01/20/2004 08:00:00

The coming global peak in oil productionis a grave concern, according to new book

PASADENA, Calif.—Ancient Persians tipped their fire arrows with it, and Native Americans doctored their ails with it. Any way you look at petroleum, the stuff has been around for a long time. Problem is, it's not going to be around much longer--or at least not in the quantities necessary to keep our Hummers humming.

To address the choices society will soon face in the inevitable peaking of worldwide oil production, California Institute of Technology physics professor David Goodstein has written a new book titled Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil. Goodstein argues that global production will peak sooner than most people think, possibly in this decade--a view held by a number of geologists--and that the peak itself will be the beginning of serious and widespread social and economic consequences.

"Some say that the world has enough oil to last for another forty years or more, but that view is almost surely mistaken," writes Goodstein, whose past forays into the world of science communication have included his award-winning PBS series The Mechanical Universe, as well as the best-selling book Feynman's Lost Lecture.

Goodstein writes that the worldwide peak will almost surely be highly disruptive, if not catastrophic, considering the difficult American experience of the early 1970s, when U.S. production met its own peak. Since then, U.S. production has been on a downslope that will continue until the tap runs dry.

But even the 1970s' experience would be nothing compared to a worldwide peak, Goodstein explains. Indeed, the country then experienced serious gas shortages and price increases, exacerbated in no small part by the Arab oil embargo. But frustration and exasperation aside, there was oil to buy on the global market if one could locate a willing seller. By contrast, the global peak will mean that prices will thereafter rise steadily and the resource will become increasingly hard to obtain.

Goodstein says that best and worst-case scenarios are fairly easy to envision. At worst, after the so-called Hubbert's peak (named after M. King Hubbert, the Texas geophysicist who was nearly laughed out of the industry in the 1950s for even suggesting that a U.S. production peak was possible), all efforts to deal with the problem on an emergency basis will fail. The result will be inflation and depression that will probably result indirectly in a decrease in the global population. Even the lucky survivors will find the climate a bit much to take, because billions of people will undoubtedly rely on coal for warmth, cooking, and basic industry, thereby spewing a far greater quantity of greenhouse gases into the air than that which is currently released.

"The change in the greenhouse effect that results eventually tips Earth's climate into a new state hostile to life. End of story. In this instance, worst case really means worst case."

The best-case scenario, Goodstein believes, is that the first warning that Hubbert's peak has occurred will result in a quick and stone-sober global wake-up call. Given sufficient political will, the transportation system will be transformed to rely at least temporarily on an alternative fuel such as methane. Then, more long-term solutions to the crisis will be put in place--presumably nuclear energy and solar energy for stationary power needs, and hydrogen or advanced batteries for transportation.

The preceding is the case that Goodstein makes in the first section of the book. The next section is devoted to a nontechnical explanation of the facts of energy production. Goodstein, who has taught thermodynamics to a generation of Caltech students, is particularly accomplished in conveying the basic scientific information in an easily understandable way. In fact, he often does so with wit, explaining in a brief footnote on the naming of subatomic particles, for example, that the familiar "-on" ending of particles, such as "electrons," "mesons," and "photons," may also suggest an individual quantum of humanity known as the "person."

The remainder of the book is devoted to suggested technological fixes. None of the replacement technologies are as simple and cheap as our current luxury of going to the corner gas station and filling up the tank for the equivalent of a half-hour's wages, but Goodstein warns that the situation is grave, and that things will change very soon.

"The crisis will occur, and it will be painful," he writes in conclusion. "Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels."

Goodstein dedicates the book "to our children and grandchildren, who will not inherit the riches that we inherited."

The book, published by W.W. Norton & Company, is now available.

Written by Robert Tindol