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Forecasting oil resources

In 1974 the Federal Energy Administration asked 4 statisticians to provide independent estimates of the amount of oil still underground. The four groups worked completely independently; I found out the names of the other three groups long after the reports were filed. The results, as I recall, were one very low forecast, one very high forecast, and two skeptical reports (including mine) in effect saying the error bound around the forecasts covered all reasonable policy alternatives. Thus the collective result confirmed the views of the two skeptical reports!

Here is my analysis: Forecasting Oil resources. Perhaps this should have appeared as a short case study in Beautiful Evidence, but the idea never occurred to me.

What about now, 36 years later? My skepticism about resource forecasts might be confirmed or might not by a fresh analysis, which would reveal what a fresh analysis of the evidence would reveal. In policy relevant studies of evidence, there is too often a rage to conclude. On this see Beautiful Evidence pp. 154-155:

-- Edward Tufte

An update?

ET wrote: "What about now, 31 years later? My skepticism about resource forecasts might be confirmed or might not by a fresh analysis, which would reveal what a fresh analysis of the evidence would reveal."

I'd say that skepticism is confirmed by this "collection" of forecasts. See:

Peak Oil Update - September 2007: Production Forecasts and EIA Oil Production Numbers

-- David Cerruti (email)

Above economics only cause?

Doesn't When peak oil is depend on what the final price is?

The higher the final price the more marginal resources we can dig up therefore altering the total available for mining. Do they really assess all sources regardless of extraction price?

I remember being told in geography class at school (in the 60's) that the tar sands of Athabaska would never be dug up. And now?

So, what I have never seen anywhere is an analysis of what happens to prices as resources get more depleted. I imagine prices go up exponentially as resource declines linearly because of competition. Then at some point crash as better options become economic. And how does people's knowledge of what remains affect what price they will bear?

Personally I think we should save oil for plastics and dyes rather than just burning it.


-- Dave Garbutt (email)

David MacKay

Dear ET,

Here is a link to a very visual and technical book by Cambridge University Prof - David MacKay FRS.

The book is called Sustainable Energy without the hot air. It was published in Dec 2008. The author helped co-fund its publication with ??10,000 of his savings. It is for sale via the normal channels and is downloadable for free for personal use as a PDF from the website ( The author was clearly personally motivated - he is a very intelligent physicist who has spent years on information theory and IT interface tools (see his website for DASHER). What he wanted to do in the energy debate was inject some numerical thinking - as he says; " To make such comparisons, we need numbers, not adjectives."

I suspect that this approach will become the UK governments approach - they just appointed the author as a chief science advisor - and is the approach many NGO's will adopt. It has already become influential - e.g. here is Bill Gates' write up

The publisher of the book is a small independent in the Cambridge UK area called UIT - they use LaTeX apparently and have a page layout similar to the LaTeX Tufte class. This is by far their biggest success and hopefully will help keep them going.

Below is a typical two-page spread.

Best wishes


-- Matt R (email)

Threads relevant to Edward Tufte's work:

Seeing Around: New ET essay published