## Wednesday, October 17, 2018

### Hubbert Curves Would Never Have Worked

Everyone who followed the peak oil story is familiar with Hubbert curves. A Hubbert curve is a bell-shaped curve which is claimed to represent oil extraction for a region over time. It is claimed that all oil extracting regions will follow such a curve or approximate it.

Since all oil producing regions supposedly follow a Hubbert curve, such curves could be used to predict oil extraction for any region. We can just look at the production profile from a region, and see how far along its bell curve it happens to be. For example, we can draw a bell curve through the past production profile of some region, then extend the bell curve out into the future. In so doing, we would predict the future oil extraction from that region over time. We could also predict the total future amount of oil extracted by adding up the area under the curve we had extended. These procedures are done mathematically, not visually, but Hubbert's very earliest paper relied upon a simple visual extrapolation.

Presumably, Hubbert curves are based upon a statistical phenomenon. With a consistent amount of effort devoted to discovery and extraction, production will follow a fairly consistent pattern. The largest oil deposits are discovered first and are depleted as quickly as possible. New oil wells are drilled at a certain rate. At first, new wells more than compensate for depletion of old ones. Eventually, there are more and more "old" oil wells, and the newer ones get smaller and smaller, until depletion of old wells overcomes extraction from new ones, leading to a peak and then decline. The end result is a bell-shaped curve for the region as a whole.

However, that behavior is a statistical phenomenon which relies upon certain conditions being met. In particular, it requires a constant amount of effort devoted to discovery and extraction. If the resources devoted to discovery and extraction increased exponentially over time for a region, for example, then we would expect the resulting curve to be negatively skewed, with the peak further to the right. More oil would be extracted toward the end of the production profile, and the drop-off would be fairly rapid. On the other hand, if discovery and extraction were exponentially decaying, then we would expect a rapid ramp-up and a gradual decline. In both cases, the curve would not be symmetric at all, and Hubbert curves would no longer work.

In my opinion, Hubbert curves would only work in regions where there is a consistent amount of effort devoted to extraction. In other words, there must be a consistent amount of money and resources devoted to discovery, drilling, and so on. Only then would Hubbert curves work at all. Otherwise, Hubbert curves would not work at all, because the underlying forces which cause the statistical trend would no longer be operating.

This explains why Hubbert curves failed for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, Iran, Iraq, and Russia. All of those countries were presumed to be entering terminal decline in the 2005-2010 period, but none of them actually did. The reason is because the effort devoted to extraction has changed drastically over time in those countries, which would render Hubbert curves completely useless. For example, Iraq was subject to sanctions for decades. Russia underwent a collapse. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, and Iran voluntarily curtailed their oil production as part of a cartel strategy, in order to control prices. Once those events have occured, Hubbert curves will be useless at that point, and cannot be used to predict oil production going forward.

Curtailment is a phenomenon which requires special consideration. The Middle Eastern countries with large oil deposits all curtailed their production as part of a cartel strategy, starting in the early 1970s. Doing so will push the date of geological peak way out into the future, but will make the peak of a Hubbert curve appear much closer. Curtailment would cause an inflection point on the production graph, which Hubbert curves would misinterpret as a sign of imminent geological scarcity. In fact, curtailment pushes geological scarcity further away. In this case, a Hubbert curve would indicate the opposite of what is really happening. Thus, Hubbert curves will not work at all for a region which was greatly curtailed its oil production.

This implies that Hubbert curves would not have worked for the world as a whole, either. The Middle Eastern countries (for which Hubbert curves are not applicable) represent approximately 70% of the conventional oil deposits on Earth. As a result, any Hubbert curve for the entire world would include the 70% of deposits for which Hubbert curves are not applicable.

There is also good reason to believe that Hubbert curves would stop working when the price of oil has considerably increased. Any large increase in the price of oil would lead to an increase in drilling effort, which would invalidate Hubbert curves from that point forward. For this reason, the peak of conventional oil, excluding the Middle East and Russia, has not followed a Hubbert curve either. A Hubbert curve actually did predict the peak of oil outside the Middle East and Russia, but the peak for such a large region will increase prices, and thereby cause increased discovery and extraction, which will invalidate the Hubbert curve from that point forward. For that reason, Hubbert curves did predict the peak for oil outside the Middle East and Russia, but the decline was offset by increased drilling and discovery caused by increased prices.

This is another reason why Hubbert curves would never have worked for the world as a whole. Hubbert curves have worked fairly well for individual regions, but a peak for the world  will change prices, which would cause Hubbert curves to stop working.

As a result, we can conclude that Hubbert curves would never have worked for the Middle East or for Russia, which collectively have more than 70% of worldwide conventional oil deposits. Nor would Hubbert curves have worked for the world as a whole. Nor would Hubbert curves have worked for the regions except the Middle East and Russia, once the peak has been passed.

Interestingly, Hubbert curves did appear to work fairly well when the condition of constant effort was actually met. The peak of conventional oil, outside the Middle East and Russia, for a given price, did actually occur in 2005. That is exactly what Hubbert curves had predicted, and I don't think it was a coincidence. Hubbert was actually on to something here.

However, Hubbert curves need to be applied far more judiciously and sparingly than they have been in the past. When we see an inflection point on a curve, we must ask why the inflection point occurred. Is drilling being curtailed in that region for political reasons? Has the price of oil changed greatly? Has a cartel formed? Is there some kind of political disruption or turmoil that would interrupt drilling or curtail output? If so, Hubbert curves will no longer apply.

These considerations imply that Hubbert curves will not work for predicting future coal production for the United States or for the world. The United States has faced inadequate demand for coal, going back to the 1970s. All industrialized countries have stopped growing their per-capita energy production because of inadequate demand. Growth was purposefully curtailed. In the case of the United States, this happened long before the geological peak of coal. As a result, Hubbert curves will greatly underestimate the amount of coal which could be extracted there, because they will misinterpret that inflection point as an indicator of approaching geological scarcity, when it actually indicates that scarcity is being pushed further into the future. In my opinion, this is the reason for the drastic discrepancy between USGS estimates for coal in the United States and Hubbert curves applied to the same region. Hubbert curves are inapplicable there, and would drastically underestimate the amount of coal that could be extracted. Since the United States coal deposits are such a large fraction of global coal deposits, Hubbert curves won't work for global coal production either.

In summary. Hubbert curves are based upon a statistical regularity. As such, they'll only work when certain conditions are met. They work when there is a constant amount of effort devoted to discovery, drilling, and extraction. In all other circumstances, they fail badly.

As a result, Hubbert curves cannot be used to predict oil production for the Middle East or Russia, nor can they be used to predict oil production for the world as a whole. Furthermore, Hubbert curves cannot be used to predict coal production for the United States or the world. In all those cases, Hubbert curves will greatly underestimate the amount of oil or coal that could be produced.