[Marxism] Scientists debate decline of oil stores: Sooner or later?

Mike Friedman mikedf at mail.amnh.org
Fri Dec 17 19:58:42 MST 2004


Scientists debate decline of oil stores: Sooner or later?
- Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Scientists meeting at the American Geophysical Union conference in
San Francisco debated Tuesday whether the world has plenty of oil for
centuries to come -- or if it faces impending shortages that might
trigger economic chaos, even war, in coming decades.

On the one hand, optimists are confident that vast untapped oil
reserves and continual improvement in drilling methods will assure
plenty of cheap, abundant oil for Earth through this century and
perhaps the next.

On the other hand, some experts fear a global-scale repeat of
scientists' past failure, in the 1950s, to heed a warning from the
Cassandra of petroleum geology: M. King Hubbert, who prophesied the
oil shocks of the 1970s.

The most immediate danger is posed by the surging reliance of
industrializing nations, especially China, on imported oil from other
lands, not just oil in general, Stanford geophysicist Amos Nur warned
the standing- room-only audience at the Marriott hotel, across the
street from the conference's main headquarters at Moscone Center.

Nur pointed out that the United States had long imported more oil
than it produced domestically. Likewise, China is becoming reliant on
imported fuel to support its industrial expansion.

In what Nur called a future international "panic moment," both
nations might take military action to protect their access to oil --
just as, he said, oil is probably the covert agenda in the United
States' current war in Iraq.

Nur addressed a packed session titled: "Running on Empty? Oil: How
Much, Where and at What Cost?" The questions posed in the session's
name have been debated by petroleum geologists, economists and other
experts since 1956, when Hubbert -- who worked for Shell Oil and,
later, the U.S. Geological Survey - - forecast U.S. oil production
would peak around 1970, then decline. He proved to be right; the oil
embargoes of the 1970s brought long lines to U.S. gas stations.

Since then, experts have debated whether a similar peak and decline
will come within a few decades for worldwide oil exploration.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the optimists was William L. Fisher, a
professor of geology at the University of Texas at Austin. He chairs
a National Academy of Engineering committee that advises the U.S.
government on petroleum exploration.

"Relax, the end is not near," Fisher assured the audience. He said
there would be plenty of oil to meet human needs until the planet
transitions to energy sources largely reliant on methane and hydrogen
gases later this century.

Historically, experts have seriously underestimated how much
recoverable oil is stored within Earth's rocks, Fisher said. For
example, today's proven oil reserves are "substantially higher than
20 years ago."

But unlike Fisher, Nur foresees big trouble ahead.

Chinese oil consumption "has begun to increase exponentially. ...
Today, China is importing close to 40 percent of its oil from other
places on Earth," said Nur, who has twice served as geophysics chair
at Stanford.

And China's appetite for foreign fuel is growing: China plans to
import half its oil by 2020, the Chinese Peoples Daily quoted a
Chinese official as saying shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks, Nur said. At that time, the same official told the newspaper
that the Sept. 11 attacks gave the United States the "pretext to
enter Central Asia" to ensure its oil supplies, and that the U.S.
military actions would "have far-reaching significance" for China's
ability to ensure its own access to oil.

Nur said he suspected the diplomatically worded Chinese statement
carried a veiled implication: that China recognizes the legitimacy of
a nation's taking military action to ensure oil supplies.
Conceivably, Nur said, that means that China, too, would be willing
to take military action to maintain its oil imports.

"This is a potentially emerging conflict that is huge in magnitude,"
Nur said. "The finiteness of recoverable oil and gas reserves is a
fact. ... There doesn't have to be a third world war for oil, but
there could be."

Other speakers at Tuesday's session warned audience members to heed
the lessons of history. In 1956, when Hubbert forecast a decline of
U.S. oil production, "almost everyone, inside and outside the oil
industry, rejected Hubbert's analysis," says an abstract of a paper
given by geoscience Professor Kenneth S. Deffeyes of Princeton

The controversy raged until 1970, when the U.S. production of crude
oil started to fall. Hubbert was right.

"Around 1995," Deffeyes said, "several analysts began applying
Hubbert's method to world oil production, and most of them estimate
that the peak year for world oil will be between 2004 and 2008. ...
None of our political leaders seem to be paying attention. If the
predictions are correct, there will be enormous effects on the world

E-mail Keay Davidson at kdavidson at sfchronicle.com.

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