“How Long Can We Keep That Up?” Peak Oil as Contested Object in Competing Narratives of Growth, Abundance, and Scarcity

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:50 AM
Columbia Hall 5 (Washington Hilton)
Connemara Doran, Harvard University
In 1948, addressing the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American geophysicist M. King Hubbert introduced the theory, predictive methodology, and iconic image of “peak oil” (“Hubbert’s peak”), arguing that world oil production, doubling every decade, would peak by the year 2000.   Economists at the U.S. Geological Survey confidently projected undiminished rates of new discovery.  After Hubbert’s 1956 prediction of an abrupt end to growth in U.S. annual crude oil production circa 1970, the very notion of Hubbert’s peak was so vigorously attacked by critics that Hubbert strengthened the analysis in a 1962 report requested by the Kennedy Administration.  The 1973 OPEC oil embargo and ensuing energy crisis brought the controversy into the public glare and Congressional hearings, and by 1975 the government agencies were forced to publically acknowledge the accuracy of Hubbert’s argument and the reality of the U.S. dilemma.  Despite high energy prices and increased drilling, there were physical limits to production of “easy oil” in U.S. fields.  During the past two decades, the dilemma became a world concern as “peak oil” modelers watched and waited for the impending world peak.

This paper examines these divisive debates among diverse groups of government and industry experts and laypeople.  It argues that the controversy reflects a fundamental divergence between two contrasting views of the resource issue – one emphasizing finite resources and geophysically-constrained growth, the other continued growth through market-driven innovation – each denying the credibility of the other.  Counter-intuitively, the protagonists are not aligned by expertise or discipline but rather illustrate the complex intersecting personal, political, institutional, and intellectual commitments of actors in a scientific controversy.  The controversy anchors not only on empirical data and statistical methods, but also on fundamentally divergent historical narratives of economic potential and technological progress versus physical limits resistant to the price mechanism.