Friday, March 25, 2005

The Voice of Authority?
Today's New York Times Op-Ed page is a doozy. Under the overall caption of, "What Happens When the Oil Runs Out" (more apparent in print than in the electronic version) are three guest editorials on the subject. The first, by Kenneth Deffeyes, relates to an impending peak in oil production. The second, jointly written by the head of a non-governmental organization and a scientist at Lawrence Livermore Labs, suggests the use of other fossil fuels, coupled with carbon sequestration. The third, by Dr. Oliver Sacks, is a paean to hybrid cars. All three are interesting, but I want to focus on the peak oil question.

Dr. Deffeyes identifies himself as a colleague of King Hubbert, who pioneered the theories on "peak oil." Mr. Hubbert accurately predicted the 1970 peak of US production several decades earlier. However, the application of this approach to global oil production is problematic, because the actual amount of oil originally in place is not known. Estimates of this figure have been rising steadily since Mr. Deffeyes made his first predictions years ago. (See my posting of 9/22/04, for more information.)

Setting aside his arguments concerning the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I was startled to see Dr. Deffeyes boldly predict that the peak of world oil production is at hand, within the next couple of years. This is among the most aggressive predictions of this type that I've seen. In effect, he is suggesting that the current spike in oil prices, driven by the recent failure of new oil production to keep pace with the growth in demand in Asia and the US, is actually tied to a geological limitation on oil production. This is an irresponsible assertion.

The roots of the current problem are clearly economic and geopolitical, rather than geology-based. The countries with the most promising reserves of untapped oil are reluctant to invite foreign investors in to help develop these resources (see my posting of 12/15/04), and the companies with the greatest expertise and capital have been slow to reinvest (see my posting of 10/27/04). The result may well be a sustained period of market tightness until this logjam can be broken, but this is not indicative of a geological peak in production.

What to do when oil runs out is indeed an important question, but even if a peak were imminent, this would mean that production would plateau for some years and then gradually decline, rather than falling catastrophically. A peak is indeed somewhere ahead, but the track record of predictions in this area is such that we will not know we've reached it until we're on the other side of it. This could happen in five years or fifty. While suggesting it is close at hand makes for sensational headlines and may help drum up support for alternatives, it risks crying wolf prematurely and setting up a conservation-and-rebound response similar to what we saw after the 1970s oil shocks.

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