If you're a child of the 1970s you remember peak oil - it was a book that claimed by 1992 we were going to reach maximum capacity and then it would gradually become more scarce.   If you're a fan of science fiction, it meant a world where oil was worth more than gold and we put machine guns on cars to fight over stuff.  More likely, we would come up with an alternative, but not before government lobbyists got subsidies for things we know won't work.

Peak oil hasn't happened yet but it's still being discussed.   Like that guy on the corner yelling the end of the world is near, he will eventually be right and so will the peak oil crowd - it makes sense since there were a limited number of dinosaurs that died to create oil while we have more people than ever buying Hummers.  

A new report by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), claims that conventional oil production is likely to peak before 2030, with a significant risk of a peak before 2020.  Obviously words such as 'likely' and 'significant' mean something different to a science audience - they mean quite a lot of data - but for policy papers it just means they aren't sure but it's a pretty good guess based on what they know today.

The report's chief author and senior researcher at UKERC Steve Sorrell says, "It makes no sense to provide precise forecasts of when a peak in oil production will occur. The data is unreliable, there are multiple factors to consider and a ‘bumpy plateau' seems more likely than a sharp peak. But we can say that the window is narrowing rapidly. The effects of global oil depletion will depend greatly on the response from governments and on the scale of investment in new energy technologies."

The report says even maintaining global production at today's level would need the equivalent of a new Saudi Arabia every three years - an example we can all understand.

According to Sorrell, "In our view, forecasts which delay a peak in conventional oil production until after 2030 are at best optimistic and at worst implausible. And given the world's overwhelming dependence upon oil and the time required to develop alternatives, 2030 isn't far away. The concern is that rising oil prices will encourage the rapid development of carbon-intensive alternatives which will make it difficult or impossible to prevent dangerous climate change."

The report agrees with the more optimistic estimates of the size of oil resources but notes that much of this is in smaller less accessible fields which may only be produced relatively slowly and at high cost. It also highlights the accelerating decline in production from existing fields; more than two thirds of current crude oil production capacity may need to be replaced by 2030 to prevent production from falling.

UKERC's report claims to be the first study to take an independent, thorough and systematic review of the evidence and arguments in the ‘peak oil' debate. It addresses the following question: What evidence is there to support the proposition that the global supply of ‘conventional oil' will be constrained by physical depletion before 2030?

The UK Energy Research Centre is an advocacy group for UK research on sustainable energy.