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Challenging Times Ahead

Brian Skinner

Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. Kenneth S. Deffeyes. xii + 208 pp. Princeton University Press, 2001. $24.95.

Oilmen thrive on optimism, and for American oilmen, especially, optimism in their search for crude paid off handsomely throughout most of the 20th century. By century's end, however, optimism had turned to pessimism—despite great advances in technology, oil in the United States has become increasingly difficult to find.

In 1956 oilmen were given a preview of what lay ahead, but few listened carefully. At the American Petroleum Institute meeting in San Antonio in that year, one of their own, the highly respected scientist M. King Hubbert, predicted that U.S. production would peak about 1970 and steadily decline thereafter. Hubbert's method of analysis was straightforward. He used geological insight to estimate that the amount of U.S. oil that would be discovered and produced in conventional ways would be about 200 billion barrels. He then made plausible estimates of the production rate and from those predicted the 1970 production peak.

A 1940s rig . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Hubbert was working for Shell at the time, and almost all of his industry colleagues rejected his analysis. Economists were especially critical. But Hubbert was a thorough scientist and had done his work carefully. In the following years he honed and improved his data set and refined his analysis, but his conclusions were unchanged, as were the rejections of his critics. Controversy continued to swirl around Hubbert's predictions until 1970, and then, as predicted, production of crude oil peaked and began to decline. It continues to do so to the present day, despite some post-Hubbert discoveries of oil in Alaska and in the deep waters off the Gulf coast.

The story behind Hubbert's analysis—which requires an understanding of oil formation and trapping as well as oil exploration—is told with engaging wit, humor and great insight by Kenneth Deffeyes. Born among the oil fields of Oklahoma, as Hubbert was born among those of Texas, Deffeyes writes with the taut reasoning of a scientist and the passion of someone raised in the industry. He began his professional life in the research labs of Shell, where he met and came to admire Hubbert. Deffeyes spent the latter part of his career as a professor of geology at Princeton. His background is ideal for this subject, and the book is a gem, not only for the recounting of the Hubbert story but also for its intriguing overview of the scientific unraveling of how, where and why oil is formed and trapped.

But Deffeyes has a log to throw on the fire of controversy. Now that oilmen have come to appreciate the analytical power of Hubbert's approach, shouldn't they give a bit more credence to the dire predictions for the global oil future? Hubbert attempted to make such a prediction himself, most recently in his last published paper in 1982. Others have since used newer and better data banks to estimate that the world's yield of oil will be about 1.8 trillion barrels. A Hubbert-type analysis of the rate at which the oil can be produced leads to a predicted peak of production between 2002 and 2004 and a long, slow decline thereafter.

Could such estimates be wildly wrong? Have potentially giant resources been overlooked? Hubbert made his analysis of U.S. production at a time when few places were left where giant deposits might still hide, and his estimate of ultimate yield looks more and more likely to be correct. Deffeyes addresses the same question on a global basis by pointing out that geologists have now looked all over the world, and there are no great unexplored sedimentary basins in which giant oil provinces might still be lurking. As late as the 1970s there were still hopes that two places—western Siberia and the South China Sea—might contain oil provinces to rival the Middle East. Western Siberia is certainly fuel-rich, but the fuel is almost entirely natural gas rather than oil. There are still some open questions concerning the South China Sea because so much of the region is claimed by different countries, but where exploration has been possible in the region, prospects have turned out to be much less than hoped—there clearly is no Middle East hiding there.

Hubbert's Peak is an exciting book to read, but readers should keep in mind that Deffeyes is discussing crude oil and that there are other sources of energy. The final three chapters address the future of other fossil fuels, such as coal, gas, tar sands and oil shale; alternative energy sources; and the need for a new outlook. These closing chapters are not the meat of the book, but they contain practical, sensible evaluations of the issues that face us.

Change as a result of the coming shortage of oil is inevitable and will play a role in the lives of everyone on earth. Read Hubbert's Peak—it's better to know what lies ahead than to be surprised too late to respond.—Brian J. Skinner, Geology and Geophysics, Yale University

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