking: reserves of fossil fuels are finite; they cannot be replaced except over many millions of years. Hubbert also drew a clear distinction between the three kinds of fossil fuel (solid, liquid and gaseous) but did not anticipate any issues to do with moving from one to another.

Part 2 — Nuclear Power

Long-Term Projection
Long-Term Projection

The very title of his paper – Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels – shows Hubbert’s fundamental optimism. He anticipated that society would make a smooth transition from fossil fuels to nuclear power and that economic growth could continue, as shown in the above sketch, which is taken from his paper.

Consequently, the world appears to be on the threshold of an era which in terms of energy consumption will be at least an order of magnitude greater than made possible by fossil fuels.

This prediction missed the mark. Although the nuclear power industry now constitutes an important part of the overall energy mix, the optimism that Dr. Hubbert showed regarding the transition from fossil to nuclear fuels has not occurred in the manner that he anticipated.

First, it turns out that different energy sources are not nearly as fungible as was thought in the 1950s. The world now has close to a billion vehicles (automobiles, trains, airplanes, trucks, ships) that run on fossil fuel. Although we see some attempts to introduce electric cars, the reality is that electricity from nuclear power plants is not a direct replacement for gasoline and other refined products, at least not on a realistic time scale.

The civilian nuclear power industry was just getting started in 1956 with promises of energy that “would be too cheap to meter”. In hindsight it is now evident that Hubbert was too optimistic. Although the nuclear power industry meets a large fraction of the world’s demand for electricity, it has not been the savior that Hubbert anticipated. Costs have been much higher than anticipated, accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima-Daiichi have shaken public confidence to do with the safety of the industry and issues to do with the disposal of radioactive waste remain unresolved.

Part 3 — Society’s Response

Throughout his paper lies an unspoken assumption that, when presented with the facts and analyses shown in papers such as his, then we, as a society, will take the appropriate actions. In 1956 there was sufficient time to make the transition from an oil-based society to one that derives most of its energy from nuclear power. We have since learned to be more cynical — people generally do not plan for the medium or long-term future. They look mostly to satisfy their own immediate needs and wishes.

But it does pose as a national problem of primary importance, the necessity . . . of gradually having to compensate for an increasing disparity between the nation’s demands for these fuels and its ability to produce them from naturally occurring . . . petroleum and gas.

We can now see that Hubbert was rather too hopeful, maybe a little naïve. It seems as if he thought that, by merely identify the problem, society would respond appropriately. That did not happen. No serious attempt was made in his day to address resource constraints — little has changed since then.

About the Author

ian sutton bio picIan Sutton is a chemical engineer with over 30 years of design and operating experience in the process industries. He provides services in all areas of process design, plant operations and process safety management — both onshore and offshore. He provides consulting services to senior management on the implementation, effectiveness and cost of process safety and risk management programs. His clients include companies in oil and gas production and refining, pipelines, chemicals, minerals processing, and food production.

You can follow along with Ian’s thoughts and musing on process safety at his personal blog, The PSM Report here.

He has published the following books with Elsevier:


Process Risk and Reliability Management, 2nd Edition

Plant Design and Operations

Offshore Safety Management, 2nd Edition

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