Researcher: Dwindling Oil Supplies to Bring Energy Crisis

ByLee Dye

Feb. 11, 2004 -- "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?

"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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