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The questionable future of oil
by Ned Rozell

January 13, 2005

"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," urged one reputable scientist.

"Relax, the end is not near," said another.

A few of the nation's authorities on the world's oil supply gathered in December 2004 for the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Organizers of the conference created a session titled "Running on Empty? Oil: How Much, Where and at What Cost?" The session attracted standing room only crowds and kindled debate on the amount of recoverable oil beneath the skin of our planet.

Several scientists mentioned "Hubbert's Peak," the name given to the 1956 prediction of an oil company geologist that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. To the surprise of many in the oil industry, Hubbert was right, said Kenneth Deffeyes of the Princeton University Department of Geosciences. Other scientists applied Hubbert's method to world oil production and predicted that the peak year will be between 2004 and 2008. Deffeyes narrowed the date down to Thanksgiving Day 2005 in his book, "Beyond Oil; The View from Hubbert's Peak."

"When the peak occurs, increasing demand will meet decreasing supply, possibly with disastrous results," wrote conference speaker David Goodstein, the vice provost at the California Institute of Technology in his book, "Out of Gas; The End of the Age of Oil."

Goodstein gave the example of the Arab oil embargo as foreshadowing what might happen after world oil production peaks: "As we learned in 1973, the effects of an oil shortage can be immediate and drastic, while it may take years, perhaps decades, to replace the vast infrastructure that supports the manufacture, distribution, and consumption of the products of the twenty million barrels of oil we Americans alone gobble up each day."

On the other side of the debate was William Fisher, a professor of geology at the University of Texas at Austin. Fisher said we have enough oil to avoid disaster until the transition to natural gas, then hydrogen. He pointed out that the Hubbert's Peak equation assumes that people know how much oil is "ultimately recoverable," and that's not the case. He also said the Hubbert's Peak predictors ignore "field reserve growth," or the ability to get more out of certain oil fields as technology improves.

Fisher said that future global demand for oil will be within current estimates of recoverable oil, and a bigger challenge will be meeting the world's future demand for natural gas, "but it too will be met in sufficient volumes to bring us into the hydrogen economy some 50 to 60 years from now."

Goldstein countered that fuel cells are a possible source of energy for generating electricity and for powering cars and trucks, but to extract the hydrogen that powers the fuel cells using current technology requires about six times as much fossil fuel as the hydrogen would replace. Fisher had no argument with that.

"There are plenty of challenges with hydrogen now, but my assumption is that over the next several decades those can be worked out," Fisher said.

Goldstein said there is no magic bullet to replace oil, but nuclear power is one of the most favorable energies for the transition time between oil and whatever next fuels our cars and keeps our wall sockets working.

"The best hope for our civilization lies in technologies that have not yet arisen," Goldstein wrote. "Most likely, progress will lie in incremental advances . . . based on principles we already understand: controlled nuclear fusion, safe breeder reactors, better materials for manipulating electricity, more efficient fuel cells, better means of generating hydrogen, and so on. Developing those technologies will require a massive, focused commitment to scientific and technological research. That is a commitment we have not yet made. We urgently need to make it."


This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell ( ) is a science writer at the institute.



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