Until very recently, petroleum industry thinking about crude oil supplies has been dominated by what has been called “peak oil theory.” Developed by geologist and Shell Oil researcher M. King Hubbert in the 1950s, the simplest statement of the theory is that world production of crude oil would peak shortly after the year 2000, and then begin an inevitable decline. The reason? …all the world’s oilfields would have been discovered and fully exploited by that time.
We now know that Dr. Hubbert’s hypothesis is incorrect. In fact, it’s wildly–even directionally–wrong, done in by the incentive of high prices and the development of hydraulic fracturing.
Peak oil is of more than academic interest, since strong belief that the world is facing an inevitable decline in oil production has informed the capital spending budgets of all the major oil companies for the past generation. For them, the present situation of abundant supply at around $50 – $60 a barrel was unthinkable. As a result, the majors have poured billions and billions of dollars into locating very high-cost hazardous-environment oil prospects that may now be not economically viable.
What happens now?
My mind keeps going back to the late 1990s and the mad rush to lay fiber optic cable around the world to support the internet. Corning and a few Asian suppliers made the highest-quality glass cable. Global Crossing and others spent immense amounts of money as they raced to complete undersea cables to connect the US to the rest of the world. Internet traffic was expanding at such a fantastic rate that, in these firms’ minds, the fact that a whole bunch of firms were all doing so made no difference.
In hindsight, a key assumption these companies all made was that each optic fiber in a cable would be able to handle only one transmission at a time.
Then came dense wavelength division multiplexing. DWDM amounted to putting a prism at each end of a fiber, breaking the light into a number of different wavelengths and sending a separate communication over each wavelength. First it was two wavelengths, then four, then 256…
Suddenly the looming fiber optic shortage was an actual fiber optic glut.
What happened beak then? The fiber optic cable business fell apart. So too equipment suppliers like JDS Uniphase. The most aggressive fiber optic cable layers went into bankruptcy.
I’ve been thinking that it’s time to poke around in the wreckage of smaller US oil exploration firms, although I suspect we may not see oil price lows until the end of the winter heating season (assuming there is one) next February. But I also continue to think that the DWDM analogy is a reasonable one. It suggests that there’s still lots of trouble ahead for the biggest and best-known names in the oil industry.