A Difficult Transition
Beyond Oil: The View From Hubbert's Peak. Kenneth S.
Deffeyes. xvi + 202 pp. Hill and Wang, 2005. $24.
In 2001, Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes published the widely
read book Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage.
In the years since, there have been many developments in the world
oil situation, but the fundamental conclusion that the age of
petroleum is fast approaching its end is now widely endorsed.
The point of maximum oil production is commonly referred to as
"Hubbert's peak," after the work of noted Shell geologist
M. King Hubbert, whose 1956 prediction that U.S. oil production
would peak in the 1970s was confirmed in 1970. Although the time at
which world oil production can be expected to reach its highest
point is somewhat more controversial, Deffeyes's updated projection
is for this to occur on November 24, 2005, give or take a month (in
1969 Hubbert's prediction was for the year 2000). Today most
analysts agree that world oil production will indeed peak at least
some time within the next decade, beginning a long slide in
production to a post-petroleum era.
In his new book, Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak,
Deffeyes takes an urgent look forward, surveying the "near
term" landscape of future alternatives to oil. The first two
chapters recap the oil supply problem. In chapter 3, Deffeyes, who
says that by "happy accident" he found a simple
alternative to Hubbert's complicated mathematics, presents the
interesting heuristics he uses to approximate Hubbert's analysis. In
most of the rest of the book Deffeyes focuses on other fuels that
"come from the earth": natural gas, coal, tar sands, oil
shale and uranium; he explains that he chose that focus because
"my expertise ends where the geology stops." However, he
does explore somewhat skeptically the energy futurist's "holy
grail" of a hydrogen-fueled economy. A modest discussion of the
prospects for renewable energy and energy efficiency is relegated to
the final chapter.
Deffeyes's most sobering observation, provided in the book's
preface, is that
Fifteen years ago, we should have started investing heavily
in alternative energy strategies. That opportunity is now lost.
There is no time left for scholarly research. There is no time left
for engineers to develop new machinery. We have to face the next
five years with the equipment designs that are already in
production. It's not going to be easy.
Certainly many will agree with Deffeyes's dire predictions,
including his plea for a "noncatastrophic way" to manage
the inevitable "major rearrangements in world economy in a
post-Hubbert world." However, he does not provide a logical
path for pursuing what he has concluded are "energy innovations
that do not require R&D": high-efficiency diesel cars,
coal-fired electric power plants where "CO2 can
readily be stored underground," wind turbines and nuclear
power. Lacking any details on how to get there from here, his case
is far from compelling. Large-scale commercial adoption of any of
these options in the "next few years," as Deffeyes
recommends, seems unlikely to all but the most ardent
alternative-energy advocates. Turnover in the U.S. automobile fleet
is and always has been a long-term proposition; carbon sequestration
is certainly an active research area but is hardly commercially
viable; wind has proven itself but remains a modest source for U.S.
electric power generation, and, finally, the obstacles to
resurrecting the nuclear power option in the United States remain as
challenging today as they have been for more than three decades.
In the rambling final chapter, "The Big Picture," Deffeyes
goes well beyond his defined scope, touching on such areas such as
population control, community action, economics and energy pricing. This
perhaps underscores the desperation he seems to feel about our ability
to cope with what will likely be a very difficult transition to
"the world beyond oil."—Peter D. Blair, Division on
Engineering and Physical Sciences, The National Academies