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Data: EIA; Chart: Axios visuals

Fifteen years ago, the world was worried it would run out of oil, yet this week the crude market cratered, with prices for American oil temporarily going negative.

The big picture: While the recent price crash is largely due to unprecedented drops in demand for oil because of COVID-19 lockdown policies, technological advances over the past decade unlocked new supplies in the U.S. and elsewhere.

  • The result is an oil glut that could keep prices low for years.

Background: The idea that the world would eventually run out of oil was prominently put forward by an American geologist named M. King Hubbert who predicted in 1956 (mostly accurately) that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. The theory received a boost in 1998 when Scientific American published an influential article by a pair of geologists arguing that global oil production would soon be unable to keep pace with rising demand.

  • In the years that followed, global oil prices kept rising, eventually passing $100 a barrel in early 2008.
  • The increase in prices, as well as projections of future decline in production in countries like the U.S., led to fears the world was approaching "peak oil," after which supplies would inevitably decline, prices would skyrocket and economic collapse would follow.

But, but, but: The opposite happened. The fracking revolution, which allowed oil companies to drill for new supply in places like western Texas and North Dakota, inverted projections like the one in the chart above. U.S. oil production began rising, adding millions of barrels a day to the global market.

  • By September 2018, the U.S. passed Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world's biggest oil producer, and by the following year, the country was a net petroleum exporter.

What's next: It's a bad time to be in the oil business, but the world is a long way from getting off crude, with global demand passing 100 million barrels a day before the COVID-19 crisis. Still, with alternative energy and electric vehicles on the rise, it's not impossible to imagine the true peak oil we could be facing is peak demand, not peak production.

The bottom line: Unexpected technological change reliably overthrows our predictions about the future — which doesn't stop us from making them.

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Jul 30, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Oil giants Shell and Total report profits despite staggering earnings declines

Photo: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images

Shell and Total SA announced mammoth earnings declines Thursday that reflect the pandemic's toll on energy prices and demand, but the companies nonetheless beat expectations and eked out profits.

Driving the news: Shell announced second-quarter adjusted net earnings of $638 million, an 82% decline from the same period last year.

The future of retail: more self-service

Zliide makes a tag that attaches to clothing for self-checkout in retail stores. Photo: Jennifer A. Kingson/Axios.

Self-checkout, self-service, autonomous stores, DIY: The retail world is prepping for a future with fewer human workers and more technology involved in selling us stuff.

Why it matters: While 72% of retail sales are still expected to take place in brick-and-mortar stores in 2024, merchants are busy installing interactive signage, smart price tags, and remote checkout systems that point to a very different customer experience.

Updated 13 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: It's very difficult to get access to antiviral COVID treatments — Axios-Ipsos poll: Omicron's big numbersAnother wave of death — FDA limits use of Regeneron and Lilly antibody treatments.
  2. Vaccines: Pfizer begins clinical trial for Omicron-specific vaccine — The shifting definition of fully vaccinated.
  3. Politics: New York Supreme Court grants stay for indoor mask mandate — Neil Young demands Spotify take down music over vaccine misinformation — Biden admin withdraws temporary vaccine-or-test mandate for large employers.
  4. World: U.K. to lift travel testing requirement for fully vaccinated — Beijing Olympic Committee lowers testing threshold ahead of Games.
  5. Variant tracker

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