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Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage Paperback – August 31, 2003
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From Scientific American
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. Deffeyes, 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 still knows how to wield a 36-inch-long pipe wrench.
In Hubbert's Peak, Deffeyes writes with good humor about the oil business, but he delivers a sobering message: the 100-year petroleum era is nearly over. Global oil production will peak sometime between 2004 and 2008, and the world's 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 alternatives.
It's tempting to dismiss Deffeyes as just another of the doomsayers who have been 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 and geologist's assessment of the future, grounded in cold mathematics. And it's frightening. Deffeyes's prediction is based on the work of M. King Hubbert, a Shell geologist who in 1956 predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in 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 factions 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 region follows a bell-shaped curve. Production increases rapidly at first, as the cheapest and most readily accessible oil is recovered. As the difficulty of extracting the oil increases, it becomes more expensive and less competitive with other fuels. Production slows, levels off and begins to fall.
Hubbert demonstrated that total U.S. oil production in 1956 was tracing the upside of such a curve. To know when the curve would most likely peak, however, 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 not 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 lies ahead.
Deffeyes used a slightly more sophisticated version of the Hubbert method to make the global calculations. The numbers pointed to 2003 as the year of 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 deposits. A second would be the development of drilling technology that could squeeze more oil from known reserves. And a third would be a steep rise in oil prices, which would make it profitable to recover even the most stubbornly buried oil.
In a delightfully readable and informative primer on oil exploration and drilling, Deffeyes addresses each point. First, the discovery of new oil reserves is unlikely--petroleum geologists have been nearly everywhere, and no substantial 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 today 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 10 years: getting over our dependence on crude oil."
The petroleum era is coming to a close. "Fossil fuels are a one-time gift that lifted us up from subsistence agriculture and eventually should lead us to a future based on renewable resources," Deffeyes writes. Those are strong words for a man raised in the oil patch. For the rest of us, the end of the world's dependence on oil means we need to make some tough political and economic choices. For 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). --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2002
Honorable Mention for the 2001 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Geography and Earth Science, Association of American Publishers
"Deffeyes has reached a conclusion with far-reaching consequences for the entire industrialized world. . . . The conclusion is this: in somewhere between two and six years from now, worldwide oil production will peak. After that, chronic shortages will become a way of life. The 100-year reign of King Oil will be over."--Fred Guterl, Newsweek
"A most readable handbook. . . . If [Deffeyes] is right we have, at most, two or three years in which to prepare for yet another price shock, and to accelerate our move away from oil as fuel. The strength of the book lies in its solid background and well-explained basis for that single prediction."--Stuart Young, Nature
"Deffeyes makes a persuasive case. . . . This is an oilman and geologist's assessment of the future, grounded in cold mathematics. And it's frightening."--Paul Raeburn, Scientific American
"An important new book."--Robert Kuttner, Boston Globe
"The story behind Hubbert's analysis--is told with engaging wit, humor, and great insight. . . . Deffeyes writes with the taut reasoning of a scientist and the passion of someone raised in the industry. . . . His background is ideal for the subject, and the book is a gem. . . . Read Hubbert's Peak."--Brian J. Skinner, American Scientist
"[Some] experts . . . worry that the global peak in production will come in the next decade. . . . A heavyweight has now joined this gloomy chorus. Kenneth Deffeyes argues in a lively new book that global oil production could peak as soon as 2004."--The Economist
"A persuasive prophecy. Hubbert's story is important and needs to be told. I suspect that historians in years to come will recognise Hubbert's Peak as a historical turning point."--Tim Burnhill, New Scientist
"Deffeyes, using Hubbert's methodology, shows that the trajectory of world reserves is closely following the pattern of U.S. discovery and depletion, with just a few decades' lag. Drilling deeper, in more remote locations, and with more elaborate technologies won't tap reserves that don't exist. . . . America's energy policy needs to tilt away from oil and in favor of conservation, new technology, and domestic renewables. The time to act is now, before the next wave of gas lines and rationing is upon us."--Robert Kuttner, Business Week
"In the politics of oil, the left is passionately, sentimentally, tree-huggingly pro-environment, while the right shrugs as it climbs into its official mascot, the biggest sport utility vehicle available. . . . In the slide down Hubbert's Peak, political differences will matter less. If those who planned the Sept. 11 attacks know as much about economics as they do about aeronautics, their next target may be the Saudi Arabian oil fields, on which America, Asia, and Europe are overly dependent."--Martin Nolan, The Boston Globe
"Kenneth Deffeyes has written a most readable handbook which is well illustrated and has copious notes. But his book is more than that. . . . The strength of this book lies in its solid background."--Stuart Young, Nature
"There are few things as important nowadays as the energy system, and few books on the subject as thought provoking as this one."--J.R. McNeill, Wilson Quarterly
"We have long been told that fossil fuels wouldn't last forever, but Deffeyes hypothesis is still startling: Sometime during the next decade, the supply of oil won't keep up with the demand. Because of its broad impact Hubbert's Peak is a must-read for almost everyone--scientists, policy-makers, environmentalists, people who buy cars."--Ann Wagner, NationalJournal.com
"An ideal freshman reading assignment in any geology course concerned with energy, geological resources, public policy, general science applications in our modern world, or similar topics. All teachers, from high school through graduate level, in all natural sciences, political science, government, business, and engineering courses should read this book and encourage their students to consider its ramifications in their fields."--C. John Mann, Journal of Geoscience
"[A] small and delightfully readable book."--Choice
"Deffeyes's unsettling message is that, although society has been slow to respond to the Hubbert's Peak forecast of world oil decline, a permanent drop in oil production will nevertheless begin within the next decade. Humanity has a brief period in which to wean itself from crude oil, increase energy conservation, and design alternative energy sources."--Dan Johnson, The Futurist
"I commend this book . . . to anyone concerned about the future development of planet Earth."--John Parker, Geoscientist
"This book sends a message loud and clear: World petroleum production is going to peak within this decade, maybe as early as 2005, but no later than 2009 and there is hardly any way of escaping from this truth. . . . The book is accessible, easy to read and informative."--Subhes C. Bhattacharyya, Natural Resources Forum
"An intelligent, briskly written and refreshingly nontechnical book."--John R. Alden, Baltimore Sun
"This book . . . should be read . . . by all politicians, by all students, no matter what their discipline, and indeed by anyone concerned about their grandchildren's welfare. Reading Hubbert's Peak is the intellectual equivalent of bungee jumping, being simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying."--R. C. Selley, Geological Magazine
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That said, there is much to be gained from reading this book, even if you only truly absorb a quarter of what is being said. Deffeyes goes into great detail on why oil is found where it is and on the history of oil exploration and production, but most significantly he shows how it is possible these days to know whether there is or isn't oil to be found in a given area and why today there is only one area left in the world where a significant oil field could still be found (the South China Sea). And why, even if found, would not be enough to postpone the day of reckoning for more than a few years.
He also goes into detail showing how Hubbert made his uncannily accurate projection of when US domestic oil production would peak (in 1956, Hubbert projected that US production would peak in 1972 -- the actual peak year turned out to be 1970) and of how this method has been used to project when world oil production would peak (2003). This is where a knowledge of statistics comes into play, and one wishes that the editors had urged him towards some further clarifications for the lay readers. But nonetheless, you can still see how the projections have been made and the supporting evidence for why they need to be taken seriously.
This book was published in 2001. The peak year projected in the book for world oil production was 2003. It is worth noting that the cost of oil has more than doubled since that projected peak year. Deffeyes' most compelling warning about our situation comes at the end of chapter seven: "This much is certain: no initiative put in place starting today 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. At least, let's hope that the war is waged with cash instead of with nuclear warheads."
Deffeyes starts his analysis with how oil is formed and aggregates into pools within the pores of rock layers which comprise the earth's crust. This process he links to the unpredictability of identifying oil-bearing regions, and especially to producing the high-grade part of an oil resource. One of the consequences of the uncertainty underlying the geological and exploration activity is that when oil is found in commercial quantities the largest oil fields are usually found early in the discovery process. As a consequence, oil production from a newly-discovered region is likely to peak early in the history of exploration and production and decline notably thereafter. To overcome this empirical trend petroleum exploration must renew the resource by locating and developing new sources of supply, a process which the world has very few options remaining.
For an underlying thesis to his book Deffeyes points to the statistical observation made by his colleague in the petroleum industry M. King Hubbert who in 1956 reported that US domestic oil production was exhibiting a `bell' shaped statistically normal distribution. As a consequence, King Hubbert predicted (somewhat unpopularly at the time) that if this trend continued domestic U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. In fact, the domestic US oil production peak occurred in 1970. Deffeyes postulates, as his central theme that, like King Hubberts' 1950s prediction for the US oil industry, world oil production will follow a 'normal distribution' and thus is now about to experience the peak of global oil production with significant downside consequences. He supports this central thesis by showing how the various forms of petroleum production technology cannot alleviate any ongoing decline in oil productivity.
Deffeyes builds upon the argument that the underlying pattern of oil resource discovery, production and decline is evident in most oil producing regions of the world. He sees no future alternative but to maximise the development of high efficiency technology for oil use, greater use of cogeneration, and serious use of renewable and nuclear energy sources. The overall outlook produced by Deffeyes is not one of optimism but this may be a consequence of his focus on oil alone.
The greatest weakness in his argument is that he does not consider the importance of the most readily available substitute for oil - the supply of natural gas. If a global oil decline becomes readily evident then this will be the ultimate driver that makes the transition to natural gas and renewable energy sources such as hydrogen so much more attractive. The potential for widespread gas substitution is not covered by Deffeyes but for relatively gas-rich nations, such as Australia, the decline of the age of oil may be not be as bad as it could otherwise be. As such, Deffeyes' book is a useful insight into some of the technical aspects of the oil decline but not a complete one. The long-term oil situation may be serious if one limits one's outlook to just one resource (oil) but alternatives are available at a price.
Dr Ian Lavering
Master of Business and Technology Program