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The End of Oil?
Digital mapping in Kentucky
End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World
by Paul Roberts. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. ISBN 0 6182 3977 4. Hardback, $26.
Oil Factor: Protect Yourself and Profit from the Coming Energy
by Stephen Leeb and Donna Leeb. Warner Business Books, 2004. ISBN 0 4465 3317 3. Hardback, $24.95.
of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil
by David Goodstein. W.W. Norton and Company, 2004. ISBN 0 3930 5857 3. Hardback, $21.95.
Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage
by Kenneth S. Deffeyes. Princeton University Press, 2003 (revised edition). ISBN 0 6911 1625 3. Paperback, $16.95.
Partys Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies
by Richard Heinberg. New Society Publishers, 2003. ISBN 0 8657 1482 7. Paperback, $17.95.
Several books addressing the end of oil over the past two years
should draw wide public attention because they are published in a time of high
oil and gasoline prices. This year, the price of U.S. crude oil has exceeded
$50 a barrel, with gasoline prices in many states reaching more than $2 a gallon.
To talk about the end of things often implies doomsday sentiments. It is unfortunate that books about such fundamental things as nature, science and oil should draw our attention only if they are entitled The End of Nature (Bill McKibben), The End of Science (John Horgan) and now The End of Oil (Paul Roberts). Oil and natural gas account for more than 60 percent of energy consumption in the world, and Americans use one-quarter of world energy. These facts alone justify energy literacy, policy debates, news coverage and the popularization of petroleum geoscience and economy.
Just as predictions of our oil future are difficult and uncertain, so are evaluations of these predictions. Only time can tell how successful or invalid a prediction is. Over the past century, there have been predictions of the world running out of oil and counterarguments. The best we can do is to evaluate the approaches, assumptions, scope, input data, uncertainties and implications of these predictions. Unfortunately, these methodological aspects are rarely discussed in popular media, with attention instead focused on speculative conclusions about the future of oil.
The style and focus of each of five books about the end of oil reflect each authors profession. Deffeyes (Hubberts Peak) is a petroleum geologist and a professor at Princeton. He has enriched his book with anecdotes of wit and wisdom. Paul Roberts (The End of Oil) is a regular contributor to Harpers magazine. His book is based on many interviews, correspondence and travels. It is all prose with no diagrams to enhance the text or show trends in numerical data. Richard Heinberg (The Partys Over) is an author concerned about social issues. His book is a distillation of energy facts and opinions from various publications. David Goodstein (Out of Gas) is a physics professor at Caltech and the author of popular science books. He explains the scientific basis of other energy resources assuming that we are at the end of the oil age. Stephen and Donna Leeb (The Oil Factor) are stock market experts, and they discuss the economic implications and investment opportunities of the end-of-oil phenomenon.
The philosophy of these books is rooted in the pioneering work of the late M. King Hubbert, a famous petroleum geoscientist of the past century. In 1956, Hubbert predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970. Being an experienced petroleum geologist, Hubbert knew that the production profile (a graph of oil production per year) of an oil reservoir has a bell shape, with an initial increase in production, then a peak and finally a decline with time. Hubbert applied this approach to oil fields in the lower 48 states, and his prediction remarkably was shown true: U.S. domestic production of oil has not regained its peak 1970 level.
In recent years, several petroleum geologists have forecasted that world oil production would peak sometime in the first half of this century. Colin Campbell is among the prominent revivers of Hubberts method, and the end-of-oil books mostly feed on the ideas developed in his publications, including The Coming Oil Crisis (1997) and an article in the March 1998 Scientific American called The End of Cheap Oil. The estimates of peak world oil production (also called Hubberts Peak, at which 50 percent of oil reserves are depleted) range from 2000 to 2010 (by Hubbert, Campbell and Deffeyes) to 2030 to 2040 (by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Energy and the International Energy Agency). Roberts categorizes the lower values as pessimistic and the higher values as optimistic predictions. The lower estimates are based on the assumption that the worlds recoverable oil resources are 1.8 to 2.1 trillion barrels, while the upper estimates place it at 3.7 to 4.7 trillion barrels.
Given the finite amount of oil resources, Hubberts Peak will occur in the future, but this does not mean that the world will soon run out of oil. Before we reach the peak oil, production will actually increase. As our access to oil reserves expands, the timing of Hubberts Peak also is pushed further into the future.
As we apply the production/depletion method from a reservoir scale to the global scale, the range of our uncertainty also increases because we do not know the total amount of oil reserves. Moreover, the shapes of oil production profiles (as we see in real reservoirs) are rarely symmetrical because of several factors, such as underestimates of oil reserves in a field or the use of secondary-recovery techniques by production engineers to keep oil flowing. In other words, the downslope (decline in production) of Hubberts Peak will take a longer time than its upslope (increase in production).
Note that our current technology has a recovery efficiency of 35 to 40 percent. Thus, about 60 percent of discovered oil remains underground and some of this can be produced by advanced techniques in the future. If oil prices remain high, petroleum companies will have economic incentives to invest more in new exploration and better production. Deepwater reserves, polar region discoveries, liquefied natural gas, coal gasification, tar sands, oil shale and methane hydrates are prospects that may gradually be added to current conventional hydrocarbon resources.
Nevertheless, it is useful to analyze the end-of-oil scenarios in the spirit that forewarned is forearmed. Rene Dubos, one of the greatest scientist-environmentalists of our time, once remarked that trends are not destiny. As most of the authors of these books contend, we need to decrease our dependency on oil and develop technologies that use other energy resources. Opinions vary, however, as to what other energy resources we should utilize. Deffeyes and Goodstein welcome the use of nuclear energy; Roberts highlights the near-future use of hydrogen fuel; and Heinberg prefers environmentally friendly, renewable energy sources (such as solar, hydraulic and wind power) and argues against the nuclear option.
If Hubberts Peak occurs in the coming decades (in our own lifetimes), we can envision an energy-mix scenario for the world in which energy resources other than oil and gas will be increasingly utilized depending on local conditions. Our civilization should adopt this approach sooner rather than later not because oil is fast coming to an end, but for the more important reason that oil is too precious to be wasted in the ways we are currently using it.
Burned up as a fuel, oil is lost forever, pollutes the air and contributes to global warming by emitting carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, about 90 percent of the organic chemicals we use (plastics, agricultural chemicals and pharmaceuticals) come from petroleum. A barrel of oil burned up is subtracted from the worlds oil reserves, never to be replaced (at least for millions of years). Therefore, conserving oil resources, increasing energy efficiency and utilizing other resources will ensure that future generations will not be deprived of thousands of petrochemical products we are privileged to use.
Roberts points out that once economic conditions are right, petroleum companies themselves will build a new energy engine for the world because these companies are well-financed and experienced. This fact does not preclude companies now specializing in nonpetroleum resources from tapping the market. There are, however, indications that some major petroleum companies are positioning themselves to play a significant role in the energy mix market of the future.
The Leebs argue in their book that since the first oil shock in 1973, the economy and stock market have danced to oils tune. Sharp rises in oil prices have led to economic recession or stagnation and stock market crashes, while good times have been during low oil prices. They call this pattern the amazing oil indicator. These authors also foresee that oil prices are set to soar, reaching a minimum of $100 per barrel for oil and $10 per gallon for gasoline before the end of this decade.
Oil and gas prices will rise and fall in the future as they have done in the past due to economic and political factors. Geology will play a role in prices only if it influences the supply-demand relationship if petroleum companies are unable to find more oil, replace their reserves and meet the worlds rising demand. Thus, watching the geological climate is vital in the coming years to verify whether we are hearing another wolf crying or if the wolf is really here.
Sorkhabi is a research professor at the Energy and Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.Back to top
Our Affair with El Niño
by S. George Philander. Princeton University Press, 2004. ISBN 0691113351. Paperback, $26.95.
Every few years, including this year, we read in the newspapers that another
El Niño is on its way, and depending on where we live, we start attaching
our previous experiences to this information. People in Australia expect drought,
and people in California expect heavy rains. In many cases, these expectations
are based on two particularly large recent events in 1982 to 1983 and
1997 to 1998 that seem to have imprinted those years weather on
peoples minds. The reality is much more complicated and much more interesting.
What is actually happening is that the warm sea-surface temperature in the western tropical Pacific, normally on the order of 29 degrees Celsius, begins to spread eastward into the central and eastern Pacific (normally a few degrees colder) and allows the regions of persistent precipitation to spread considerably eastward of their normal positions over the warmest water in the western Pacific. The ocean manifestation is warmer water, and the atmospheric expression is increased precipitation and lower surface pressure both spreading into the eastern Pacific. The combined atmosphere-ocean phenomenon has come to be known as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. Because regions of persistent precipitation in the tropics excite waves that can reach north and south far from the tropical regions, some regions tend to get drier and warmer, and some tend to get wetter and cooler. The signal is not overwhelming and can be masked by the natural climate variability of the region.
While vast regions of the ocean go unobserved, the equatorial Pacific is particularly well-measured by a set of about 70 bottom-anchored surface moorings deployed jointly by the United States and Japan. We not only know the state of the upper ocean, but we also know the winds and temperatures of the near-surface atmosphere. All the data are freely available and the state of the equatorial Pacific is viewable online any day of the week (www.pmel.noaa.gov/tao). The data are used as initial conditions for coupled atmosphere-ocean models, which then proceed to give skillful (but not infallible) predictions of the future state of ENSO. In many ways, the development of this ability to predict months in advancethese aspects of future climate is one of the most remarkable stories in geophysics. Much of it is told in S. George Philanders new book, Our Affair with El Niño.
This book, written primarily for the nonscientist, not only deals with the physical mechanisms of the warm and cold phases of ENSO (often called El Niño and La Niña, respectively) and its far-flung manifestations throughout the world, but also deals with a bewildering number of additional topics. Its purpose is to help improve communication between scientists and nonscientists by taking advantage of the intense interest everyone takes in El Niño.
The author, a professor at Princeton University who has studied ENSO since the 1960s, thus takes the opportunity to make some wise statements about the differences between science and policy approaches to societal problems, such as global warming. The result of this discussion is the old question: How much certainty do we need to act? This is a policy question rather than a scientific one, and it is disingenuous of policy-makers to constantly insist on more certainty when the consequences of delay could be harmful. As geoscience is not an experimental science, questions of causality or attribution can never be answered without uncertainty.
In the book, Philander also presents a history of the science of weather, weather prediction and oceanography; explains the sensitive dependence of most evolving physical phenomena on initial conditions; and describes the last 60 million years of Earths climate. A renaissance man, Philander also talks knowledgeably about painting, poetry and music, among other subjects.
Overall, despite the wide variety of topics, the writing is usually interesting, though sometimes insufferably precious (especially in the I am a cloud chapter). The book is as wide-ranging and unclassifiable as its author and is worth getting to know.