WHEN OIL PEAKED
By Kenneth S. Deffeyes
Hill and Wang, $24, 143 pages
In 2001, building on the geologist M. King Hubbert’s prediction that U.S. oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970, Kenneth S. Deffeyes, emeritus professor of geology at Princeton University, predicted in his book “Hubbert’s Peak” that world oil production would peak in 2005.
“I’ve been a Hubbertian since the late 1950s,” Mr. Deffeyes writes. “I’m a geologist, with no professional expertise in economics or politics.” As a Hubbertian, or “peak oil” person, he numbers himself among “those who think that we have already found most of the world’s oil.”
“On a spherical Earth,” he writes, “there is a fixed surface area that we can explore for oil. World oil production increased rapidly from the first wells, around 1859, up to the year 2005. From 2005 onward, oil production has shown no growth. This is the story that is unfolding before our eyes.”
But parts of that unfolding story involve differences between producing, finding and estimating how much there is to be found and in the changing nature of the oil industry itself. “Although I grew up in the oil fields,” writes Mr. Deffeyes, who worked as a researcher for Shell Oil Co., “I barely recognize the oil industry as it is today. When I was young, the major oil companies (the Seven Sisters) dominated exploration, production, refining, and marketing. Today, national oil companies dominate most of the oil productive areas.”
And where national governments don’t own the companies outright - namely, in the United States - the government has become an active managing partner, determining where oil can be explored for or produced, and declaring vast prospective tracts of land, both on and offshore, off-limits to both exploration and production, usually bending to the emotional demands of extreme environmentalists dedicated to ridding the world of the internal combustion engine or preserving an imagined pristine beauty.
Thus, when areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR), a vast flat mosquito-breeding ground where even the caribou have trouble surviving, are placed off-limits to exploration, when great tracts in the continental West, offshore Florida, the whole East Coast and offshore California are closed to exploration, there’s simply no way to know how much oil there is or, therefore, how much can be produced.
To be sure, there are reserve estimates. But they’re just that - estimates, and estimates based primarily on what individual companies think they may have. “For me,” Mr. Deffeyes writes, “the bottom line is that national reserve estimates contain very little useful information. I’m not about to bet the ranch on any analysis that depends on the reported reserves.”
What it all seems to boil down to, essentially, is that no one really knows how much oil there is still to be produced. Thus, theories like “peak oil” with its bell curves and models, may be scientifically elegant and intellectually satisfying, but no more reliable as guides to our petroleum future than the various “running out” theories of the past. In the end, the “peak oil” theory, apparently involving an assumption that the decline in global discoveries proves the resource itself is also declining, simply doesn’t take such externals as economics and politics sufficiently into consideration.
Nevertheless, despite his self-designation as a “peak oiler,” Mr. Deffeyes shouldn’t be confused with an ideologue. A theoretician, yes, and an earth scientist with a practical and wide-ranging interest in all aspects of his field, including the various alternative forms of energy currently being discussed.
Nor does he hesitate to put some of the more exaggerated concerns of the day into perspective: “Warnings about climate change usually carry the implied message that any change is going is going to be disastrous. Only seventeen thousand years ago, New York City, Toronto, and Stockholm were buried under a mile of ice. (In a 4-billion-year history, 17,000 years is the day before yesterday.)”
Something is to be said for global warming, after all, and a good deal to be said for Mr. Deffeye’s strongly expressed and well-argued views.
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).
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