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“Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt”: people readily believe what they want to believe, according to Julius Caesar. After half a century of a systematic decrease in oil discovery, we might assume that a heightened risk of declining global oil production in the coming years would be cause for serious concern, and an issue that would receive considerable attention. And yet, this hasn’t been the case.
The peak of conventional oil production was passed in 2008, a fact confirmed several times over by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Oil is the main form of our primary energy source, providing four-fifths of total production of liquid fuel. Now, due to insufficient intact reserves, it can only ever fall short of the 2008 record, when the height of production was reached.
The most optimistic industry predictions suggest that, fundamentally due to geological limits, we have a maximum of fifteen to twenty years before oil’s inevitable decline. Still, these predictions rely heavily on “shale oil” and, to a lesser extent, on other non-conventional forms of oil, the future of which remains uncertain for both technical and economic (far more than ethical) reasons. But even the optimistic predictions cannot change the root problem: half of global oil production comes from “mature” oil fields, i.e., fields that have already had more than half of their reserves depleted, and as such, are mathematically destined for a somewhat steep decrease. However quickly we might hope to replenish our stores with non-conventional oils, these stores are emptying more and more rapidly where conventional oil is concerned; especially since 2008 (although the process goes back further than that), mature fields have continued to account for an increasingly large proportion of total global extractions of liquid fossil fuels…


For decades now, there has been talk of an imminent peaking of the all-liquids oil supply (so-called “peak oil”), yet no massive investment in a changed energy model has ensued. The peak of conventional oil production has been reached (in 2008, according to the International Energy Agency, though a small upturn was observed in 2018), but the announcement of that fact has not resulted in any substantial changes. In fact, it was not so much the prospect of an oil shortage in the very near future as the fight against climate change that finally prompted efforts at energy transition.
As Shift Project executive director, Matthieu Auzanneau, shows here, this decline in oil production seems inescapable, given the state of the reserves and the oil companies’ levels of investment. Moreover, it will very probably have serious social, economic, and geopolitical consequences, particularly in European countries, which are highly dependent on external supplies and have still not done enough to develop alternative energy sources. With the decline in oil production following a bell-curve trajectory, there is every chance that a sudden, sharp drop will occur. At that point, it will do little good to regret that we didn’t pay more attention to the forecasts; forecasts which, since the mid-1950s, have predicted the decline in oil, and which geologists deeply involved in the oil sector firmly substantiated as early as 1998.

Matthieu Auzanneau
Executive director of the Shift Project.
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