Engineering in an Age of Limits

Discusses the role of engineers as society enters an Age of Limits — particularly with oil supplies.

Hubbert the Optimist

M King Hubbert

M. King Hubbert (1903-1989)


This article describes and analyzes the paper Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels presented by M. King Hubbert at the American Petroleum Institute (API) in San Antonio, Texas in March 1956. Dr. King’s paper is of great importance because it provided the technical basis for the topic of what later became known as “Peak Oil”; it also set the tone for the writings of many later Peak Oil authors.

Dr. Hubbert’s paper is in two parts. The first part analyzes the fossil fuel industry of his time (the early 1950s) and provides forecasts as to likely production rates over the next half century. The second part of the paper is to do with the transition that he expected to see from fossil fuels to electricity generated by nuclear power plants.

The first part, the analysis of the fossil fuel industry, was very insightful and formed the basis of the forecasts he made with regard to the future production of oil in the United States (he also predicted the timing of peak oil production world-wide almost exactly, although his forecasts as to the quantities of oil that would be produced were low, mostly because some major new oil prospects had not yet been discovered in the 1950s.)

In the year 1979 Alfred North Whitehead said,

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

It may turn out that most current Peak Oil writings will eventually be considered as being a series of footnotes to Hubbert.

The second part of the paper, however, missed the mark. Although the nuclear power industry now constitutes an important part of the overall energy mix, the optimism that Dr. Hubbert showed regarding the transition from fossil to nuclear fuels has not turned out to be justified.


Galileo Galilei

Isaac Newton

Seminal Publications

Over the centuries various papers have been seminal, i.e., they planted the seeds for a new way of thinking about the world. An example of such a paper is that written by Galileo Galilei in the year 1632 in which he explained the workings of the solar system. Sir Isaac Newton published an equally important paper, his Principia of 1687, that provided a mathematical framework for the scientific world that was good until the early 20th century and the introduction of the theory of relativity.

Naturally, all of these great authors drew on the work of others, and Hubbert was no different in this regard; his paper contains approximately 30 citations. But, as the great Isaac Newton himself said, If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Future historians may well look back on Dr. Hubbert’s 1956 paper as being of equal importance to those from Galileo and Newton. Specifically, Hubbert identified:

  • He discussed the issue of fossil fuel production in a global context.
  • He recognized the finite nature of fossil fuel reserves.
  • He developed a generic (Hubbert) curve to show how production of fossil fuels peaks and then declines.
  • He understood the fact that continued exponential growth in a finite world cannot continue.
  • He had a grasp of the social implications of his research.

We also now recognize that his confidence in the potential for nuclear power was over-stated. Reasons for this include:

  • Nuclear power has turned out to be much more expensive to implement than was anticipated in the 1950s;
  • Nuclear power has considerable associated baggage to do with safety and waste disposal that were not considered to be critical in Hubbert’s time; and
  • Energy sources are only fungible to a limited degree. Considering just road transportation it is impractical to consider that the world’s motor fleet can be converted to electricity in just a few years.

Faith in Technology

Probably the biggest difference between Dr. Hubbert and Peak Oil writers of the present day is in his confidence in the ability of new technology (nuclear power) to make up for the decline of fossil fuels. The charts below are from his paper. The first shows how he saw nuclear power taking off around the year 2000; the second is his 10,000 year overview. It shows that nuclear power will provide much more energy than the declining fossil fuels, and will do so for centuries.


By contrast, most current Peak Oil writers appear to have given up on new technology as a replacement for fossil fuels. Instead they are focusing on issues such as localization and self-sufficiency. The boundless confidence of the 1950s has been replaced by an inward-looking, minimalist approach. In other words, Dr. Hubbert was an optimist; modern writers are either more realistic or more pessimistic, depending on one’s point of view.

Crisis as a Forcing Function

The reason that Dr. Hubbert’s prediction to do with nuclear power was wrong can be attributed to the difficulties to do with nuclear power that he may not have been aware of. These include high capital cost, concerns to do with safety and the disposal of radioactive waste. But a more fundamental reason for his miss may be that it takes a crisis to generate the impetus for change. As has been pointed out in earlier postings as this site, the steam engine was invented by Hero of Alexandria about two thousand years ago. Yet it was only when the “Peak Forest” crisis hit that Thomas Newcomen developed the first working steam around the year 1712.


Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine
(c. 50 AD)

Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine
(c. 1712 AD)

With respect to Peak Oil there has been no shortage of good ideas for alternative energy sources.It might be that these ideas have not gained traction is that people in general do not yet accept the thesis of Peak Oil. After all, it is hard to sell the concept of Peak Oil to people stuck in their normal morning traffic jams.

If and when the Peak Oil problem becomes self-evident to the majority of people then individuals such as those discussed in previous posts in this series may step forward with replacement technology. They will not be motivated by altruism but by a desire to become rich and famous. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

Many people in the Peak Oil community will respond that time is running very short, and they may very well be right. Moreover, the previous technological innovators built on newly available forms of low entropy energy. Specifically

  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel / anthracite
  • Henry Ford / gasoline
  • Steve Jobs / electricity

Innovators of our time will have to work with energy sources that are at a much higher entropy level.

Analysis of the Hubbert Paper

This section provides a tabular analysis of Hubbert’s paper. The first column shows the pertinent Page or Figure number; the second column provides a quotation from the relevant section of the Hubbert page; the third column offers discussion and analysis.




Title The title of Hubbert’s paper is “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels”. There is no mention of the phrase “Peak Oil” — either in the title or in the body of the paper.The title contains an assumption (developed in the second half of the paper) that energy is fungible and that it is feasible to replace fossil fuels with electricity generated by nuclear power plants.Hubbert drew a clear distinction between the three kinds of fossil fuel (solid, liquid and gaseous) but did not anticipate any issues to do with moving from one to another.The title embodies the optimism of this paper. Yes, there is a problem, but there is a solution — one that will not only maintain our current energy lifestyle, but that will allow us our economy to continue to grow.
Authorship M. King HubbertChief Consultant (General Geology) Dr. King was an authoritative author. Born in the year 1903 he was at the peak of his powers in 1956. As a leading scientist employed by one of the world’s largest oil companies he was authoritative and very much mainstream.The four pages of citations confirm his commitment to thorough and professional research.
Publication American Petroleum Institute (API) The paper was published at a recognized and authoritative industry event.
p. 1 The evolution of our knowledge of petroleum since Colonel Drake’s discovery of oil . .  nearly a century ago, resembles in many striking respects the evolutions of knowledge of world geography . . . This opening passage is interesting for two reasons. First, it shows that Dr. King was not just a “dry scientist”. His imagery is unusual for a paper of this type.Second, by comparing the petroleum world with geographical charts he is suggesting that there are continents (giant fields), large islands (medium fields) and small islands (small fields). The continents were discovered early on and no more remain to be discovered. All that is left are the small islands/oil fields.
p. 3 To continue the navigation analogy, what we seem to have achieved is an abundance of detailed charts of local areas, with only an occasional attempt to construct, shall we say, a map of the whole world, which despite its inherent imperfections, is still necessary . . . . This quotation is central to Hubbert’s whole paper. In effect, he is saying that we tend to focus on the islands rather than the continents. His paper aims to address this deficiency.
p. 4 The fossil fuels . . .  have all had their origin from plants and animals . . . during the last 500 million years. Therefore, as an essential part of our analysis, we can assume with complete assurance that the industrial exploitation of the fossil fuels will consist in the progressive exhaustion of an initially fixed supply to which there will be no significant additions during the period of our interest. These two passages summarize the Peak Oil concept in a nutshell.
p. 6 Each curve <for the production of fossil fuels> starts slowly and then rises more steeply until finally an inflection point is reached after which it becomes concave downward. Hubbert is stating that each fossil fuel resource follows a curve that is normally distributed, but with lots of kinks and bumps due to local production issues (for example, the production of coal in the United States went through a dip in the 1920s, presumably due to the economic depression that was going on at that time). These curves form the basis of the “Hubbert Curve”.Figures 1 to 8 really do not readily justify his claim. In particular, Figure 2, which represents the world production of crude oil moves steadily up without any sign of an inflection. However, his claims can be more easily visualized when he uses a semilogarithmic plot, as he does in Figure 10 for production of crude oil in the United States.
p 8 . . . world production of crude oil increased at a rate of 7 per cent per year, with the output doubling every 10 years.. . . How many periods of doubling can be sustained before the production rate would reach astronomical magnitudes?No finite resource can sustain for longer than a brief period such a rate of growth of production; therefore, although production rates tend initially to increase exponentially, physical limits prevent their continuing to do so.This rapid rate of growth for the production curves make them particularly deceptive with regard to the future length of time for which such production may be sustained. Hubbert here identifies another key concept of the Peak Oil thesis: exponential growth cannot be sustained in a world of finite resources.Exponential growth also means that time spans become much more compressed.
p 11 In Figure 13 is shown the corresponding curve for the state of Illinois, which is distinguished by having two widely separated and well-defined maxima . . . The reason for these two maxima is well known. Hubbert recognized that technological changes will change the shape of the Hubbert curve. In this example the geology of Illinois created two resource curves.
p 15 Subsequently the Middle East has developed into a petroleum province of unprecedented magnitude and Weeks’ estimate is now known to be seriously too low. L.G. Weeks had made some estimates in the late 1940s and early 1950s that turned out to be too low because he had not considered new production areas.
p 16 The production record of the past two decades, due in part to improved recovery practices . . . Hubbert recognized that technological developments that would lead to improved production from existing facilities.
Figure 20
Ultimate world crude-oil production
This Figure shows the projected production of oil for the world. It shows a peak of about 12.5 billion barrels per year occurring in the year 2000.The actual figures are 27.0 and 2008 respectively (Oil Drum 2009). However, the world peak is really a plateau that started around the year 2005, so the date estimate is on target. The discrepancy in production rates can be explained by considering the development of new regions (particularly the Middle East) and new technology, as discussed above.
Figure 21
Crude Oil Production – United States
This Figure shows the production of oil in the United States. Hubbert predicted a peak year in the range 1965-1973. In fact, the peak year was around 1970, so, as with world oil production, he predicted the peak year very accurately.
p 24 By means of present production techniques, only about a third of the oil underground is being recovered.However, secondary recovery techniques are gradually being improved so that ultimately a somewhat larger fraction of the oil underground should be extracted than is now the case. Because of the slowness of the secondary recovery process, however, it appears unlikely that any improvement that can be made within the next 10 or 15 years can have any significant effect upon the date of culmination. Hubbert’s extrapolations were hedged by his lack of knowledge as to how much secondary recovery techniques would improve.
p 27 But it does pose as a national problem of primary importance, the necessity . . . of gradually having to compensate for an increasing disparity between the nation’s demands for these fuels and its ability to produce them from naturally occurring . . . petroleum and gas. At this point, Hubbert has switched from a discussion of scientific issues to the impact of declining oil supplies on national policy.
p 28 Energy from Nuclear Sources.How much uranium or thorium would be required to power an industrial civilization comparable to that now powered by fossil fuels? Hubbert’s paper is in two parts. The first part considers the production rates of fossil fuels and some of the implications of his insights.The second part of the paper is to do with the anticipated rapid development of the nuclear power business — a business that was in its infancy in the year 1956.Crucial to what he writes here is an implicit assumption that the energy from fossil fuels and the energy from a nuclear power plant are fungible, i.e., that industry and commerce can be switched from one type of energy to another without any major disruption.
p 35 Consequently, the world appears to be on the threshold of an era which in terms of energy consumption will be at least an order of magnitude greater than made possible by fossil fuels. This statement is at the heart of the second part of Hubbert’s paper. It is fundamentally optimistic.The civilian nuclear power industry was just getting started in 1956 with promises of energy that “would be too cheap to meter”. In hindsight it is now evident that Hubbert was too optimistic. Although the nuclear power industry meets a large fraction of the world’s demand for electricity, it has not been the savior that Hubbert anticipated. Costs have been much higher than anticipated, accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima-Daiichi have shaken public confidence, and issues to do with the disposal of radioactive waste remain unresolved.
p 36 The rise of nuclear power is  . . . shown at a rate of about 10 per cent per year, but there are many indications that it may actually be twice that rate. Once again, Hubbert’s optimism regarding the impact of nuclear power can be seen.
Figure 30 Hubbert’s paper concludes with Figures 29 and 30, which shows a 10,000 year timeline. It is reproduced at the start of this paper. The sketch envisions a world in which mankind has risen up to a high level of energy consumption in just a few hundred years using fossil fuel. Although those fuels will decline, they will not only be replaced, but continued growth will continue as a result of the almost limitless amount of nuclear energy that will be available.


It is concluded that Dr. Hubbert’s paper was seminal or foundational. This paper appears to be the first that pulled together all the parameters of what is now known as Peak Oil. The paper was fundamentally optimistic in as much as he anticipated that not only would nuclear power replace fossil fuels, but that energy supplies would grow substantially and last for hundreds of years. We now recognize that this optimism was unfounded.

However, as the word community comes to grips with Peak Oil issues it may be that the innovators of our generation may find new sources of (higher entropy) energy that can help move to a new technological base.


Hubbert, M. King. Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels. Drilling and Production Practice. American Petroleum Institute (1956).

Oil Drum. May 2009.

Whitehead, Albert North. Process and Reality. Free Press (1979).

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