Researcher: Dwindling Oil Supplies to Bring Energy Crisis

"Better to believe in the tooth fairy," he writes.

Most of the planet has been explored extensively, and even if some new fields are found, they won't delay the peak by more than a few years, he says.

So that leads him to two scenarios.

"Worst case: After Hubbert's peak, all efforts to produce, distribute, and consume alternative fuels fast enough to fill the gap between falling supplies and rising demand fail. Runaway inflation and worldwide depression leave many billions of people with no alternative but to burn coal in vast quantities for warmth, cooking, and primitive industry. The change in the greenhouse effect that results eventually tips Earth's climate into a new state hostile to life. End of story.

"Best case: The worldwide disruptions that follow Hubbert's peak serve as a global wake-up call. A methane-based economy is successful in bridging the gap temporarily while nuclear power plants are built and the infrastructure for other alternative fuels is put in place. The world watches anxiously as each new Hubbert's peak estimate for uranium and oil shale makes front-page news."

A number of things can be done, but all have some limitations, and all take the one thing we're running out of — time.

"There can't be a quick resolution," Goodstein said in the interview. "It's a huge problem."

Time to Switch?

He would begin an immediate shift toward a greater reliance on natural gas, since supplies of methane are greater than the remaining oil, and he sees no alternative to building more nuclear power plants. That won't sit well with many Americans.

"There are difficulties and dangers associated with nuclear power, but there may be no alternative," he writes. Other potential sources of energy, like oil shale, are fraught with environmental problems and they may take more energy to develop than they ultimately produce.

That has been the case in other fields, including fusion reactors that could make their own fuel.

Despite the fact that the federal government has poured billions into fusion research, no experimental reactor has ever produced more energy than it consumes, not even for a second.

Ultimately, Goodstein argues, we must return to the energy source used by our ancestors thousands of years ago.

"There is a cheap, plentiful supply of energy available for the taking," he says, and we won't run out of it for billions of years. "It's called sunlight."

Therein lies the greatest hope. New technological breakthroughs could finally harness the sun in ways we haven't even begun to imagine. But it will take a commitment on a global scale that would make the Manhattan Project seem like child's play.

And here we are in the midst of a presidential election campaign, and no one is even talking about it.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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