There’s been a lot of discussion about claims that world oil output is going to reach a peak some time soon. If you look at the recent numbers, there’s a pretty good case to be made that world all output has already reached its peak at about 73 million barrels a day, a level reached in mid-2004, and sustained for the past two years.
Now there are lots of local factors that explain weak output in particular countries. Still, if the claims made by those who think oil output can keep on growing were correct, I would have expected the massive increase in prices (from a brief low of $10/barrel and a medium-term price of $20/barrel in the late 1990s to $75/barrel today) to produce a substantial expansion in supply.
This argument is pretty robust to whether oil producers believe that there is plenty of oil (implying that prices will come down again) or not. If prices are going to come down, then there’s a strong incentive to pump more in the short term, use secondary recovery from depleted wells and so on. If prices are going to stay high, there’s a strong incentive to bring large new fields online, even if they are in high cost locations. As far as I can see, neither of these things is happening.
Supposing that oil output has peaked, the obvious point to be made is that Peak Oil isn’t so bad. Sales of Hummers are plummeting, apparently, and lots more people are using buses (at least in Brisbane). And of course, the less oil there is to burn, the easier it will be to stabilise CO2 emissions (though we can’t just rely on Peak Oil – apart from anything else, there’s almost unlimited coal in the ground, far more than we can burn without frying the planet in the process).
Even if supplies have peaked (or, more plausibly, flattened out at the top of the curve), I doubt that prices will go much higher than this, though $100/barrel is certainly possible. If current prices are sustained, a lot of alternatives will become cost-competitive, as already seems to be happening with biofuels in the US. More importantly, demand is bound to respond more than it already has.
These graphs from the US DOE illustrate the long-run increase in oil output and the recent stagnation. (Looking at the data, I’m pretty confident that the time scale for the monthly data is out by a year – it should be 2004-6.)