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What Is Peak Oil?

Charles Morand

Peak Oil is a term that has become common currency in energy debates in last three years, due in large part to the spectacular rise in the price of crude between 2005 and the end of 2008. But what does Peak Oil actually mean and, more importantly, what do I mean when I use it in my articles?

In the purest and original sense of the term, Peak Oil refers to the point in time at which the rate of oil production (as measured, for instance, in barrels per day) peaks. This peak, according to the original theory, is then followed by a rapid and irreversible decline as attempts to extract more oil out of the ground run into the absolute geological limits of the resource. Wikipedia, as always, does a great job of explaining the theory of Peak Oil and provides a wealth of resources for those who would like to expand their knowledge further.

I do, on occasion, refer to Peak Oil in my articles, including one I wrote last week where I claimed that Peak Oil would be a powerful driver of gasoline prices in the next few years. Given how contentious this theory is, I wanted to clarify where I stood on it and how readers should interpret what I mean when they see those two words side-by-side in my posts.

Are we about to run into the absolute geological limits of oil in a way that won't allow us to increase production going forward? I don't know and I have nowhere near the appropriate level of knowledge to truly judge the data I see on this weekly. And frankly I don't particularly care; humanity will hit that peak at one point or another and the exact timing is of very little relevance to me.

What is far more relevant is the price point (and time) at which we hit the economic - rather than the geological - peak: let's call that Effective Peak Oil (EPO). EPO occurs where the marginal barrel of oil, which sets the price for all barrels of oil in the market, is so expensive that: (1) it triggers a process whereby governments, people and firms search for and find substitutes in a way that alters the structure of the economy and demand for oil forever and; (2) in the process, it also triggers a substantial economic shock. Does EPO look like a nice, smooth bell-shaped curve? Probably not, or at least not when plotted on a timescale relevant to most human beings (i.e. 60 to 90 years).

In the following interview he gave on CNBC last week (thanks to the Infectious Greed blog), Jeff Rubin, former Chief Economist at CIBC World Markets and author of the new book Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller, sums up my thinking on this issue better than I ever could. His most memorable quote: "What we are running out of is oil we can afford to burn."



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Comments

Have I been the only one to notice the urban sprawl caused by cheap gas? The adjustment Jeff Rubin talks about is going to be rough to say the least. Much turmoil I do see.

Agreed Jock. When I speak of substitutes in my post I mean not only actual substitutes to oil, but also entirely new modes of economic and social organization.

This can mean a whole host of things, including a reversal of suburbanization. The households already established in the burbs and that don't have an alternative to commuting (e.g. work from home) will see their disposable wealth eroded in substantial ways by rising gasoline prices.

The potential enormity of this problem is matched only by our policy-makers shortsightedness in their refusal to do anything meaningful about it. Luckily, as investors, we can make money from spotting this trend now while a majority of people still have their heads in the tar sands.

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