The Hubbert Curve: passing the peak of world oil production?

A question from the audience at the Howard Dean event in Davenport, Iowa on Sunday mentioned the Hubbert curve for world oil production. The speaker said that this model had predicted that US oil production would peak in the 70’s, and predicted that world oil production would peak in 2005. The implication of the model is that after production peaks, it begins to decline, and it gets progressively more expensive.

I had never heard of the Hubbert curve, but on looking it up, the idea behind it seems straightforward. The total cumulative output of a finite natural resource is modeled as a sigmoid function that begins at zero, ramps up, and then levels off at a constant value when the resource is depleted. The derivative of this curve is the bell-shaped Hubbert curve. On the declining side of the curve, production becomes more expensive, until eventually it’s no longer economically feasible.

This all seems straighforward enough. The trick, of course, is estimating the parameters of the model. Some sites have tried to do this, but I have no idea what their agenda is, and I have no time to do my own analysis. The important thing is that someone does the analysis, and that they do it with a scientific commitment to the truth, since a sound understanding of phenomena like this before they happen is essential to good strategic political decision making now.

Lately I’ve heard the term technocrat used with an insulting connotation to refer to some politicians, like Al Gore. I think the insinuation is that technocrats are cold and somehow heartless, and thus undesirable as leaders. The fact of the matter is that the world is a complex place, and science provides us with tools to understand that complexity, so that we can better make decisions. The Hubbert curve is a perfect example of such a tool. We should embrace leaders who embrace science, who understand that facts and analysis are important, but only useful when the analysis is done in search of the truth, not the political spin du jour.


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