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Past Predictions on When Oil Would Run Out

By November 6, 2008

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A reader who grew up in the 1980s, as I did, recalled hearing that the oil supply would 'run' out by the time he was old enough to drive. But he wondered where this meme originated from. I am honestly not sure - in the past I have posted two sources aimed at kids that promoted this idea:
  1. A 1975 comic book, issued by the Canadian government, to schoolchildren. The comic book is available online here. I discuss it here. I remember receiving one of these as a kid.

  2. A 1981 episode of You Can't Do That on Television.
Those are the only two I know of, but I am sure there have to be many more. Reason Magazine discusses the history of the "run out of oil" meme:
Predictions of imminent catastrophic depletion are almost as old as the oil industry. An 1855 advertisement for Kier’s Rock Oil, a patent medicine whose key ingredient was petroleum bubbling up from salt wells near Pittsburgh, urged customers to buy soon before “this wonderful product is depleted from Nature’s laboratory.” The ad appeared four years before Pennsylvania’s first oil well was drilled. In 1919 David White of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) predicted that world oil production would peak in nine years. And in 1943 the Standard Oil geologist Wallace Pratt calculated that the world would ultimately produce 600 billion barrels of oil. (In fact, more than 1 trillion barrels of oil had been pumped by 2006.)

During the 1970s, the Club of Rome report The Limits to Growth projected that, assuming consumption remained flat, all known oil reserves would be entirely consumed in just 31 years. With exponential growth in consumption, it added, all the known oil reserves would be consumed in 20 years. These dour predictions gained credibility when the Arab oil crisis of 1973 quadrupled prices from $3 to $12 per barrel (from $16 to $48 in 2006 dollars) and when the Iranian oil crisis more than doubled oil prices from $14 per barrel in 1978 to $35 per barrel by 1981 (from $45 to $98 in 2006 dollars).

In response, the federal government imposed price controls on oil and gas in the 1970s and established fuel economy standards to encourage the sale of more efficient automobiles. The sense of doom did not dissolve. In 1979 Energy Secretary Schlesinger proclaimed, “The energy future is bleak and is likely to grow bleaker in the decade ahead.” The Global 2000 Report to President Carter, issued in 1980, predicted that the price of oil would rise by 50 percent, reaching $100 per barrel by 2000.
There certainly have to be more sources for this idea that oil would 'run out' before the year 2000. Does anyone know of any television shows, newspaper reports or magazine articles from the 1970s or 1980s that discuss this idea?


November 6, 2008 at 7:03 pm
(1) Lord says:

I don’t know of anyone that predicted when oil would run out or would do so, but Hubbert’s predictions of peak oil have been around for a long time. In 1956 he predicted that US production would peak in the 70s. Later he predicted world production would peak in the 90s, if nothing changed. Later he did delay this to the 00s. He was pragmatic rather than doctrinaire and realized this was a dynamic process.

February 15, 2010 at 7:11 pm
(2) Robert F says:

I’m trying to find this too. I remember as a kid that I read a 1974 Time Magazine special issue on Oil that made the same prediction – All known oil would run out in 30 years. If I find it I’ll send you a note

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