Peak Oil: Just a Viscous Rumor

Review of Kenneth Deffeyes Beyond Oil and what are our options for future with less oil and natural gas.

Published: 10-Jun-2005

 Mark your calendar: annual world production of crude oil will reach its peak this coming Thanksgiving, Nov. 24. At least, that's the tongue-half-in-cheek prediction of Kenneth Deffeyes, who starts his latest book by suggesting that readers stop and give thanks for a century of plentiful supplies.

 After the Princeton University geologist offers this figurative toast, the discussion turns serious. In Deffeyes' view, it's well past time to start thinking about what will keep society running as oil supplies start to shrink. Contrary to supply-side optimists who believe innovation will keep oil and gas flowing, he espouses the view that there are only so many hydrocarbons in the ground and we're running through them quickly. Beyond Oil: The View From Hubbert's Peak is one of several new books to tackle this topic, but Deffeyes does it from the no-nonsense perspective of a trained scientist.

The book is Deffeyes' second look into the petro-future. His 2001 analysis, Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage, updated the methodology used by Deffeyes' mentor, famed geophysicist M. King Hubbert, in a controversial but ultimately accurate 1956 paper that estimated oil production in the U.S. would peak in the early 1970s. In that book, Deffeyes applied Hubbert's analysis to world oil production, and predicted that output would follow a similar bell-shaped curve, peaking in the first decade of the 21st century. In a closing letter to his 2-year-old granddaughter, the author advised, "Get into renewable energy. Look at a cornstalk the way a Chicago meatpacker used to look at a hog: sell everything but the squeal."

Deffeyes' analysis was not universally accepted, by any means, but it has been widely praised by energy analysts and other experts as a lucid presentation of the peak-oil perspective, thoroughly grounded in the facts. (For more on this debate, see the websites and, neither of which he maintains or endorses.) Now the rock hound is back to consider what the U.S. can do if his and others' predictions are right.

Although Deffeyes' message in both books is serious, his tone tends toward the folksy and engaging. He delights in explaining how technical processes work and materials are formed, and he does it in an accessible way; you get the sense he's the guy everyone in the office calls for help when their computer screens freeze up. Some readers will remember Deffeyes as the geologist who accompanied John McPhee across the United States for McPhee's Basin and Range, explaining plate tectonics along the way. McPhee observes, "[H]is enthusiasms are catholic and he appears to be less attached to any one part of the story than to the entire narrative of geology in its four-dimensional recapitulations of space and time." (It sounds overwhelming until you consider other, more prosaic moments; at one point, Deffeyes shows McPhee how to classify rocks by chewing on them.)

In his new book, Deffeyes recaps the Hubbert's Peak calculation using a simplified method that involves only a few lines of algebra -- and might even be clear to policy makers if they took the time to work through it. According to his calculations, we are fast approaching the point at which we will have produced half of all known worldwide reserves. Looking at trends in new "hits," he does not expect big discoveries down the road.

In keeping with his training, Deffeyes spends much of Beyond Oil considering "fuels from the earth" that could step up as a primary U.S. energy source in the next several decades, including natural gas, coal, tar sands, oil shale, heavy oil, uranium, and hydrogen (which, he notes, is really an energy carrier rather than a source). He assesses fuels from the perspective you would expect of a geologist: how to find it, where the good stuff is, and how to get it out of the ground. He says little about renewable sources such as wind, solar energy, or bio-based fuels, which he acknowledges are not his area of expertise. As a result, Beyond Oil is not a comprehensive energy blueprint, but it does offer a useful sense of how far drilling and excavation are likely to move us toward a new energy policy.

Geologists usually think in longer time frames, but as Deffeyes notes, "Because we ignored the earlier warnings about a global oil peak, an immediate investment in research and development is not an option. There is not enough time." In his view, no fuel from the earth is a ready substitute for cheap, plentiful oil. He ranks some options, including coal-bed methane and tar sands, as useful but too small to make a major difference. Others, like oil shale, are currently too expensive to attract major investments. Nor, he says, is hydrogen a panacea: the cheapest ways to produce it use natural gas -- which is increasingly expensive -- or coal, producing lots of carbon that generally goes straight into the atmosphere. Using an electric current to make hydrogen from water produces only about 40 percent as much energy as it requires.

Looking farther out, Deffeyes sees brighter prospects. One is gas hydrates, crystalline solids created when mixtures of natural gas and water freeze. Large hydrate deposits -- possibly containing more total energy than combined world oil, gas, and coal resources -- are located at high latitudes under permafrost and in deep waters at the outer parts of the continental shelf. The key is engineering a way to extract them, which Deffeyes views as "an opportunity to become richer than Bill Gates." He also supports a solution that's a current pet project of Congress: using coal to produce synthetic natural gas or hydrogen, with the resulting carbon dioxide stored or injected into oil wells to enhance production.

For the moment, Deffeyes advocates a few technologies to help ease society down the back slope of Hubbert's peak: high-efficiency diesel cars, coal plants with carbon capture and sequestration, wind power, and increased reliance on nuclear power, which Hubbert also endorsed. He rightly notes that, while tightening oil and gas supplies mainly impact consumers via electricity and gasoline prices, peak oil forecasts also have big implications for major industries: aviation lives and dies by jet-fuel prices, and agriculture relies on fertilizer derived from fossil fuels. The U.S. chemical industry is currently being driven overseas by steep domestic price increases for natural gas, a major chemical feedstock.

As oil and gas supplies tighten, Deffeyes predicts that prices will continue their volatility; since 2001, world crude oil prices have doubled, and the cost of natural gas has tripled in the last decade. This aligns Deffeyes squarely against the "cornucopians," scientists and economists who argue that as commodities like oil become scarcer, prices rise, explorers have greater incentives to develop obscure resources that earlier were thought not to be worth the cost, and markets will stabilize. Deffeyes points out that the oil business has been reinvesting profits in research for decades: "Lots of wheels have already been invented. It is not at all easy, or cheap, to step in at this late date and generate major new innovations."

Among peak-oil proponents, Deffeyes sits firmly at the pessimistic end of the spectrum. More optimistic observers believe the decline will not start for another 20 to 30 years; Economist correspondent Vijay Vaitheeswaran dubs Deffeyes and company the "Depletion Doomsday gang." But (as Vaitheeswaran acknowledges) even if world oil production rises for one or two more decades, there are other good reasons -- like geopolitics and climate change -- to look past Hubbert's Peak. Planning for the transition is more important than debating whether it will start in 2005 or 2025.

Deffeyes was a petroleum geologist for many years, and still has a real yen for the oil business. "As I drive by those smelly refineries on the New Jersey Turnpike, I want to roll the windows down and inhale deeply," he admits in Hubbert's Peak. Yet he is anything but a cheerleader for the industry, and his show-me-the-reserves assessment finds that oil companies will start coming up short very soon. While the Bush administration contends that enough technology and federal authority will keep oil and gas flowing, Beyond Oil argues that we're already between a rock and a hard place. We just need to take a closer look at that rock.

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Jennifer Weeks is a Massachusetts writer specializing in environment and energy issues. Her recent articles have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, E Magazine, and BioCycle.


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