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 markets.

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 out.

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 cars crash?

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.



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