By Klaas V.

Let’s start with a simple definition from Wikipedia: “The Hubbert peak theory says that for any given geographical area, from an individual oil-producing region to the planet as a whole, the rate of petroleum production tends to follow a bell-shaped curve. It is one of the primary theories on peak oil.”

In an article by the Guardian’s Nafeez Ahmed, a renowned geologist formerly working for British Petroleum, Richard G. Miller, has said oil production has peaked around 2008. As you are reading this, 37 countries in the world’s oil production has already peaked, with a resulting decline in global oil production of 4.1%, equivalent to 3.5 million b/d (barrels a day) a year. Richard G. Miller:

“We need new production equal to a new Saudi Arabia every 3 to 4 years to maintain and grow supply… New discoveries have not matched consumption since 1986. We are drawing down on our reserves, even though reserves are apparently climbing every year. Reserves are growing due to better technology in old fields, raising the amount we can recover – but production is still falling at 4.1% p.a. [per annum]. […] Production of conventional liquid oil has been flat since 2008. Growth in liquid supply since then has been largely of natural gas liquids [NGL]- ethane, propane, butane, pentane – and oil-sand bitumen.”

Miller also responded to those who have been dismissing peak oil as a systemic problem appealing to shale oil and oil sands:

“Greater reliance upon tight oil resources produced using hydraulic fracturing will exacerbate any rising trend in global average decline rates, since these wells have no plateau and decline extremely fast – for example, by 90% or more in the first 5 years. […] [T]he Canadian oil sands will deliver only 5 mb per day by 2030, which represents less than 6% of the IEA projection of all-liquids production by that date.”

Miller also recognized the possibility for these alternatives to alleviate the pressure on economic growth, but only for a relatively short period of time, pointing out that tight oil production is likely to peak itself before 2020, not enough to replace the US’ current 9 million b/d of imports.

Because of the abundance of oil in certain areas of the world, accompanied by a peculiar profitability of capital, the world oil sector presents a very high level of geographical centralization and concentration of capital, with approximately 100 fields producing 50% of the global supply, 25 producing 25% of it and a single field, the Ghawar field of Saudi Arabia, producing around 7%. Most of these fields are old and well past their peak, with the others likely to enter decline within the next decade.

Miller argued that conditions are such that, despite volatility, prices can never return to pre-2004 levels, saying “it is highly likely that when the US pays more than 4% of its GDP for oil, or more than 10% of GDP for primary energy, the economy declines as money is sucked into buying fuel instead of other goods and service”.

What can a Marxist conclude from this open admission of capitalist contradiction and desperation?

This is the most important realization: capitalist crisis is now necessarily endless. There is a crossroad in front of humanity as a whole and its interest in survival: either end the capitalist mode of production, or accept the inevitability of a Malthusian nightmare of more hunger, more wars over resources, increasingly social Darwinist methods of population control, and whatever will be needed to maintain the rule of capital at the expense of everyone else.

Without a steady and cheap supply of oil, there is no capitalism; oil is its blood. Capital accumulation requires an energy sources which tendentially increases its potential supply; no such energy source exists, and even if one was found, every part of the technological infrastructure of capitalist society, running on oil, would take a long time to be retooled or dismantled to give way to new infrastructure running on this new energy source. This kind of transition would never be feasible in a world where the rule is exploitation of man by man, and of nation by nation.

There can be no painless solution to an ecological crisis that jeopardizes the future of humanity while world politics revolves around defending the profits of monopoly capital, and not the general interests of human survival. The whole point of capitalist production, production for the most immediate profit, stands in contradiction to the well being of humanity and the production of the conditions required by human life. On top of its own internal limit of capitalism, capital itself and its over-accumulative tendencies, capitalist production in the era of imperialism has entered into a conflict with an external limit, something never before seen for a mode of production on this scale: capitalism is exhausting non-reproducible resources. It is now necessary for every individual to take up the struggle to put production and distribution under social control.

[The] conscious and rational treatment of the land as permanent communal property [is] the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations.
– Karl Marx, Capital vol. 3

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. A very welcome article especially in the context of peak oil having been somewhat postponed as an issue in the light of tar sands extraction and fracking.

    Struggles over fracking and tar sands, with the masses on the one side and corporations on the other have become the front line in the peak oil debate in the sense that the only way capitalism can alleviate the shortages of ‘easy oil’ is through increasingly damaging processes, damaging both to the environment and the indigenous peoples whose land the remaining reserves are often found on.

  2. […] The failure of these to overturn production of commodities for exchange—a system which is unsustainable—costs hundreds of thousands of lives daily, and is boiling us alive. We are at an impasse, […]


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Ecology/Environment, Imperialism, Maoism, Political Economy, Revolution, Science and Technology, Socialism


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