Publication date: 2003-08-11
First Published In: Book
Authors: Kenneth S. Deffeyes
Review from Scientific American:
You have to wonder about the judgment of a man who writes, “As I drive by those smelly refineries on the New Jersey Turnpike, I want to roll the windows down and inhale deeply.” But for Kenneth S. Deffeyes, that’s the smell of home. The son of a petroleum engineer, he was born in Oklahoma, “grew up in the oil patch,” became a geologist and worked for Shell Oil before becoming a professor at Princeton University. And he still knows how to wield a 36-inch-long pipe wrench.
In Hubbert’s Peak, Deffeyes writes with good humor about the oil business, but he delivers a sobering message: the 100-year petroleum era is nearly over. Global oil production will peak sometime between 2004 and 2008, and the world’s production of crude oil “will fall, never to rise again.” If Deffeyes is right–and if nothing is done to reduce the increasing global thirst for oil–energy prices will soar, and economies will be plunged into recession as they desperately search for alternatives.
It’s tempting to dismiss Deffeyes as just another of the doomsayers who have been predicting, almost since oil was discovered, that we are running out of it. But Deffeyes makes a persuasive case that this time it’s for real. It is an oilman and geologist’s assessment of the future, grounded in cold mathematics. And it’s frightening. Deffeyes’s prediction is based on the work of M. King Hubbert, a Shell geologist who in 1956 predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s and then begin to decline. Hubbert was dismissed by many experts inside and outside the oil industry. Pro-Hubbert and anti-Hubbert factions arose and persisted until 1970 when U.S. oil production peaked and started its long decline.
The Hubbert method is based on the observation that oil production in any region follows a bell-shaped curve. Production increases rapidly at first, as the cheapest and most readily accessible oil is recovered. As the difficulty of extracting the oil increases, it becomes more expensive and less competitive with other fuels. Production slows, levels off and begins to fall.
Hubbert demonstrated that total U.S. oil production in 1956 was tracing the upside of such a curve. To know when the curve would most likely peak, however, he had to know how much oil remained in the ground. Underground reserves provide a glimpse of the future: when the rate of new discoveries does not keep up with the growth of oil production, the amount of oil remaining underground begins to fall. That’s a tip-off that a decline in production lies ahead.
Deffeyes used a slightly more sophisticated version of the Hubbert method to make the global calculations. The numbers pointed to 2003 as the year of peak production, but because estimates of global reserves are inexact, Deffeyes settled on a range from 2004 to 2008. Three things could upset Deffeyes’s prediction. One would be the discovery of huge new oil deposits. A second would be the development of drilling technology that could squeeze more oil from known reserves. And a third would be a steep rise in oil prices, which would make it profitable to recover even the most stubbornly buried oil.
In a delightfully readable and informative primer on oil exploration and drilling, Deffeyes addresses each point. First, the discovery of new oil reserves is unlikely–petroleum geologists have been nearly everywhere, and no substantial finds have been made since the 1970s. Second, billions have already been poured into drilling technology, and it’s not going to get much better. And last, even very high oil prices won’t spur enough new production to delay the inevitable peak.
“This much is certain,” he writes. “No initiative put in place starting today can have a substantial effect on the peak production year. No Caspian Sea exploration, no drilling in the South China Sea, no SUV replacements, no renewable energy projects can be brought on at a sufficient rate to avoid a bidding war for the remaining oil.”
The only answer, Deffeyes says, is to move as quickly as possible to alternative fuels–including natural gas and nuclear power, as well as solar, wind and geothermal energy. “Running out of energy, in the long run, is not the problem,” Deffeyes explains. “The bind comes during the next ten years: getting over our dependence on crude oil.”
The petroleum era is coming to a close. “Fossil fuels are a one-time gift that lifted us up from subsistence agriculture and eventually should lead us to a future based on renewable resources,” Deffeyes writes. Those are strong words for a man raised in the oil patch. For the rest of us, the end of the world’s dependence on oil means we need to make some tough political and economic choices. For Deffeyes, it means he can’t go home again.
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