Scientific American's review of Kenenth Deffeyes' *Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Ois SHortage*
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Sun Sep 23 09:02:45 MDT 2001
Scientific American - October 2001.
The End of Oil
Review by PAUL RAEBURN
WILL GAS LINES IN THE COMING DECADE MAKE THOSE OF 1973 LOOK SHORT?
World Oil Shortage
by Kenneth S. Deffeyes
Princeton University Press, 2001
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.
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
knows how to wield a 36-inch-long pipe wrench.
In Hubbert's Peak, Deffeyes writes with good humor about the oil
but he delivers a sobering message: the 100-year petroleum era is nearly
Global oil production will peak sometime between 2004 and 2008, and the
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
It's tempting to dismiss Deffeyes as just another of the doomsayers who
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. This is an oilman
geologist's assessment of the future, grounded in cold mathematics. And
frightening. Deffeyes's prediction is based on the work of M. King
Shell geologist who in 1956 predicted that U.S. oil production would peak
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
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
follows a bell-shaped curve. Production increases rapidly at first, as
and most readily accessible oil is recovered. As the difficulty of
extracting the oil
increases, it becomes more expensive and less competitive with other
Production slows, levels off and begins to fall.
Hubbert demonstrated that total U.S. oil production in 1956 was tracing
upside of such a curve. To know when the curve would most likely peak,
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
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
Deffeyes used a slightly more sophisticated version of the Hubbert method
to make the global calculations. The numbers pointed to 2003 as the year
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
A second would be the development of drilling technology that could
more oil from known reserves. And a third would be a steep rise in oil
which would make it profitable to recover even the most stubbornly buried
In a delightfully readable and informative primer on oil exploration and
Deffeyes addresses each point. First, the discovery of new oil reserves
unlikely--petroleum geologists have been nearly everywhere, and no
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
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
years: getting over our dependence on crude oil."
The petroleum era is coming to a close. "Fossil fuels are a one-time gift
lifted us up from subsistence agriculture and eventually should lead us
future based on renewable resources," Deffeyes writes. Those are strong
for a man raised in the oil patch. For the rest of us, the end of the
on oil means we need to make some tough political and economic choices.
Deffeyes, it means he can't go home again.
Paul Raeburn covers science and energy for Business Week and is the
author of Mars: Uncovering the Secrets of the
Red Planet (National Geographic, 1998).
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