3 Reasons Peak Oil Might Not Be Such A Big Deal

Peak oil” was one of the first terms I learned when I became active in environmental advocacy. There are a variety of definitions, depending on who you ask and how much money they’ve invested in the oil industry, but most parties agree that “peak oil” is the point at which the world exhausts the past bit of “cheap,” “easily-accessible” oil the planet has to offer.

Sure, there will still be oil left underground somewhere, but only the ultra wealthy will be able to afford it. This is why, in many minds, peak oil = the end of oil.

When the idea of peak oil is discussed, it’s traditionally been met with a mixture of shock, awe and terror. In case you haven’t noticed, most of the developed world is pretty addicted to oil. The idea that it could run out, probably within the next generation or two, doesn’t sit well with those who can’t imagine producing power or plastic any other way.

According to a recent study from Stanford University, however, our fear of peak oil might be a little premature. It assumes that consumption will continue to skyrocket until the very last drop is squeezed from the earth. Surprisingly, the study concludes that a variety of economic and societal factors will collide, forcing a switch to alternatives before that point.

Published in Environmental Science & Technology, the study’s authors point out at least 3 different mechanisms that give them reason to believe that we’ll be done with oil before it’s done with us.

1. Declining Passenger Travel

There’s no denying that mobile technologies have made it easier to work, play and connect without traveling around the world. The workforce is increasingly made up of remote and freelance workers who can work from anywhere there’s a laptop and an internet connection. Need to have a meeting with a client in Des Moines? Just hop on Skype instead of a plane.

“Several earlier studies have suggested that passenger land travel has already plateaued in industrialized countries and is no longer hitched to economic growth,” explain the authors. “Passenger land travel now accounts for about half of the global transportation energy demand. Even in developing countries, economic growth has been less oil-intensive than was seen in the West during the past century.”

2. Competitive Green Alternatives

Cleaner, more environmentally-friendly methods of producing fuel and electrical energy appear on the market every day. Although “oil is cheaper” has long been the battle cry of the fossil fuel crowd, it holds less weight with every passing day. Solar and wind power are both approaching grid parity with blazing speeds, as we reported last month, and technologies for storing the energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines are developing just as quickly.

“Technological advances and the high price of oil are helping most such alternatives compete on price,” write the authors. “If prices rise above their current levels for an extended period, we’re likely to see even more efforts to improve efficiency and exploit alternatives to conventional oil. That would hasten the onset of a demand-driven peak.”

Then there’s the auto industry itself, which has made a decided shift toward hybrid and electric vehicles. In 2012, analyst firm Mintel estimated that “sales of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars in the US would exceed 535,000 units in 2013, a sizable increase on the 440,000 sold last year. Sales of hybrids and electric cars rose 73 per cent in 2012, making it the fastest growing segment in the US auto market.”

3. Climate Awareness

Thanks to the tireless work of climate activists, and people like you and me who talk with our friends about how personal choices affect the climate, awareness is growing. And slowly, but surely, that awareness is turning into action.

Just look at the way grassroots activism has blown the lid off of the Keystone XL pipeline and the larger debate over the Canadian oil sands. Or the global divestment movement that has seen dozens of universities, religious organizations and City governments pull their money out of the fossil fuel industry. We’ve even seen the President of the United States announce a “climate action plan,” the first time in American history that human-accelerated climate change has been formally addressed as a national issue.

The study forecasts global oil demand through 2100 under a variety of scenarios for economic growth, population, efficiency gains and fuel substitution. Interested parties can input their own assumptions into the study’s model here.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Schuyler H.
Schuyler H.5 years ago

The headline is like saying, "Yeah, fossil fuels aren't such a big deal..." :-P
Keep in mind that neither Industrial Revolution nor Agricultural Revolutions occurred until the discovery of nature's amazing solar saving's account, the portable, extremely high net energy of fossil fuels. A transition away from current levels of consumption, toward something truly sustainable will require dramatic changes in the way we live, and will definitely not be compatible with current infrastructures. Oil -is- a very very big deal! It is the life blood of today's advanced societies. Oil is currently used to subsidize, either directly or indirectly, virtually everything we do. Those who expect that a "business as usual" scenario will be possible without cheap oil, by simply falling back on current alternative energy technologies, may be in for some radical adjustments to their expectations.

Anton Alfredo
Anton Alfredo5 years ago

Unfortunately, oil is used not only for passenger travel but for much of manufacturing and food production, including the manufacture of components needed for renewable energy. Oil is used not only for energy but for petrochemicals.

In addition, the global economy needs high energy returns needed to sustain a growing global middle class. Renewable energy provides low energy returns.

That is why we face a combination of peak oil and global warming.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Abbe A.
Azaima A5 years ago

doesn't mean we should stop pressing for green alternatives

Tim C.
Tim C5 years ago


Lisa Zilli
Lisa Zilli5 years ago


Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld5 years ago

Fatalism appears to run deep here. Predictions of billions of deaths worldwide seems to be more than just negativism. Food production has increased at a greater rate than population over the last several decades. Predictions of a rapid drop appear to be grossly exaggerated (to quote Twain).

Winn Adams
Winn A5 years ago


Jik Sta
Jik Sta5 years ago

this is absolutely hilarious. anybody who believes this needs their head examined. although, i stress, not by an american psychiatrist lmao. peak oil = five billion people are going to disappear. it's not going to be pretty.