| Fri, May. 14, 2004
Fill 'er up! We need to move past oil anyway
It's time to get serious about developing another energy source
Special to the Observer
In February 1884, Scientific American magazine reported on the tapping
of an oil well in Baku, Russia, that spouted petroleum 300 feet high.
The article said the Baku supply was "regarded as inexhaustible."
Fast forward 72 years to a conference of oil engineers in San Antonio.
In 1956, American geophysicist M. King Hubbert, working for Shell Oil,
presented a paper on oil supplies. Hubbert had carefully developed the
mathematics of oil supply, reserves and demands. He boldly forecast that
U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s and then begin dropping
with each passing year. He was laughed out of the room.
The United States reached peak production in 1970.
One can apply the same techniques to worldwide oil production, although
it is more difficult. The data are hard to get at for Middle East companies
and modern Russia. Even in the West, oil reserve claims are suspect, as
demonstrated in the recent disclosure by Shell Oil that it had lied about
its gas and oil holdings.
Still, the forecasts are not cheerful. Optimists say we may have a decade
or so before worldwide demand exceeds production. Those who are more cautious
estimate it may only be two or three years away.
Glass half-fullers say that technology will save us, that somehow we
will find ways to economically extract additional oil from fields where
the easy oil has been taken or from the Canadian tar sands. That we will
come up with cars that get extremely high mileage. Or that we will find
a huge, as yet unknown oil reserve.
But what we do know is that oil demand continues to rise. A billion Chinese
are discovering cars along with capitalism. As U.S. jobs disappear to
China and India, their populations are more able to afford automobiles.
China is already making a few million cars per year, India over half a
million and growing 20 percent a year. World oil consumption is doubling
about every 25 years and will probably increase faster with these new
All the while, hand-wringing micro-box drivers are complaining about
SUVs as if they are the problem (in the spirit of disclosure I admit I
drive a 4Runner). Which would have the greater effect on our oil supply:
expeditions to locate new reserves or not driving an Expedition? Neither
really matters in the long run, since the reserves will eventually tap
So, what do I say?
Fill 'er up!
How dare I suggest we keep on truckin'? Simply because oil is a limited
resource and will run out sooner or later anyway. We need to move on past
the petroleum era. It might as well be now.
Consider: "Civilization" is about 10,000 years old. When we
crest the Hubbert Peak, we will have been using oil on a large scale for
about a century. Oil will have been a primary energy source for only 1
percent of history to date.
A blip on the radar screen.
What we had better worry about is our utter inattention to the overall
energy source problem. A year and a half ago, Dubya touted a hydrogen
economy in his State of the Union speech. However, hydrogen has a lot
of problems, not the least that it is not an energy source -- it is a
sort of battery, or portable energy storage system. We do not pump hydrogen
out of the ground. Hydrogen would have to be made, using -- you guessed
it -- energy. An entire infrastructure of refueling stations and distribution
systems would need to be built. How will we fill up? Self-service with
the same element that brought down the Hindenburg? What happens when these
There are not many other fossil fuel options, either. The oil reserves
in Alaska would buy us a reprieve measured in months. Natural gas will
not save us either -- U.S. supplies will similarly peak, and importing
it via ships is not easy. We have a lot of coal for making electricity,
but that is the dirtiest energy source around. If we use electricity for
charging electric cars, it will put a huge demand on our generating capacity.
And we've not been building new nuclear power plants.
Hubbert was right about American oil, and his curve will eventually cross
home plate worldwide. We should take the current high gas prices as a
the warning of a dead canary in the coal mine: Danger ahead. Let's invest
our billions of dollars into renewable energy development instead of wasting
it on making Iraq our filling station.
After all, Hubbert's curve will peak there, too.