In an excellent new paper, Jim Hamilton asks whether the “phenomenal increase in global crude oil production over the last century and a half” reflects technological progress or good fortune in finding new reserves. The two aren’t completely distinct, of course. Better technology helps find more resources. But the heart of the question remains: have we been lucky or good?
Based on a careful reading of production patterns in the United States and around the world, Jim concludes that we’ve been both and worries that the luck part may be coming to an end:
My reading of the historical evidence is as follows. (1) For much of the history of the industry, oil has been priced essentially as if it were an inexhaustible resource. (2) Although technological progress and enhanced recovery techniques can temporarily boost production flows from mature fields, it is not reasonable to view these factors as the primary determinants of annual production rates from a given field. (3) The historical source of increasing global oil production is exploitation of new geographical areas, a process whose promise at the global level is obviously limited.
Most economists view the economic growth of the last century and a half as being fueled by ongoing technological progress. Without question, that progress has been most impressive. But there may also have been an important component of luck in terms of finding and exploiting a resource that was extremely valuable and useful but ultimately finite and exhaustible. It is not clear how easy it will be to adapt to the end of that era of good fortune.
These arguments should be familiar to anyone who’s followed the peak oil debate, but Jim brings a welcome rigor to the discussion.
He also includes some charts illustrating how various states and regions have passed their production peaks. Here, for example, are the United States, North Sea, and Mexico:
And he discusses how oil prices affect the economy. All in all, a great survey.
P.S. If you are interested in the details, Jim’s post over at Econbrowser sparked some thoughtful comments.