"Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels."
That's the way David Goodstein begins his book. And that's the way he ends it.
Goodstein is not an environmental extremist, or a doomsayer, or a political hack trying to make points with his constituency. He is a professor of physics and vice provost of the California Institute of Technology, one of the nation's headiest institutions.
In his just-released book, Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil, published by W. W. Norton & Company, Goodstein argues forcefully that the worldwide production of oil will peak soon, possibly within this decade. That will be followed by declining availability of fossil fuels that could plunge the world into global conflicts as nations struggle to capture their piece of a shrinking pie.
We've all heard that before, only to be told by organizations like the U.S. Department of Energy that there's plenty of oil around, much of it still undiscovered, and there's no cause for panic. Some economists argue that as the supply declines, the price will rise, making it possible to develop energy sources that are not now available, such as the mineral rich oil sands of Canada, or the shale formations in the western United States.
Clues From a Historical Rebel
Some time soon we'll find out who's right, but Goodstein argues that we don't have any time to spare. It takes decades to develop new energy sources, as the prestigious National Academy of Sciences warned last week in a report on the dream of using hydrogen to fuel our cars. So are we poised to meet this challenge head on?
Not likely, Goodstein says.
"Nothing is going to happen until we have a crisis," he said in an interview. "When we have a crisis, I think attitudes will change."
That crisis, he predicts, will probably come sooner rather than later.
But how can experts from economics and science and business differ so strongly on an issue that is this important? How can they look at the same data and come to such different conclusions?
Most predictions concerning the end of the age of oil are based on estimates of when the supply will run out and the last drop is pulled from the last well. But that's the wrong way to look at it, Goodstein argues.
Goodstein relies partly on the work of a historical rebel in the oil industry, M. King Hubbert. Back in the 1950s, when Hubbert was working as a geophysicist with Shell Oil Company, he predicted that oil production in the United States would peak by 1970.
He was almost laughed out of his profession, but guess what? He turned out to be right.
U.S. Oil production has been declining ever since, leading to an increased reliance on foreign oil, and we all know where that has led.
Hubbert's formula was really pretty simple. He looked at all the geological reports that were available at that time and determined how much oil nature had created for us beneath the United States. Then he determined how much had been extracted. He found that half of it would be gone by 1970, and U.S. production would decline forever thereafter.
Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios
Globally, nature left about 2 trillion barrels beneath the ground, and the peak will occur when we reach the halfway point, Goodstein argues. Since we have used close to a trillion barrels, the peak can't be more than a few years away, he says. But are huge new oil fields waiting out there somewhere to be discovered?