In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Non-Renewable Resource Depletion and Use

  • Introduction
  • The Peak Oil Concept
  • Applicability of the Peak Oil Concept to Minerals and Metals
  • Overview of Resource and Reserve Estimation and Terminology
  • Resource Reporting and Peak Minerals
  • Resource and Reserve Delineation
  • Implications for Global Resource/Reserve Estimates
  • Potential Barriers to Future Metal and Mineral Production
  • General Overviews and Data Sources
  • Textbooks and Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Economic Geology Journals
  • Natural Resource Use and Policy Journals
  • Wide-Focus, High-Impact Journals Publishing Natural Resource Depletion and Use Studies

Environmental Science Non-Renewable Resource Depletion and Use
Simon M. Jowitt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0128


Modern society relies on an increasing number of minerals and metals, meaning that over time production of these commodities has significantly increased, especially within the last fifty years. However, metals and minerals are dominantly produced from ore or mineral deposits that are inherently non-renewable as the geological processes that form these resources (and if necessary exhume them to nearer surface environments where they can be exploited) occur at much slower rates (often over thousands or millions of years) than they are being consumed. This at a basic level indicates that at some point we will “run out” of these non-renewable resources. Although this may be true on a very long timescale, this simple view does not take into account a number of different factors, such as changes in the types, sizes, and grades of mineral deposits that are being exploited. Past changes in the mineral and mining sectors have led to a global increase in mineral and metal production throughout the 20th and 21st centuries that has been (more than) matched by an increase in global mineral and metal resources and reserves. This increase in the amount of material available for exploitation has reflected the decreasing cost of mining and energy, the development of new mining and mineral processing technologies, continued exploration success that has led to the discovery of new resources and reserves, and increasing demand, which in real terms has increased the prices of the majority of commodities. However, the potential lifespan of these historic patterns remains unclear, especially given that mineral resources are finite and other aspects that influence metal and mineral production, such as energy costs and environmental and social issues, are becoming increasingly important. This has led to recent concerns focused on a variety of metals and minerals considered to be at potential supply risk, including base metals such as zinc as well as a the so-called critical metals; metals that are associated with supply risk as a result of their concentration of supply, political instability in source countries, or production (and hence reliance) as by-products to primary metals such as Cu or Zn. These risks are compounded by the fact that these critical metals and minerals are essential for numerous often advanced technologies as well as defense and energy production requirements. This review focuses on the key considerations in estimating metal and mineral resources, aspects that need to be considered when estimating current resources and reserves and determining whether we can meet current and future demand. The dynamic nature of global metal and mineral resources means that an in-depth analysis of these data is not within the scope of this review, although the references provided form a comprehensive bibliography for this topic.

The Peak Oil Concept

The first detailed consideration of whether we might run out of “non-renewable” resources was undertaken in the 1950s by M. King Hubbert, who first applied the concept of a “peak” model to annual oil production, where the discovery, development, and extraction of finite oil resources over time would gradually lead to an increase and then an inevitable decline in oil production as these finite resources are depleted (Hubbert 1956). This apparent peaking of oil production led Hubbert to predict an energy gap that could only be filled by alternative energy sources, predicted in the 1950s to be nuclear energy. This “peak oil” concept is now widely recognized but remains debated and controversial (e.g., Bentley 2002, who gives an overview of peak oil concepts and the impact of unconventional hydrocarbon production). This controversy is further examined by Feng, et al. 2008, which studies Chinese oil production and considers the applicability of peak oil; Sorrell, et al. 2009, which examines the evidence for a peak in global oil production; Smith 2012, which examines peak concepts from an economic viewpoint; and Sverdrup and Ragnarsdóttir 2014, which more generally looks at current and future resource production. The controversy over peak oil (and wider peak minerals concepts) reflects the fact that we have not (as of 2019) reached “peak oil,” significant oil discoveries continue to be made, and enhancements such as fracking and enhanced recovery have increased the amount of recoverable oil present within known reservoirs, thus extending the lifespan of hydrocarbon resources that were predicted to be depleted by this time. This led to a situation where a peak around 1970 followed by a decline in both US crude oil reserves and production has been turned around, with increases in both to 2017 causing US crude oil reserves and production to reach levels not seen since the 1970 “peak” (as demonstrated by Meinert, et al. 2016; the peak oil discussion in this paper uses data from USEIA). This clearly shows that it is possible to have second or potentially third peaks, rather than a single peak being followed by an inevitable decline. Equally, although the advent of increased natural gas extraction via fracking has not directly increased oil production, it has had a significant impact on alternatives to oil for energy production in a much more significant way than say nuclear energy (as predicted by Hubbert 1956) has had.

  • Bentley, R. W. 2002. Global oil and gas depletion: An overview. Energy Policy 30.3: 189–205.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0301-4215(01)00144-6

    Gives an overview of global conventional and unconventional hydrocarbon production in a peak oil context as well as discussing risks that may affect future supply.

  • Feng, L., J. Li, and X. Pang. 2008. China’s oil reserve forecast and analysis based on peak oil models. Energy Policy 36.11: 4149–4153.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2008.07.037

    This paper applies peak modeling to Chinese oil production data and forecasts China’s ultimately recoverable reserves of hydrocarbons.

  • Hubbert, M. K. 1956. Nuclear energy and the fossil fuels. In Drilling and production practice, 1–44. San Antonio, TX. American Petroleum Institute.

    This classic paper outlines Hubbert’s Peak Oil concept based on the history of US oil up to the date of production, as well as outlining a potential role for nuclear energy to meet US energy needs.

  • Meinert, L., G. Robinson, and N. Nassar. 2016. Mineral resources: Reserves, peak production and the future. Resources 5.1: 14.

    DOI: 10.3390/resources5010014

    Provides an overview of predictions of peak minerals and the erroneous use of reserve data to predict the amount of given commodities that are available (or as the authors put it, “all there is”). The paper criticizes the use of peak modeling using reserves data and outlines the need to resolve some of the issues around assessing humankind’s ability to meet future demand for metals and minerals.

  • Smith, J. L. 2012. On the portents of peak oil (and other indicators of resource scarcity). Energy Policy 44:68–78.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2012.01.014

    This paper examines the peak concept from an economic standpoint and assesses whether the timing of peak production provides any useful information on scarcity, concluding that peaks (and economic indicators of resource scarcity) are ambiguous and cannot be used to predict the scarcity (or otherwise) of resources.

  • Sorrell, S., J. Speirs, R. Bentley, A. Brandt, and R. Miller. 2009. Global oil depletion: An assessment of the evidence for a near-term peak in global oil production. London: UK Energy Research Centre.

    Examines the evidence and implications for a near-term global peak in hydrocarbon production and concludes that peaking is understood, can be assessed using available data, and may constrain future supply. However, consensus could be improved, further research is needed, and large unexploited reserves may exist although the time involved in developing these may not prevent peaking. Published before the significant development of unconventional hydrocarbons in the United States but provides some key information on peak oil concepts and likelihoods.

  • Sverdrup, H. U., and K. V. Ragnarsdóttir. 2014. Natural resources in a planetary perspective. Geochemical Perspectives 3.2: 129–341.

    DOI: 10.7185/geochempersp.3.2

    Focuses on outlining the resources needed for modern life, summarizing the current and future availability of some of these resources and claims that production of most resources has peaked or will peak over the next fifty years, contrasting with a number of papers cited here and comments by Meinert, et al. 2016 and Smith 2012, which indicate that this peak modeling is flawed. Nevertheless, this volume provides insight into the issues around future resource supply and depletion.

  • US Energy Information Administration (EIA). Petroleum and other liquids. Washington, DC: EIA.

    The USEIA website is an excellent data source that provides comprehensive statistical data relating to US energy requirements and production, including data on US hydrocarbon resources and production on a national and (where available) a state-by-state basis; the link directs to the petroleum focused part of the website.

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