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A Difficult Transition

Peter Blair

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.

This 1902 photograph...Click to Enlarge Image

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

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