Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Historical Change in US Crude Oil Estimates

Shaun recently posted material noting that the IEA had revised its world oil reserve estimates downward and suggesting that the US had put pressure on the agency to keep them artificially high.

That post took me back to my long lost past, when I wrote my PhD dissertation on social factors affecting estimates of how much oil was left in the ground. The diagram at left shows some of the data from my dissertation, illustrating that the pattern of estimates fell into distinct historical periods. Each dot represents a particular estimate of how much oil is left in the ground in the US plotted against the year that the estimate was published. As you can see, revisions are a fairly common occurrence :+) And, as I argued, significantly political.

Unfortunately, I can't embed the pdf of the article on the blog. But anyone that is interested in can take a look at the original here. If you aren't at a location that will allow access to the journal, the citation information is: Gary Bowden, "Estimating U.S. Crude Oil Resources: Organizational Interests, Political Economy, and Historical Change" The Pacific Sociological Review (the journal changed its name, now it is Sociological Perspectives), 25(4): 419-448. October 1982.


  1. I can't believe you work working on this back in 1982. That was decades ahead of most people. Even most oil geologists didn't think much about total oil reserves. They mostly focused on the reserves of the oil companies they worked for.

    M. King Hubbert published his now famous work on US oil reserves back in 1956. "Hubbert's Peak."

    Colin Campbell started publishing his work on world oil reserves in 1998.

    Richard Heinberg published the first popular book on peak oil in 2003, "The Party's Over."

    I had become aware of global warming back in '03 with the European heat wave. I had been following the '03 Tour de France and the heat wave nearly killed them.

    Hurricane Katrina nailed it for climate change in '05. I became aware of how bad it was and that no one was prepared to do anything about it.

    The Oil Drum blog started in '05, and I became aware of peak oil in '06 when I attended a lecture by Heinberg at Smith College.

    I met a friend at the lecture and we started our own "post-carbon" group in Easthampton in '06. I helped write the "power down" 20 year plan for the Town in 07. At that point I decided to get the PhD in environmental sociology.

    It's really been only since 2005 that these issues have become widely known among the public.

  2. It was a combination of personal interest in energy, living in Calgary in the oil boom of the late 70's - early 80's, and the emergence of social studies of science that led me to the topic. The other article that came out of the dissertation dealt specifically with Hubbert. I interviewed him at his home in the suburbs of DC in the early 80s and have the distinction of writing the first social science analysis of his work.

    If you are at a computer with access to you can find it here:

    Otherwise, the citation is Gary Bowden, "Social Contruction of Validity in Estimates of US Crude Oil Reserves" Social Studies of Science (1985)15:207-240.