Peter Odell: The Life and Times of a Petroleum Economist

Peter Odell was a pioneer figure in petroleum economics. His ideas and analyses were highly influential in his own time and are still worth studying today. Many people came to know of Odell through his best-selling “Oil and World Power: A Geographical Interpretation.” What strikes the reader of this and other works by Odell is the author’s cross-disciplinary approach to the oil and gas industry, integrating economic analyses with geopolitics, history, maps and geography.

His publications were relatable to geologists as well. Odell’s little-known autobiography, “An Energetic Life,” was his last book, published in 2010. It describes how his professional life covered the post-World War II period of the oil and gas industry, which witnessed the Cold War, the first and second oil shocks, the 1985 oil market crash, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the rise of China and India in the 2000s, Peak Oil theories, and so forth.

These issues, in different forms, are still with us. To read Odell today is not so much about agreeing or disagreeing with his ideas, but to situate him in the history of petroleum and to understand what that history might offer.

A Humble Upbringing in England

Peter Randon Odell was born on July 1, 1930, to Frank James Odell and Grace Edna Randon. In the 1890s, his parental grandfather Frederick Charles Odell and maternal grandfather George Randon had settled in Coalville, a small coal-mining town in Leicestershire, England, where Peter and, three years later, his younger sister Patricia Mary, were born. Theirs was a family of coal miners and railway workers. His father was a station porter at the London Midland Railway. Peter attended the Bridge Road Primary School and King Edward VII Coalville Grammar School. While at school, he did odd jobs, including helping his father with the railway station chores, delivering meat on a bicycle to a local butcher’s customers, and delivering milk on a pony.

Odell was a good student, and so decided to go to college. He chose Birmingham University because it was only a two-hour train ride from Coalville. He studied geology, economics and majored in geography, earning a bachelor’s with honors in 1951. For his graduate dissertation, he wrote a paper on the history of the railway system in his hometown of Coalville. Odell continued his studies at Birmingham, and in 1954 submitted his doctoral thesis on “A study of the development of urban spheres of influence in Leicestershire,” under the supervision of Professor Robert Henry Kinvig, then the chair of the geography department. Odell was awarded his doctorate in July 1954.

While serving as an education officer in the Royal Air Force, Odell met his wife, Jean McKintosh, a trained nurse. They married on Aug. 17, 1957, and five days later boarded the MV Britannic for the United States. Odell had been awarded a Rotary Foundation fellowship at the Fletcher School of Law in Medford, Mass.

In 1958, Odell joined the Economic Division of the Shell International Petroleum Company in London as an economist and worked there for three years. In 1961, he became a lecturer in economic geography at the London School of Economics. Seven years later, Odell accepted a professor position at the Nederlandse Economische Hogeschool (today’s Erasmus University) in Rotterdam, where he developed a highly regarded program in petroleum economics. He also established himself as an expert on global petroleum economy and policy, and he consulted for Sheikh Zaki Yamani, the Saudi minister of petroleum, as well as Tony Benn, then secretary of state for energy (Labour Party).

Image Caption

Peter Odell was awarded the OPEC Medal in 2006 in Vienna in recognition of “five decades of academic and research excellence in petroleum economics.” His previous awards included the 1991 International Association for Energy Economics and the 1994 Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s Centennial Medal for studies of North Sea oil and gas. Photo courtesy of OPEC.

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Peter Odell was a pioneer figure in petroleum economics. His ideas and analyses were highly influential in his own time and are still worth studying today. Many people came to know of Odell through his best-selling “Oil and World Power: A Geographical Interpretation.” What strikes the reader of this and other works by Odell is the author’s cross-disciplinary approach to the oil and gas industry, integrating economic analyses with geopolitics, history, maps and geography.

His publications were relatable to geologists as well. Odell’s little-known autobiography, “An Energetic Life,” was his last book, published in 2010. It describes how his professional life covered the post-World War II period of the oil and gas industry, which witnessed the Cold War, the first and second oil shocks, the 1985 oil market crash, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the rise of China and India in the 2000s, Peak Oil theories, and so forth.

These issues, in different forms, are still with us. To read Odell today is not so much about agreeing or disagreeing with his ideas, but to situate him in the history of petroleum and to understand what that history might offer.

A Humble Upbringing in England

Peter Randon Odell was born on July 1, 1930, to Frank James Odell and Grace Edna Randon. In the 1890s, his parental grandfather Frederick Charles Odell and maternal grandfather George Randon had settled in Coalville, a small coal-mining town in Leicestershire, England, where Peter and, three years later, his younger sister Patricia Mary, were born. Theirs was a family of coal miners and railway workers. His father was a station porter at the London Midland Railway. Peter attended the Bridge Road Primary School and King Edward VII Coalville Grammar School. While at school, he did odd jobs, including helping his father with the railway station chores, delivering meat on a bicycle to a local butcher’s customers, and delivering milk on a pony.

Odell was a good student, and so decided to go to college. He chose Birmingham University because it was only a two-hour train ride from Coalville. He studied geology, economics and majored in geography, earning a bachelor’s with honors in 1951. For his graduate dissertation, he wrote a paper on the history of the railway system in his hometown of Coalville. Odell continued his studies at Birmingham, and in 1954 submitted his doctoral thesis on “A study of the development of urban spheres of influence in Leicestershire,” under the supervision of Professor Robert Henry Kinvig, then the chair of the geography department. Odell was awarded his doctorate in July 1954.

While serving as an education officer in the Royal Air Force, Odell met his wife, Jean McKintosh, a trained nurse. They married on Aug. 17, 1957, and five days later boarded the MV Britannic for the United States. Odell had been awarded a Rotary Foundation fellowship at the Fletcher School of Law in Medford, Mass.

In 1958, Odell joined the Economic Division of the Shell International Petroleum Company in London as an economist and worked there for three years. In 1961, he became a lecturer in economic geography at the London School of Economics. Seven years later, Odell accepted a professor position at the Nederlandse Economische Hogeschool (today’s Erasmus University) in Rotterdam, where he developed a highly regarded program in petroleum economics. He also established himself as an expert on global petroleum economy and policy, and he consulted for Sheikh Zaki Yamani, the Saudi minister of petroleum, as well as Tony Benn, then secretary of state for energy (Labour Party).

In 1982, Odell became the director of the Center for International Energy Studies at Erasmus Rotterdam and kept the position until his retirement in 1991. He then returned to England and led an active life of independent research, consulting and writing. He also taught as a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium.

Odell was fond of Ipswich and was chairman of the Ipswich Society from 1992 to 2000. He and his wife Jean moved to London in 2000. He died on April 12, 2016, at the age of 85 after a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s. Odell and his wife of 58 years raised four children and had seven grandchildren.

A Prolific Author

In his autobiography, Odell lists his publications, including 11 books as sole author, six books he co-authored, 260 articles as sole author and 14 articles he co-authored. In addition, he gave 150 invited lectures in 33 countries. Odell also served on the editorial boards of Energy Policy, Energy Journal and the International Journal of Energy Research.

Odell’s first major work was “An Economic Geography of Oil,” published in 1963, three years after OPEC had formed. This book analyzed the geographic and economic patterns of oil production, consumption and distribution. Odell often included spatial patterns and local variations in his economic and geopolitical analyses of oil. This is best evident in his book, “Oil and World Power,” in which he characterized “oil power” in specific regions: the United States, western Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, OPEC and developing countries. In the 1970s, Odell conducted pioneering studies of the North Sea oil and gas. In 2001-‘02, a collection of Odell’s technical papers was published in two volumes (more than 1,000 pages), entitled, “Oil and Gas: Crises and Controversies.”

Against Peak Oil

Odell was a political liberal, but his analyses of energy issues more closely reflected the economic policies favored by the oil and gas industry. His hometown of Coalville was traditionally a stronghold of the British Labour Party.

“At home,” Odell wrote, “we took the left-wing Daily Herald on weekdays, together with the equally socialist Reynold’s News on Sundays, and the John Bull magazine on, I recall, Fridays.”

Throughout his student years and in the 1970s, Odell remained a member and supporter of the Labour Party. In 1981, he left Labour and became one of the founding members of the Socialist Democratic Party in the UK, and in 1989 he ran as a Democrat for the European Union Parliament but was not elected. His leaning to the left was rooted in his working-class upbringing.

However, in his scholarship, Odell approached the oil industry and the energy economy, not from an idealist viewpoint of how the affairs should be, but from an analytical viewpoint of data, trends and economic or technical realities. He called it “realism.”

At the turn of the 21st century, the Peak Oil theory was highly popular. Spearheaded by retired petroleum geologists such as Collin Campbell and Jean H. Laherrère (authors of “The End of Cheap Oil” in the March 1998 issue of Scientific American), the “oil peakists” argued that half of the world’s oil reserves had already been consumed and that the world was soon reaching a production peak, after which declining oil production would play havoc with the economy and civilization. In his 2001 book, Kenneth Deffeyes called it Hubbert’s Peak, after M. King Hubbert, the Shell geophysicist who had formulated the Peak Oil concept in the 1950s.

Odell remained one of the few prominent researchers who criticized the Peak Oil theory as a myth. The roots of Odell’s thinking actually go back to his 1963 book, “An Economic Geography of Petroleum, in which he argued against any end-of-oil predictions.

Odell offered five arguments:

  • The so-called proven oil reserves are not the ultimate oil resource base but “working inventories” and “production capacity.”
  • Even slight increases in oil recovery by applying appropriate technologies would considerably raise the proven reserves.
  • There are large areas of sedimentary basins which have not been explored.
  • There are various types of unconventional petroleum with even larger volumes that can be produced under the right economic propositions.
  • Oil and gas production are controlled not solely by geological conditions but largely by political and market forces; for instance, the industry would not produce more oil than what it can store or sell.

In hindsight, today we witness that the gloomy predictions of a “world running out of oil” by the Peak Oil theorists were inaccurate. Odell’s insights into the working of the oil and gas industry were closer to reality.

The Future

In 2004, Odell published his last technical book, “Why Carbon Fuels Will Dominate the 21st Century’s Global Energy Economy.”

In Odell’s crystal ball, oil and natural gas resources are abundant; there are no physical shortages as more and more non-conventional hydrocarbon resources can be exploited. Given population and economic growth, production and consumption of all forms of energy – both fossil fuels and renewables – will expand in absolute terms, although their relative proportions will change.

By 2050 conventional oil production will peak; natural gas will emerge to be the number one energy source between 2025 and 2050. Gas will continue its premier position until 2080 when renewables will account for 30 percent, and then 40 percent by 2100.

At the turn of the 22nd century, the world’s energy production and markets will be highly diversified and will differ from one country to another.

Odell also believed that the vast majority of oil and gas reserves will continue to be in the hands of state companies outside of America and Europe. He envisioned the emergence of an orderly gas market in post-2020 involving gas-rich countries and motivated by Europe’s strategic gas demands.

Time will tell if Odell’s vision would hold true. In his 2010 autobiography, he mentions that even though his 2004 book may need revision, “I still maintain the validity of the book’s title and of much its content.”

One wonders if Odell – were he alive today – would include the threat of global warming in his “realism.” Odell did not deny global warming; however, he believed that there are technological solutions for this issue, notably large-scale carbon capture and sequestration, increase in energy efficiency and increased use of renewables. How and at what rate these will be achieved are the challenging issues of our time; they also provide job opportunities for geoscientists and engineers.

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