The Peak Oil story got some things right. Back in 1998, Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère wrote an article published in Scientific American called, “The End of Cheap Oil.” In it they said:
Our analysis of the discovery and production of oil fields around the world suggests that within the next decade, the supply of conventional oil will be unable to keep up with demand.
There is no single definition for conventional oil. According to one view, conventional oil is oil that can be extracted by conventional methods. Another holds it to be oil that can be extracted inexpensively. Other authors list specific types of oil that require specialized techniques, such as very heavy oil and oil from shale formations, that are considered unconventional.
Figure 1 shows the growth in unconventional oil supply for three parts of the world:
- Oil from shale formations in the US.
- Oil from the Oil Sands in Canada.
- Oil characterized as unconventional in China, in a recent academic paper of which I was a co-author. (Temporarily available for free here.)
Oil prices in 1998, which is when the above quote was written, were very low, averaging $12.72 per barrel in money of the day–equivalent to $18.49 per barrel in 2015 dollars. From the view of the authors, even today’s oil prices in the low $40s per barrel would be quite high. Since the above chart shows only yearly average prices, it doesn’t really show how high prices rose in 2008, or how low they fell that same year. But even when oil prices fell very low in December 2008, they remained well above $18.49 per barrel.
Clearly, if oil prices briefly exceeded six times 1998 prices in 2008, and remained in the range of six times 1998 prices in the 2011 to 2013 period, companies had an incentive to use techniques that were much higher-cost than those used in the 1998 time-period. If we subtract from total crude oil production only the production of the three types of unconventional oil shown in Figure 1, we find that a bumpy plateau of conventional oil started in 2005. In fact, conventional oil production in 2005 is slightly higher than the later values.