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An elevated view of Earth

With oil or without it? A glimpse at four more recent books on the future of petroleum in the 21st century

An elevated view of Earth

The two images of the Polynesian islands Bora Bora, Tahaa and Raiatea (from top to bottom) demonstrate the differences in satellite imaging techniques. On the left is an image from the Landsat 7 satellite, in which cloud cover over the area is readily seen, although atmospheric haze has been suppressed. It also “sees through” the water to the reefs surrounding the islands. The image on the right is that of the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, which has eliminated the problem of cloud cover and shows only the land topography in detail. This map is part of the final dataset released by NASA, which also includes Australia and New Zealand. All images courtesy of NASA/JPL/NIMA.
After four years of compiling data from the space shuttle Endeavour, the largest, most detailed topographic map of the world is now complete. The map provides a high-resolution view of the elevations of each continent’s features, three times the density of previous measurements over the past 30 years. Before now, only about 5 percent of the world’s topography was mapped at such a high resolution.

The extensive dataset was collected as part of the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), which lasted 11 days during February 2000, and covers 80 percent of Earth’s landmass, from 60 degrees south to 60 degrees north latitude. Two antennae, one held by a mast and another placed inside the cargo bay of the space shuttle Endeavour, received simultaneous radar signals bouncing off the globe’s topography, which made it possible to infer terrain elevation through comparisons of the two signals.

“In 10 days, the SRTM did what millennia of explorers were working toward,” says John LaBrecque, manager of NASA’s Solid Earth and Natural Hazards Program, in Washington, D.C. But “there’s still a lot of work to do,” including mapping everything north and south of the 60 degree latitude lines.

The world map is composed of 14,277 individual one-degree-square cells, where each cell is approximately 9,200 square kilometers. The images were made using shaded relief and color-coded elevations. Shaded relief is derived by computing topographic slope from northwest to southeast, causing northwest slopes to appear brighter, while southeast slopes look darker. The elevation is color-coded based on height, with lower elevations appearing green, middle elevations ranging from yellow to tan, and the highest peaks colored white.

“SRTM is not perfect,” says LaBrecque, even though “it may look perfect. There are gaps in the data,” from regions with very high relief or where the shuttle did not make enough passes to “look over the side of a mountain.”

LaBrecque says that the next step is to improve the dataset, using other methods of remote sensing to fill in and check the topography, and also to get to the next generation with higher resolution and accuracy. “It’s a first approach,” he says of the topographic mapping effort.

Already, a wide variety of researchers has been downloading the SRTM data, LaBrecque says — from ecologists to state geologists to hydrological modelers. In 2003, geologists studying the Chicxulub impact crater off Mexico for the first time were able to “see” the feature, which is thought to represent a large-scale bolide collision with Earth 65 million years ago, and possibly the cause of the demise of the dinosaurs (see Geotimes, April 2003).

More recently, the Dartmouth Flood Observatory at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., has made large-scale flood hazard maps on topography derived from the SRTM data. LaBrecque also notes the immediate value of having relatively accurate topography along coastlines, which modelers need for estimating tsunami hazards.

The project is a cooperative agreement between NASA, German and Italian space agencies and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The maps are managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The telescoping mast and the canister in which it was contained aboard Endeavour are now on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.

"Seeing Chicxulub," Geotimes, April 2003

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Book review
Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak

by Kenneth S. Deffeyes.
Hill and Wang, 2005.
ISBN 0 8090 2956 1. Hardcover, $24.
Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World

by Richard Heinberg.
New Society Publishers, 2004.
ISBN 0 8657 1510 6. Paperback, $16.95.
Why Carbon Fuels Will Dominate the 21st Century’s Global Energy Economy

by Peter R. Odell.
Multi-Science Publishing Co. Ltd. (U.K.), 2004.
ISBN 0 9065 2222 6. Paperback, $58.
Winning the Oil Endgame

by Amory B. Lovins, E. Kyle Datta, Odd-Even Bustnes, Jonathan G. Koomey and Nathan J. Glasgow; edited by Beatrice T. Aranow.
Rocky Mountain Institute (U.S.) & Earthscan (U.K.), 2004.
ISBN 1 8810 7110 3. Paperback, $40.
With Oil or Without It? A glimpse at four more recent books on the future of petroleum in the 21st century
Rasoul Sorkhabi

In The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (1992), Daniel Yergin described the 20th century as the “Hydrocarbon Age.” As we are in the early years of the 21st century, pundits from various walks of life are speculating about the future of petroleum and energy in our world.

Since visiting this topic on these pages last November, I have reviewed four new books that represent four different views on this issue and bring some perspectives into balance.

One school of thought advocated by several retired petroleum geologists foresees an imminent peak in the world’s oil production, popularly called Peak Oil or Hubbert’s Peak, which is named after the late M. King Hubbert, who formulated the methodology of predicting the oil peak. In his 2001 book, Ken Deffeyes, a professor of geology at Princeton and a former colleague of Hubbert, made two predictions about the timing of peak oil, 2003 and 2007. In his new book, Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak, he states that the oil peak will occur in late 2005 or in early 2006, and nominates Thanksgiving day, Nov. 24, 2005, as “World Oil Peak Day.”

There is no reason to believe that this new prediction is any more accurate than the author’s previous ones. And the Thanksgiving World Oil Peak Day is, in my view, a misleading idea (although a catchy title) for the general public. He does not say how to test this type of prediction, but if the data of world reserves and production are the keywords to watch, let’s do it for the next few years. My guess is that both these data and the predictions will change (as they have in the past).

Deffeyes is at his best when he explains the geology and inner workings of hydrocarbon resources, including oil, natural gas, coal, tar sands, heavy oil and oil shale, and two other resources, uranium and hydrogen. He combines his writing with his long experience teaching geology and his admirable sense of wit and wisdom, and the result is an entertaining book.

Deffeyes rightly points out that hydrogen is not a resource unto itself; we need energy to extract hydrogen as an energy resource. He also argues that we cannot afford to ignore the nuclear option, and honestly states that renewable energy resources are useful, but that he did not include them in his book because they are outside his specialty.

Renewable energy resources, coupled with reducing energy consumption in rich nations and reducing world population, form the core of Richard Heinberg’s perspective for a world free from oil, environmental pollution and resource wars. In his new book, Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, he forwards a second school of thought on the world’s oil peak. Promoted by environmentalists and activists, this viewpoint takes for granted the data and analyses of the oil peak, and then weaves together the oil issue with other social and environmental issues to construct gloomy future scenarios for the world.

Of course, few readers would disagree with a nonpolluted, cooperative and peaceful world. But to move toward these noble goals, we do not have to start from Heinberg’s assumptions and hasty assessments of the end of “cheap” oil (how much is “cheap” oil?) and the “collapse” of civilization.

While Heinberg has his best wishes for a post-carbon world, Peter Odell, a professor emeritus at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, argues that carbon fuels will continue to supply the world’s energy throughout the 21st century. He belongs to a third school of thought, pioneered mostly by energy economists, which points out many failures of oil shortage predictions in the past and offers scenarios in which market forces, human intelligence and resources, along with technological fixes and advances, overcome energy crises and shortages. Odell places the theoretical Hubbert’s Peak at 2030 for conventional oil, assuming that ultimate recoverable oil reserves are 3,000 billion barrels (this contrasts with Deffeyes’ estimate of 1,800 billion barrels in his previous book and 2,100 billion barrels in his new book). Including unconventional hydrocarbons in the mix, Odell places the peak year at 2060. He foresees that sequestration of carbon dioxide will solve the global warming problem, and that as demand for oil decreases, natural gas will dominate the world in the second half of this century.

Odell steps out of his area of expertise when he argues for the abiotic origin of oil — that hydrocarbons may be generated deep in Earth’s interior. From this view, hydrocarbons (like geothermal energy) become renewable sources. Few petroleum geochemists, however, would agree with this idea. The oil found in sedimentary basins is derived from organic materials, as numerous geochemical analyses have demonstrated.

Researchers at the Rocky Mountain Institute led by Amory Lovins (author of several influential books, such as Soft Energy Paths, published in 1977) ascribe to a fourth school of thought (and a relatively newer one). They do not dwell much on predictions and speculations, but rather suggest what practical steps and specific investments need to be made to create a better energy future for the world.
Their new book, Winning the Oil Endgame, is in the spirit that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once mentioned: “As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” The authors propose a plan to gain oil independence by 2025 via energy conservation and by gradually substituting oil with biofuels and natural gas. Their plan requires an investment of $180 billion.

The idea of oil independence has become a quite fashionable slogan these days, and there are two issues here: first, reducing dependency on oil, and second, reducing dependency on foreign oil. I think it is unlikely to achieve the second without achieving the first, and this is also an important path these authors have taken.

Essentially, Amory and colleagues suggest going beyond the oil age with oil (not without it), and this practical idea may carry us through to a new energy future.

Sorkhabi is a research professor at the Energy & Geoscience Institute of the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. E-mail:

"The End of Oil?," Geotimes, November 2004

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