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The View from Hubbert's Peak
by Kenneth S. Deffeyes
Hill and Wang, 2006, paperback, 202 pages
With world oil production about to peak and inexorably head toward steep decline, what fuels are available to meet rising global energy demands? Deffeyes, a geologist who warned of the coming oil crisis in Hubbert's Peak, now takes the next logical step and turns his attention to the earth's supply of potential replacement fuels. In Beyond Oil, he traces out their likely production futures. His main concern is not our long-term adaptation to a world beyond oil but our immediate future: "Through our inattention, we have wasted the years that we might have used to prepare for lessened oil supplies. The next ten years are critical."
Praise for Beyond Oil
"A valuable encore to Hubbert's Peak, this new book by Professor Deffeyes offers a wide-ranging overview of the world’s energy alternatives 'beyond oil.' Its crystal-clear prose, easily understood by the layman, is peppered with anecdotes, memories and scientific insights, mirroring the author's half century of first-hand experience in the industry." --A.M. Samsam Bakhtiari, Senior Expert, National Iranian Oil Company
We are facing an unprecedented problem. World oil production has stopped growing; declines in production are about to begin. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the geological supply of an essential resource will not meet the demand.
There has been plenty of warning. In 1969, M. King Hubbert, an American geologist, published predictions of future world oil production. Hubbert predicted that annual oil production would follow a bell-shaped curve; the curve became known as "Hubbert's peak." The more optimistic of his two estimates in 1969 placed the world's total oil endowment at 2.1 trillion barrels and peak production in the year 2000. My best current estimate (detailed at the end of Chapter 3) puts the total oil at 2.013 trillion barrels, peaking in 2005. Whichever of us is correct, or even if we are both wrong, we are not very wrong. Wherever the peak, the view is not good.
My own interest in the oil supply problem began in 1958, when I started work at the Shell research lab in Houston. Hubbert enjoyed superstar status at the Shell lab, for many reasons in addition to his oil predictions. I enjoyed working at the lab, and I enjoyed getting to know Hubbert. By 1963 it was clear that the oil business (in Houston, it's the "awl bidness") would change enormously by the year 2000, when I was supposed to retire. My own analysis of Hubbert's numbers caused me to leave the petroleum industry prematurely.
Emotionally, it was not easy to leave. I grew up in the oil patch; my father was a first-generation petroleum engineer. I was born in Oklahoma, am part Chickasaw, and can remember the Dust Bowl. When I was about ten years old, I decided to become a petroleum geologist. While I was in high school, a nice piece of help came along: Two geologists, Jack Fanshawe and Paul Walton, took the time to help me learn mineralogy. My undergraduate education (Colorado School of Mines) and graduate education (Princeton) were focused on methods useful in oil exploration and production. I held a sequence of summer jobs that taught me the dirty-fingernail side of the oil industry. For a while, I had a bumper sticker that said, "Oilfield trash, and proud of it."
After I left Shell, I taught for a couple of years each at Minnesota and Oregon State, and then joined the faculty at Princeton. Teaching and research were rewarding, and I could continue consulting part time on oil and mining. My course titled "Sedimentology" was a camouflaged course in petroleum geology.
This book is about the fuels that come from the earth. A lot of questions about public policy naturally follow. However, my expertise ends where the geology stops. Any opinions I have about the wisdom of increased gasoline taxes or a U.S. oil import tax have the same standing as the opinions of J. Random Citizen. In this book, I try to explain the advantages and constraints on the various fuels from the earth. Deciding on policy is a task for all of us as citizens.
Chapters 1 and 2 are brief statements of the oil supply problem. Chapter 3 is the result of a happy accident: I found an alternative to Hubbert's complicated mathematics. Hubbert's analysis requires pages of differential equations to go from A to B. Going from B to A reaches the same results but requires only three lines of high-school algebra. Chapters 4 through 8 cover natural gas, coal, tar sand, oil shale, and uranium. Chapter 9 is an oddity: Hydrogen is not a fuel that comes from the earth, but there is so much misinformation floating around about hydrogen that I felt compelled to explain further about it. Chapter 10 is an essay about seeing the world through a geologist's eyes; it is what William Safire calls a "thumbsucker."
There was a tremendous flap during 2004 over Shell's downgrading of oil reserves. Those of us who used to work for Shell were particularly surprised; typically Shell was overly cautious about almost everything. I have no private sources of information from inside the major oil companies. Mostly, I try to evaluate what they do, not what they say. For instance, an editorial in the June 21, 2004, issue of Business Week complained that the 30 percent increase in oil prices induced only a tiny increase in company exploration budgets. Similarly, U.S. refineries are running close to capacity, but no new refineries have been built since 1976. Oil tanker ships are fully booked, but outdated tankers are being retired faster than new ones are being built. Instead, the industry seems to be hoarding cash, buying back stock, and paying out dividends. What is going on? Why don't higher prices and increasing demand encourage investment? Suppose, for a moment, that the premise of this book is correct: We have already found most of the oil. Drilling for the few leftovers yields neither fun nor profit. Should the major oil companies drill a string of dry holes just to keep the editors of Business Week happy? If, as I claim, world oil production is about to decline, then there is no point in adding refineries or increasing the size of the tanker fleet.
The major oil companies are not saying publicly that the oil game is over. If there were attractive prospects available, companies would be clawing their way over one another to get the drilling rights. There is important exploration to be done in a number of countries. Even if an oil company signs a contract with either the national oil company or the government itself, in many countries the contracts are unenforceable. Drill a dry hole and nothing happens. Hit a major discovery and suddenly the contract is up for renegotiation.
During the last four years, there has been considerable interest in the financial community about the oil supply problem. Elsewhere, a few conservation-minded people have paid attention. How can you reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Run out of oil. Politicians and the general public have paid little attention. Here is part of the reason: Some professional petroleum observers state that world oil production will continue to increase until the year 2030. Any publication that pretends to be "fair" feels compelled to present both sides of the story. When the professionals disagree, does that mean there is no real knowledge available? Is it safe to ignore the problem until the professionals agree?
Here's my reply: Doing nothing today is simply betting that Hubbert is wrong. Hubbert's 1956 prediction that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s was essentially correct. Hubbert's 1969 prediction that world oil production would peak around the year 2000 is coming true right now (details are in Chapter 3). Fifteen years ago, we should have started investing heavily in alternative energy strategies. That opportunity is now lost. There is no time left for scholarly research. There is no time left for engineers to develop new machinery.
We have to face the next five years with the equipment designs that are already in production. It's not going to be easy.
Kenneth S. Deffeyes is Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. His previous book, Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage, was published in 2001 by Princeton University Press.