On the Portents of Peak Oil (and Other Indicators of Resource Scarcity)

James L. Smith

Energy Policy, Vol. 44, pp. 68-78, 2012

James L. Smith, Energy Policy, Vol. 44, pp. 68-78, 2012

Economists have studied various indicators of resource scarcity but largely ignored the phenomenon of ‘‘peaking’’ due to its connection to non-economic (physical) theories of resource exhaustion. I consider peaking from the economic point of view, where economic forces determine the shape of the equilibrium extraction path. Within that framework, I ask whether the timing of peak production reveals anything useful about scarcity. I find peaking to be an ambiguous indicator. If someone announced the peak would arrive earlier than expected, and you believed them, you would not know whether the news was good or bad. However, I also show that the traditional economic indicators of resource scarcity (price, cost, and rent) fare no better, and argue that previous studies have misconstrued the connection between changes in underlying scarcity and movements in these traditional indicators.

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