Hubbert’s Early Take On Nuclear Energy

By Jason Brenno of the Hubbert Tribute

This article is offered in celebration on the 53rd anniversary anniversary of M. King Hubbert’s Seminal speech on March 8th, 1956 that correctly predicted the 1970 peak of U.S. oil production.

The mission of the Hubbert Tribute is to decipher our energy past, present, and future. Hence, we are investigating how U.S. energy policy was architected over the past century. The article reviews how experts thought about energy and nuclear energy in particular in the 1950s and how this led accomplished scientists such as M King Hubbert to promote a nuclear powered future that may not be considered probable or even viable today.

Based on his classic paper Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels – and in particular the graph below – Hubbert appears to have believed in 1956 that nuclear energy would become a long term source of energy at a magnitude far greater than that of fossil fuels. A key question to keep in mind is given that Hubbert had at least partially bought into this concept, what effect did it have on decision makers at the time?

curve

Some clues to Hubbert’s reasoning appear in the M King Hubbert oral history. An interview with M King Hubbert speaking about his 1956 paper Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels is quoted below:

Doel: I’d like to continue today on the topic of oil and natural gas resources in the United States, which we began in our last discussion. In 1956 you made a presentation to the API in San Antonio concerning predictions of oil and natural gas reserves. How did that presentation come about?

Hubbert: In the summer, I believe it was, spring and summer of 1955, I had began service and had a couple of preliminary meetings of the Advisory Committee of the National Resource Council to the Atomic Energy Commission on Waste Disposal. Land Nuclear Waste Disposal.

In the course of those hearings, I had obtained information which I had not had before, on the magnitude of the energy that could be obtained from fission. And the basic figure that came out of some of these reports was that the fission of one atom of U 235 released a specified amount of thermal energy, 200 million electron volts, as I remember the figure. From this, I did some calculation on the amount of uranium that it would take to generate say all the electric power of the United States for a specified length of time. What it was a general feeling that whereas previously I’d regarded nuclear energy as unpromising because of the scarcity of uranium and thorium

Doel: Were you familiar with the Survey’s mining of uranium at the time?

Hubbert: Not particularly. But I was unaware of the enormous magnitude of the energy contained in a small amount of uranium or thorium. So this awareness of the magnitude of the energy, as compared with the relative scarcity of uranium and thorium, changed the picture in my mind, as to the practicality of nuclear power. Well, this was in the earlier part of 1955, in the spring and summer, these meetings with this committee and the AEC people. So that in turn reflected on my previous analyses of energy based on the fossil fuels. Some time in the fall of 1955, about November, as I remember, I was on a trip to Denver, on company business. At breakfast in the hotel I encountered one of the Shell production engineers whom I knew from Houston, and we had breakfast together. During the breakfast conversation, he remarked that he was I think chairman of the program committee of the forthcoming meeting of the Southwest Division or the Production Division of the Southwest Section of the American Institute, American Petroleum Institute, which was to meet in San Antonio in March. And they were looking for someone who could give them a broad brush picture of the overall world energy situation.

According to Hubbert, this was the first time he had included nuclear energy in his discussions of the overall energy outlook. He had only recently obtained sufficient information in his work for the Atomic Energy Commission to give a presentation on the subject. While it appears at the time he was convinced that atomic energy was a viable source for future world energy needs, Hubbert did ultimately change his mind on the viability of atomic energy later in his life. As he explains below in the M King Hubbert Oral History:

Doel: Has your thinking about the problems of nuclear disposal changed since your first exposure to those issues back in the 1950’s?

Hubbert: Not significantly. The problem is here, and it appears more intractable now than it did then. And the thing that finally influenced my attitude there for 10 years or so was if this problem is manageable, with the technology existing, using low grade sources of uranium, we had not infinite supplies but very large supplies of energy. Further, if we could go to fusion, and could utilize deuterium from the ocean, which could be extracted at small energy cost, as compared with its energy content, why, then you’d be at an almost astronomical level of energy resources. Well, what’s subsequently happened, with regard to fission, and that is the irresponsibility of the AEC, of penny pinching financially, nuclear power without the backup of what would have to be done. That performance is still going on, essentially unaltered, and it drew me to the conclusion that that isn’t the answer to our energy problems, and the sooner we get rid of it the better off we’re going to be. I would never recommend shutting all the plants down tomorrow, but certainly phasing them out. See, we haven’t faced up to the big problem: what are we going to do with these radioactive plants when we have to dismantle them? We haven’t had that yet. So, that was when I took another look at solar energy, and I came to the conclusion it was a change of conclusion. Before, I thought that solar energy, although large, was so diffusive that it was impractical.

I changed my mind on that. With solar cells, existing solar cells but with improvements, and utilizing what I call the chemical route of collecting in solar cells where there’s good solar energy, storing it chemically, utilizing flat planes or tankers, liquids or gases, for delivery. That is entirely practical for producing all the industrial energy that we have any use for, with the very small fraction of available areas for collection.

Doel: I was curious that in the 1971 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN article you mentioned a number of solar energy possibilities, and you mentioned an idea that had been proposed by Alan Meinel, the astronomer and his wife. How had you come into contact with people who were working in solar energy at that time?

Hubbert: I think I met him when I was out at the University of Arizona giving a lecture. A friend of mine invited me to his house and had Meinel to the same dinner. And he gave me a considerable lot of information on his work with regard to solar energy. He was using not the solar cells but thermal, collecting solar energy thermally. And he was very enthusiastic about it at the time. At least he convinced me for the first time that it was practical, which I hadn’t previously conceived it to be.

To have a frank conversation on this subject, one must consider what exactly is meant by the term nuclear energy. For example, when pundits say nuclear energy is necessary for reducing dependence on foreign oil and especially now lowering greenhouse gas emissions, what exactly is implied? An in depth look into this issue reveals that the present fleet of light-water reactors still have a serious problem even if one were to believe that these reactors are economical, safe, do not pose emission risks during normal operations, and the waste is disposed of properly (all of which are debatable). As with oil, the looming problem is resource depletion. The current fleet of reactors uses a form of uranium that is not common in nature (U-235) and whose production is likely to peak in several decades. While it is true that the light-water reactors can also burn plutonium from weapons disposal and reprocessing of spent fuel, the issue of proliferation of weapons-grade plutonium is real and would be greatly amplified if the United States and other countries were to begin reprocessing fuel as is done in France. Given that uranium 235 is finite and the importance of reducing the possibility of proliferation, it seems imprudent to promote expansion of nuclear technology as a solution, at least in its present form.

There are two distinctly different forms of nuclear reactors: those that use more fuel than they consume (the vast majority of the operating reactors) and those that produce more fuel than they consume – that is, breeder reactors or more commonly known these days as Generation IV reactors. This begs the question: if breeder reactors were the primary source of power would fuel depletion be an issue. The answer is for all practical purposes no. As mentioned above, however, the issue of proliferation remains a very real issue especially in the current geopolitical context. Plutonium would have to be reprocessed in much larger quantities than today for as long as a breeder reactor economy is in existence.

Discussion today about nuclear power should focus upon the viability of the breeder reactor. If we are to rely upon nuclear power as a primary energy source, the breeder reactor will be inevitable. Any proposals for continuing on the path of nuclear energy should at least recognize this.

In his paper Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, Hubbert explains atomic energy and its potential in a way that is still relevant today after more than half a century:

The fissionable elements, as indicated in Table 1, comprise two isotopes of uranium U-235 and U-233 and one of plutonium, Pu-239. Of these, only one U-235 occurs naturally and the other two are man-made, Pu 239 being derived by a radioactive transformation from U-238 and U-233 from thorium. The isotopes, U-235, U-233 and Pu-239 are known accordingly as fissionable or fuel materials; whereas U-238 and Th-232, while not themselves fissionable, can be converted into fissionable isotopes and so are known as fertile materials.

Naturally occurring uranium consists of the isotopes, U-238 and U-235, in the ratio of 140 to 1. Any given quantity of natural uranium contains 99.3 percent of U-238 and 0.7 percent of U-235. Natural Thorium consists of the single isotope TH-232.

table1

The elementary nuclear power reaction is that indicated in Figure 25. Here U-235 in a critical amount is undergoing fissioning. When a U-235 atom is struck by a neutron, it breaks into fragments known as fission products which consist of other atoms near the middle of the table of atomic numbers, and also releases neutrons which strike other U-235 atoms, thereby maintaining a chain reaction. Each fission releases, on the average, 200 million electron volts of heat which like the heat of combustion of coal or oil can be used to drive a steam power plant.

The objections to the sole use of U-235 are its scarcity and the large amounts of energy required to separate it from U-238. Hence very great importance attaches to the possibility of converting the fertile materials by means of the breeder reaction. The breeder reaction for U-238 to Pu-239 which is then fissionable. By a similar reaction Th-232 can be converted to U-233 which is also fissionable. It has been experimentally demonstrated that both these reactions are possible and are capable of producing from the fertile materials more material than is consumed. Thus, in principal, by means of properly developed breeder reactors it is possible to consume whole uranium and thorium. In the subsequent discussion it will be assumed that complete breeding will have become standard practice within the comparatively near future.

Now for the energy that is released by the fissioning of a given amount of uranium (or thorium). As indicated in Table 2, the fissioning of 1 gram of U-235 releases 2.28 X 104 kw-hr of heat, which is equivalent to the heat of combustion of 3 tons of coal or 13 barrels of oil. One pound of U-235 is equivalent 1400 tons of coal or 6000 barrels of oil. Within narrow limits the same values are valid for U-238 and for thorium.

Using the foregoing data, the uranium equivalents of the fossil fuel reserves of the United States are shown in Table 3. The energy of 358,000 metric tons (1 metric ton is equal to 10 ^6 grams or 2205 pounds) of uranium is equal to that of all the fossil fuel reserves of the United States. In Table 4 it is shown that the uranium content of all the coal, oil and gas and water power to be consumed in the United States during 1956 amounts to only 553 metric tons.

figure25

uranium

Magnitude of the Uranium Reserves

With this review of the requirements we now ask: What is the magnitude of the supplies? The uranium contents and fuel equivalents of the principal sources of uranium in the United States are shown in Table 6. The ores which are currently being produced, the so called high-grade ores, are the type found principally in the Colorado Plateau. These are said to average about 0.35 percent uranium or 3500 grams per metric ton, equivalent to about 10,500 tons of coal or 45,000 barrels of oil per metric ton of ore.

The so called low-grade ores are the phosphate rocks and the black shales which have uranium contents in the range of 10 to 300 and 10 to 100 grams per metric ton, respectively. Even so, such rocks are equivalent to 90 to 900 tons of coal or 390 to 900 barrels of oil per metric ton for the phosphates, and to 30 to 300 tons of coal for or 130 to 1300 barrels of oil per metric ton of rock for the black shales. Even granite, as has been pointed out by Harrison Brown (1954) and by Brown and Silver (1955), contains about 13 grams of thorium and 4 grams of uranium per ton which is equivalent to about 50 tons of coal or 220 barrels of petroleum per metric ton of granite.

Hubbert continues to describe the massive quantities of low grade resources of uranium found in the United States and possibly in the rest of the world and concludes:

From these evidences it appears that there exist within minable depths in the United States rocks with uranium contents equivalent to 1000 barrels or more of oil per metric ton, whose total energy content is probably several hundred times that of all the fossil fuels combined. The same appears to be true of many other parts of the world. 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 that made possible by the fossil fuels.”

Further in the paper, Hubbert concludes:

We may at last have found an energy supply adequate for our needs for at least the next few centuries of the “foreseeable future”.

The sources that Hubbert references for some of this knowledge are:

The Challenge of Mans Future Harrison Brown 1954 Viking Press New York

The Possibilities of Securing Long Range Supplies of Uranium, Thorium and Other Substances from Igneous Rocks Harrison Brown and L.T. Silver 1955 United Nations International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, Geneva (preprint)

Although the book The Challenge of Mans Future is over 55 years old its knowledge and assumptions are still relevant today. It identifies many of the problems facing mankind then and still now, clearly articulating one of the largest problems which is the need for a plentiful, affordable long term source of energy. Harrison Brown concludes that a long term source of energy is essential to maintaining both the standard of living that industrial man has achieved and the population levels of this planet then and even more so today.

Another source of information listed in Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels that may have also been a contributor to the idea of the viability of nuclear power (using the breeder reactor) is the book Energy In the Future by Palmer C. Putnam. This book also asserted the viability of the breeder reactor. On Page 249 Putnam stated this of nuclear energy’s potential:

Reserves of Uranium and Thorium. World reserves, economically recoverable, are estimated at some 25 million tons of uranium and 1 million tons of thorium. Breeding is assumed, with a net effective burn-up of about one third of the mined metal. Thus the reserves would yield over 575 Q – over 25 times the net economically recoverable reserve of coal, and over 100 times that of oil-gas. A good part of the nuclear reserve is in the United States.

Note that the unit of energy Putnam refers as a Q is equal to a billion billion British thermal units of heat.

The importance and influence of this book will be the subject of future articles. It should be noted that Harrison Brown also cites this book as a source for The Challenge of Mans Future. Brown may have built upon some of the work of Putnam in his ideas on atomic energy.

Although it appears from the oral history that Hubbert was not entirely sold on the idea of powering our world on granite, he was comfortable with the concept of using the large quantities of low grade uranium as a fuel source. This idea of using low grade uranium resources as our reserves of fossil fuel become scarcer is also found in The Challenge of Mans Future. Brown asserts that after low grade sources of uranium and thorium along with minerals are depleted, mankind will have to use granite as our primary source of energy and minerals. According to Brown, uranium and thorium can be obtained fairly easily from granite. The energy from the uranium and thorium can be used to provide the energy and to obtain the minerals necessary for industrial civilization and its burgeoning population.

Brown concluded that should it be possible to develop an economical breeder reactor (which at the time he thought was achievable), industrial civilization could in principal use much more energy. In such a future, developing countries could eventually have a standard of living similar to that of the future industrialized world. The requisite energy to achieve this would first be available in low grade uranium ores and eventually granite. Brown also suggests that should the breeder reactor concept be an economic failure, mankind will be forced to use fossil fuels at an ever increasing rate. This would then subject industrial civilization to the Hubbert curve, portending its ultimate decline. Brown by no means assumed that the process of using granite to power our society was an easy proposition, but instead viewed this proposal as a critical tool for mankind to continue to develop and maintain its growing industrial civilization.

It is the assumption that low grade sources of uranium, and in some cases the misinterpretation of this assumption that appears to have led to one of a series of great miscalculations related to energy in human history. While Hubbert’s optimism about the prospects of the breeder reactor in the 1950s might at first blush appear to be one scientist in the wilderness, this is not the case. Future articles will discuss the prevalency of this point of view in the ensuing decades, and how it influenced U.S. energy policy or the lack thereof.

The astute reader may also notice a few more interesting assumptions in Hubbert’s paper Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels:

  • Much larger amounts of recoverable coal than are believed to be recoverable today

  • Oil shale as a probable future source of petroleum

  • Nuclear Energy could offset declines in petroleum production as shown in the Figure below.

years

The future articles will address these observations along with the influence of Harrison Brown and The Challenge of Mans Future, in addition to a few other publications that have added to this series of great miscalculations and their influence to this day.

References

The Challenge of Man’s Future, Harrison Brown 1954 Viking Press New York

Energy In the Future, Palmer C Putnam Van Nostrand New York

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breeder_reactor

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_uranium

A portion of the content of this article, including quotations by M. King Hubbert, are from an oral history interview with Marion King Hubbert by Ronald E. Doel, January 4 to 6 February 1989, located at the Niels Bohr Library, Center for the History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD

Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, M King Hubbert Chief Consultant (General Geology). Presented before the Spring Meeting of the Southern District Division of Production, American Petroleum Institute, Plaza Hotel, San Antonio, Texas March 7, 8, 9. 1956 Publication NO. 95, Shell Development Company Exploration and Production Research Division, Houston, Texas, June 1956. To be published in Drilling and Production Practice 1956 American Petroleum Institute. http://www.mkinghubbert.com/files/1956.pdf

Published in: on March 8, 2009 at 11:53 pm  Comments (1)  
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Shell Execs Briefed on Peak Oil in 1956

Written by David Room and edited by Steve Tanner of the Hubbert Tribute

The content of this article, including quotations by M. King Hubbert, are from an oral history interview with Marion King Hubbert by Ronald E. Doel, January 4 to 6 February 1989, located at the Niels Bohr Library of the American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD.

M King Hubbert PortraitThis is first of a number of articles in the Hubbert Chronicles. In this installment, M King Hubbert predicts peak oil and educates Shell Oil corporation employees for years following his seminal 1956 speech. Shell understood the import of what Hubbert was saying and they repeatedly brought him in to present at executive retreats. Our story begins with the context for Hubbert’s seminal speech and peak oil prediction – the Roaring 50s.

In 1950, the United States was the world’s largest producer and exporter of oil, making it mostly self-sufficient. The U.S. also was the largest creditor nation, while its manufacturing output fed the world’s demand for tools and machinery. This new world power from the West emerged relatively unscathed from the second of two world wars, for which its unprecedented access to oil proved the deciding factor. This quite literally was America’s peak in wealth and potential.

Before embarking on an ambitious plan to rebuild the bombed-out cities of Europe, the U.S. built more than 2 million homes on the homefront, mostly to meet the unprecedented demand of returning GIs. The resulting paradigm shift, constructed around a flawed assumption of infinite bounty, was the beginning of the suburbanization of America that continues to follow its terminal path. Intensive highway development would continue for decades, further solidifying American’s love affair with the automobile and redefining the American Dream.

1950s America was rapidly automating, highly productive but now using more carbon energy than human muscle. Thousands of laborers, many blue-collar African Americans, would be replaced by fossil-fuel-guzzling machines. Shell geologist M King Hubbert said in his seminal speech to members of the petroleum industry’s trade association that fuel and not human energy was doing virtually all of the work in the United States, replacing most human and animal labor. Some energy came from hydroelectric and other sources, but most of that was — and still is — fossil fuel.

In this context of American exuberance and seeming mastery of the world, Hubbert took a stand that was antithetical to the accepted view of what was “normal,” forecasting that the ultimate source of American power –– Texas gold — was headed for imminent decline. He took that stand, geographically speaking, in the heart of the U.S. oil patch.

Hubbert was invited to give a broad-brush picture of the overall world energy situation, including the state of U.S. energy resources, at the spring meeting of the Southwest Section of the American Petroleum Institute. Driving from Houston, he and his wife went to the Plaza Hotel in San Antonio to drop off 500 copies of his talk for distribution at the meeting. “To my surprise, I found myself surrounded by the petroleum press, wanting to know, was this paper going to be given? I said, ‘Why, certainly.’

“But it was perfectly obvious, there was something going on that I didn’t know about, and I was furious. The press, all the gas journals, various petroleum journals… the oil reporters… In fact, I was so angry that I refused to go back to my hotel… my wife and I had dinner and went to a motion picture, and we didn’t get back to the hotel room until around midnight. And then the next morning, when the meeting was opening, the program consisted of the Mayor of San Antonio giving an address of welcome. I was the next speaker, when I got a signal calling me off the platform,” Hubbert recalled in a 1989 interview.

While the Mayor was making his address, Hubbert got a telephone call from an executive assistant in New York, expressing “considerable alarm” about his paper. The assistant pleaded with Hubbert to “tone it down,” taking out parts he claimed were “sensational.” To which Hubbert replied: “Nothing sensational about it, just straightforward analysis.” The assistant then asked Hubbert, “That part about reaching the peak of oil production in ten or fifteen years, it’s just utterly ridiculous.”

Hubbert tried to get the admin off his back, since he was supposed to take the podium after the Mayor, who was currently speaking.

Hubbert later recalled, “The vice president for so-called public relations, otherwise known as propaganda, had read… a release on it, and had gone through the ceiling.” The release had been written by the PR department in Houston. The New York office didn’t even have a copy of the paper.

“All they had was a synopsis written by the public relations man in Houston. But anyhow, they blew up in smoke, and there wasn’t a responsible official in the New York office. They were all out at a meeting somewhere else… Anyhow, I went ahead, gave my paper, informally of course but with lantern slides and exactly as written. No modification whatever. And later when I got back to Houston, I found that the tension was very high around the office in Houston. Apparently all hell had been going on during my absence,” Hubbert said.

Hubbert at podium for 1956 API Speech
Photo courtesy of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming

In his talk, Hubbert explained the growth of fossil fuel extraction along a bell curve and how the downward slope from concave to convex can be used to predict when the rate of growth would stop at a peak before declining. Knowing that the production both started and ended at zero simplified the mathematics such that Hubbert could forecast the peaking of the lower 48 states using an estimate of total recoverable reserves. Rather than conjure up his own numbers, Hubbert used the range of the estimates for the most highly regarded geologists of the time – 150 to 200 million barrels. Simply graphing the curves and counting squares, he showed that the lower 48 states would peak between 1965 and 1971.

On that smaller scale, at least, his theory was proven.

Hubbert also plotted oil on a scale of 10,000 years – 5,000 years ago to 5,000 years in the future – showing how mankind’s use of petroleum is “a unique event in human history, a unique event in biological history. It is non-repetitive, a blip in the span of time.” He then posited nuclear power as a possible substitute.

Hubbert’s forecast caused shock, consternation and denial in various parts of the petroleum industry. He would later say “That caused a jolt… The first reaction was honest incredulity. Then the industry split. One side refused to accept the situation and started changing the figures. The other side, people like Shell, found they could not change the figures.

“Well, after about a week, when the responsible people did begin to come back, I think there were some pretty red faces in the New York office and maybe even in Houston. For one thing, they had a chance to look at their data and they found they couldn’t disprove anything I’d said. So the whole thing had been a tempest in a teapot by people who didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.”

The 1956 volume of Production Practice, the journal of record for the American Petroleum Institute, didn’t come out until early 1957. Hubbert’s paper was the lead story. In the speech, Hubbert had said “the discovery, exploitation and exhaustion of the fossil fuels will be seen to but an ephemeral event in the span of recorded history”.

Shell deleted the following comments from the published paper that contained Hubbert’s estimates: “Assuming that this prognosis is not seriously in error, it raises grave policy questions with regard to the future of the petroleum industry. It need not be emphasized that there is a vast difference between the running of an industry whose annual production can be depended upon to increase on the average 5 to 10 percent per year and one whose output can be depended upon to decline at that rate. Yet in terms of the production of natural gas and crude oil, this appears to be what the petroleum industry is now facing.”

Shell replaced that prediction with the following statement: “The culmination for petroleum and natural gas in both the United States and the State of Texas should concur within the next few decades.”

Shell was just starting a new program of their highest level executive training, in-house training of hand-picked people who were obviously going up the executive ladder, and the first meeting was in July, 1956. Hubbert was one of the lecturers in that course. “They had 50 people holed up for a solid month, and most of the speakers were company officials, presidents, vice presidents, production exploration managers and so on. And a few outsiders brought in by Columbia Business School and so on as consultants from the outside. How to justify my being there? I wasn’t a president or a vice president, or high company official. So I was said to be there in the category of an outside consultant.”

The lecture was successful to this group; Shell had about two or three such meetings per year. Hubbert said he talked about the same topics he covered at that API meeting in San Antonio, complete with lantern slides. “And so I was, you might say, an outside member of that group… So I talked to most of the potential officialdom of Shell Oil Company in the ascendancy.”

They responded with “a certain amount of uneasiness,” he recalled. “I have a letter that I received… five or six years ago, from a president… of Shell Chemical Company who said he’d been in one of those sessions where I’d talked. He thought I was the most pessimistic geologist he’d ever heard. And that I’d hit the nail right on the head.”

Hubbert Pimple
Photo courtesy of the Hubbert Tribute

Published in: on May 5, 2008 at 9:03 pm  Comments (1)  
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Chase Manhattan Predicted Peak Oil in 1956

Fifty two years ago – on March 8, 1956 – famed geologist and geophysicist M. King Hubbert stepped to the podium at the Spring meeting of the Southwest Section of the American Petroleum Institute and delivered a speech predicting that U.S. oil production would peak within 10-15 years. When oil did in fact peak in 1970, Hubbert enjoyed several years of acclaim and public attention during the mid to late 1970s. Hubbert’s calculations indicated that world oil peak would occur around 2000 but could be delayed 5-10 years or more by significant disruptions in world oil production. It now appears that conventional oil peaked in 2005. Many experts believe the world will peak in total petroleum liquids by 2012. We are woefully unprepared even if decline rates are lower than in the classic Hubbert model.

After the world peak in total petroleum liquids occurs, we will likely be told that the permanent energy crisis we are experiencing was a result of our not understanding energy or perhaps ignoring some obscure experts. We will likely be told that our energy policy of the past really was not an energy policy but that no one really knew what was happening at the time – that it was all just misguided, unorganized optimism and that we could not have done anything differently given the circumstances of the time. This is far from the truth.

In reality, all the information was on the table in the decade of the 1950s. Recoverable resource estimates in 1950s – which have proven to be highly accurate – indicated that we needed to be very careful with how we planned our future. Various experts including Hubbert, Pogue and Hill of Chase Manhattan Bank, and Andrew Crichton predicted that U.S. oil, natural gas, and coal resources could not possibly support a high growth economy for any reasonable length of time. A rational review of the recoverable resource estimates of the time suggests that we needed to begin a long term plan to create a sustainable society based on proven renewable energy sources.

Instead, key individuals in government, think tanks, and corporations opted to use their influence and decision making capacity to forward a perpetual high-growth economy dependent on high-grade finite fossil fuels in the hopes that technology would make low-grade resources economic over time. They believed that speculative technological advances including coal to liquids, oil shale, breeder reactors, fusion, and enhanced oil recovery would become economic in the long run, thereby justifying the continuing growth of a consumerist suburban, car-oriented way of life and fueling the development of a highly industrial globalized system for the rest of the world.

This imprudent technological optimism still continues today, with oft-unchallenged assumptions that many of the speculative solutions of the past and a few newer concepts (e.g., hydrogen, cellulosic ethanol) will be able to seamlessly replace oil, capture any carbon that is emitted in the process and eventually substitute any finite fossil fuel resource when its exhaustion is imminent.

In the next year, the Hubbert Tribute will begin the process of explaining how and why we are in the predicament we find ourselves in today. We will uncover articles and reports of yesteryear that forebode of today’s energy crisis. We will show the connections between some of the largest U.S. corporations, key government figures, and influential think tanks, and explain how they worked together to forward domestic and foreign policy that has us so egregiously dependent on oil and other dwindling fossil fuels. We will also explain the geopolitical circumstances that may have been used to rationalize these unfortunate decisions.

A prime example is a publication that came to the same conclusion as Hubbert’s 1956 speech and garnered even more attention from the media and policy makers – Future Growth and Financial Requirements of the World Petroleum Industry by Joseph Pogue and Kenneth Hill of the Petroleum Department of Chase Manhattan Bank. Chase Manhattan Bank is the world’s largest financier of petroleum development projects.

The Chase Manhattan report was published February 21, 1956 for presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Petroleum Branch of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers and was reported in the New York Times. Hubbert also referenced this paper in his 1956 paper “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels” for his seminal speech. As shown in the figure below, the report concluded that US production would likely occur between 1965 – 1970 based on the assumption that only 85 billion barrels of oil would be discovered in the lower 48 states after 1956. The report also indicated that the costs associated with expanding efforts to find and produce petroleum in the United States would continue to increase and require greater capital investment in the petroleum industry.

Pogue and Hill Oil Curve

Over the past six months, the Hubbert Tribute has been educating presidential candidate staff on peak oil and will be expanding this effort to include key congressional leaders on the implications of peak oil. Our aim is help increase the likelihood that the incoming administration and Congress will develop a responsible national energy policy in the United States.

To justify any change in our present system and to provide the foundation for the development of responsible energy policy, we have to start with the basics – where we are now with respect to oil , how we got here, and what options we have going forward. We call this Oil Transparency.

A comprehensive Oil Transparency strategy would include the best information about oil still in the ground, as well as an understanding of the assumptions that go into world oil production models, what exactly is defined as oil, and how quickly and economically substitutes can be produced. Oil transparency can include alternative sources (like shale, tar sands, etc.) but must also openly consider the ecological and climate consequences of turning to these sources. Lastly, we need to understand how we came to be in this predicament. Deciphering U.S. energy policy over the past six decades will help us understand how we arrived to this perilous situation and what kinds of changes need to be put in place to make sure that the mistakes of yesteryear are not multiplied into the future.

We no longer have the luxury of planning our economy around speculative technological advances that may never materialize or believing that vast of amounts of energy resources will discovered or will replace oil just because they exist or somehow they may be discovered. We need a responsible energy policy that addresses both peak oil and climate change that has proven technologies at its core and rational standard methodologies for estimating EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) and carbon emissions for all proposed alternatives. This is the leading possibility for a development of a responsible energy policy that will begin the transition towards a sustainable future.

About the Hubbert Tribute

The Hubbert Tribute is energy policy think tank and an online tribute to one of America’s greatest thinkers and scientists, M. King Hubbert (1903-1989). The tribute was first unveiled on the 50 year anniversary of Hubbert’s seminal speech in 1956 when he predicted that U.S. oil production would peak within 10-15 years. The purpose of this tribute is to raise awareness of and celebrate Hubbert’s accomplishments, so that industrial society can better understand the contemporary significance of his work. The Hubbert Tribute aims to uncover more contextual information about M King Hubbert’s work and to better understand how U.S. energy policy was architected over the past half century as well as to help guide policymakers toward a sustainable energy policy.

Over the past six months, the Hubbert Tribute has spoken with staffers with every major presidential candidate and provided information on peak oil. We have worked with renowned energy experts including co-authors of the DOE funded “Hirsch Report” Roger Bezdek and Robert Hirsch, and former industry expert Jan Lundberg among others to provide briefings to the campaign staff of presidential candidates. The Hubbert Tribute is partnering with Inspiring Green Leadership and other peak oil experts to offer webinars and briefings on peak oil and climate change to all presidential candidates with the aim of getting these issues on their radar − if not their platform.

Please contact jason@mkinghubbert.com about internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as about donating to this essential work.

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Published in: on March 8, 2008 at 11:58 pm  Comments (12)  
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Busting the Hubbert Myths Part I

By Jason Brenno and David Room of the Hubbert Tribute

Over the next several months, the M King Hubbert Tribute will publish a series of articles that discredit some popular myths surrounding the work of M King Hubbert – the father of peak oil theory – that are beginning to be accepted as fact and thereby confounding the peak oil debate.

The first myth is that Hubbert was stuck on one projection for world oil production.

Peter Jackson of Cambridge Energy Research Associates exclaims: “Despite his valuable contribution, M. King Hubbert’s methodology falls down because it does not consider likely resource growth, application of new technology, basic commercial factors, or the impact of geopolitics on production. His approach does not work in all cases – including on the United States itself – and cannot reliably model a global production outlook.” [1]

Jackson and other optimists contend that peak oil is several decades away.

In fact, Hubbert had a flexible conceptual model of world oil production as demonstrated by two differing models for world oil production that he published and discussed in the latter stage of his career. His traditional model had a peak of world production occurring before 2000.

Hubbert, however, recognized that there were multiple scenarios for world oil production and he documented at least two of them. The diagram below is from a paper by Hubbert from the American Journal of Physics in November 1981 [2].

hubbert1.jpgReproduced with permission from American Association of Physics Teachers Publications. Copyright 1981, American Association of Physics Teachers.Hubbert explains the figure “shows the rate of world crude oil production to the end of 1977 and two possible complete cycle curves, based upon a value of 2000 billion barrels for [total recoverable reserves]. The first represents an orderly rise and decline on the assumption of no major political or economic disturbances. This curve would reach its peak about the year 1995, and its middle 80% time span would be about 58 years from 1965 to 2003. The second assumes that due to Middle East and other disturbances, the rate of production remains fixed at the present rate of about 20 billion barrels per year until depletion decline occurs. For this curve the middle 80 percent span would be extended to about 81 years, or from about 1965 to 2056. In either case most of the world’s oil will be consumed during the lifetimes of children born within the last decade.”The chart is also in The Global 2000 Report to the President Entering the Twenty First Century by Gerald O Barney. [3]Hubbert also discussed an alternative oil production scenario where oil peak is delayed by a decade or more in the video for the American Hospital Association in 1975, an excerpt of which is available at http://www.mkinghubbert.com/resources/video.%5B4%5D In the wake of the 1973-1974 oil crisis, Hubbert said that OPEC countries were curtailing production causing world oil production to deviate from his traditional model. He continued “it’s conceivable that [the peak] might be shifted over to the backside a little bit… that would extend [the point at which 90% of the world’s recoverable reserves have been produced] about 7 or 10 years or so. But it doesn’t alter the basic thing that I’m saying significantly… in terms of human history, [the fossil fuels era] is a very brief epoch.” [4]

The “one model” myth is false. Clearly, Hubbert recognized decades ago that world oil production did not fit a strict bell curve, and therefore peak estimates would need to be adjusted over time to account for actual production. The implication is that many different scenarios are indeed possible and they depend on (among other things) the planned production policies of producer nations and changes in world oil demand do to geopolitical circumstances and conservation efforts. Despite that we may not yet have reached world oil peak, conventional oil is limited, may peak within the next decade, and prospective alternatives (e.g., shale oil) will not replace oil. Dismissing peak oil theory because Hubbert’s traditional model indicated oil would peak in 1995 is without merit.


References

  1. Why the “Peak Oil” Theory Falls Down – Myths, Legends, and the Future of Oil Resources by Peter Jackson Nov 10 2006 http://cera.ecnext.com/coms2/summary_0236-821_ITM
  2. [The Worlds Evolving Energy System American Journal of Physics, Volume 40, Number 11, November 1981
  3. The Global 200 Report to the President Entering the Twenty First Century by , Gerald O Barney, Study Director, Penguin Books,1982, p. 353.
  4. American Hospital Association Tim Robbins 1975

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Published in: on December 25, 2007 at 6:26 am  Comments (2)  
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