From Vaclav Smil’s article today at The American, titled “Memories of Peak Oil“:
When the final figures for the fourth quarter of 2012 are in, the world will have a new crude oil production record: the total for the first three quarters was about 1 percent ahead of the 2011 total. This is a remarkable achievement for a commodity with annual output that now surpasses, for the first time ever, 4 billion metric tons (Mt) and which has been, for decades, the largest source of fossil energy and the most valuable item of international commerce.
Total output in the Middle East in the decade after 2001 — despite continued politically induced under-performance of the oil industry in Iraq and production problems and trade sanctions affecting Iran — rose by 17 percent. High flyers in other regions included Canada (output was up 37 percent, nearly all of it due to the rising recovery from Alberta’s oil-bearing sands), Colombia (up 49%), Brazil (up 63%), and Angola (2.3 times higher in 2011 than in 2001).
But the most remarkable story has been unfolding in the United States, where horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have been rapidly adopted by oil drillers and have led to a remarkable turnaround in U.S. crude oil extraction. Until 2008, the country’s crude oil production kept following its long-established gradual decline (the output peaked in 1970 at 533.5 Mt), and between 2001 and 2008 it dropped by nearly 13 percent, from 349.2 Mt to 304.9 Mt. (MP: See my related chart above showing US oil output in barrels per day from 1992 to 2013).
The reversal has been impressive: from 2008 to 2011, extraction rose by nearly 50 Mt to just over 352 Mt, a level last seen in the year 2000; the increase over those three years was more than the total 2011 output of such oil powers as Indonesia or Azerbaijan. North Dakota has been the principal locus of this production renaissance. At the beginning of the year 2000 there were fewer than 200 oil wells producing from the Bakken deposits, averaging about 10 barrels a day per well; by October 2012, there were nearly 4,800 wells with average daily flow of about 140 barrels of oil per well. North Dakota’s oil output was 37 percent ahead of Alaska’s North Slope extraction and behind only Texas and the offshore production in the Gulf of Mexico.
A forecast by the U.S. Department of Energy sees a possible production increase of as much as 140 Mt/year by 2025, and the most recent review by the International Energy Agency (IEA) even sees the United States as the world’s largest crude oil producer as early as 2017. That may be too much to expect but, in any case, U.S. oil output disproves any preordained and immutable validity of Hubbert’s curves (which attempt to infallibly predict U.S. and world oil output for decades to come! No wonder that Leonardo Maugeri, the former senior executive vice president of strategies and development for Italy’s largest oil and gas company, ENI, speaks about a genuine oil revolution).
Obviously, there will come a time when global oil extraction will reach its peak, but even that point may be of little practical interest as it could be followed by a prolonged, gentle decline or by an extended output plateau at a somewhat lower level than peak production. At the beginning of 2013, there are no signs that the beginning of this new oil era is imminent, and forecasting its onset remains an exercise in futility. Only one thing is abundantly clear to me: for the past 15 years I have been quite confident that there is no imminent danger of any sharp peak of global oil extraction followed by an inexorable production slide — and early in 2013 that confidence is greatly strengthened by new facts. Is it too much to hope that even some catastrophists and peak-oil cultists will find it impossible to ignore those numbers?