For decades, citizens and policymakers alike have feared that the world would soon run out of oil. The concern that energy security would diminish as volumes of available oil shrank has motivated a number of defense and security policy decisions, and has perpetuated perceptions of overreliance on major producers such as Saudi Arabia and Libya. And yet today we are awash in oil, and global production continues to rise.

The Theory

These misplaced fears stem from the rise of the peak oil theory, which came about in 1956 when M. King Hubbert suggested that oil production follows a steep bell curve: The rate of production rises until at some point it peaks, after which the rate of production enters a permanent decline. The logic behind the theory is relatively simple. Resource deposits in the ground are finite, and petroleum takes millions of years to form, so the rate of extraction – though initially high – must eventually reach its height before dropping back down as resources become more scarce. The peak oil theory is often confused with the concept of oil depletion, which predicts the gradual decline of oil in a well or geological formation.

Comparing Hubbert’s Predictions to Reality

Though natural resources are indeed finite, Hubbert’s model – a single bell curve of production – is too simplistic. Production rates may stagnate and drop periodically, but each time new recovery techniques unlock untapped resources, production rates will begin increasing again.

US Crude Oil Production versus Hubbert Curve

Comparing U.S. oil production to Hubbert's predictions. (RockyMtnGuy/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Using the peak oil theory, Hubbert predicted that U.S. crude oil production would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970. He was partially correct – U.S. production reached 9.6 million barrels per day in 1970 before decreasing through 2008. But instead of continuing to drop, as Hubbert expected, production began to rise steadily in 2009 as new oil and gas technologies began to open up previously inaccessible resources, ushering in the U.S. Shale Revolution.

National Security Implications

Had it been accurate, the peak oil theory would have implied that the United States would become increasingly dependent on other producers – some of which could be hostile to the United States – after reaching its “peak” in 1970. America’s access to the energy supplies needed to meet its growing demand would be less assured, and rising oil prices due to reduced global supply would reduce the country’s economic prosperity.

Many security policies have been based at least in part on these assumptions. But given how oil production actually rises and falls, it is clear that they are inaccurate and lead to false perceptions of diminishing energy security, which could in turn drive state policies that are unnecessarily aggressive.