Is oil production in decline? Are we facing an impending shortage of fossil fuels?

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Dear Cecil: It’s not often that I stumble into anything on the Net that scares me, but this does. A large number of sites declare that we’re about to hit, or have hit, peak oil production and that our civilization is essentially on the clock and poised to implode in the next 40 to 60 years. Are these accurate assessments, or are they taking the worst-case scenario to extremes? Scott Lumley, via e-mail


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Sit down, Scott. What you’re describing isn’t the worst case; arguably it’s the best case. While it’s not clear when oil production will peak, or whether the peak is already past, no one doubts oil production is bound to decline —the only questions are how soon and how fast. Opinions vary (boy, do they), but my feeling is, 40 to 60 years? We should be so lucky.

Background: The concept most associated with looming oil shortages is that of the “Hubbert curve,” named after the late geophysicist M. King Hubbert. In a prescient 1956 paper, Hubbert drew on more than a century’s worth of data to suggest that fossil fuel production followed a characteristic bell-shaped curve, ramping up sharply in the early going, peaking once practical limits were reached, then declining. If you could accurately estimate fossil fuel reserves, Hubbert argued, you could predict when peak oil production would occur. Compiling such an estimate for U.S. oil reserves, Hubbert projected that U.S. oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970. In the event, it peaked in 1971.

Hubbert estimated world oil production would peak in 2000. It didn’t, but that hardly invalidates his theory. World oil-reserve estimates are inherently fuzzier than those for the U.S.; the oil shortages of the 1970s and resulting conservation may have briefly postponed the inevitable; and anyway it’s only 2006 now. Some think that, if we haven’t passed the peak already, we’re pretty damn close —and I mean by the end of this decade. Optimists say 2020 or later, but the exact date isn’t important. The point is, the extraordinary growth of the industrialized nations since 1900 has been disproportionately fueled by a nonrenewable resource that’s now roughly one-half to one-quarter gone and that will cease to be a commercially practical energy source within the lifetime of many already born.

You’re thinking: We stand at the abyss. Not necessarily. Fact is, the U.S. has been here before and we got through it OK. During the 19th century the chief U.S. fuel source was wood extracted from the country’s vast forests, which were logged off at a rate that takes one’s breath away even now. As early as the Civil War conservationists warned of a coming “timber famine.” The crisis never materialized. Total U.S. wood consumption peaked in 1907 and declined steadily thereafter, yet the economy hummed on. What replaced wood? Why, fossil fuels, mainly coal. (Coal, incidentally, remains relatively plentiful —Hubbert thought peak production might occur in 2150.)

But Cecil, you object, how is this thought supposed to be comforting? Today we don’t have any comparable alternative fuel waiting in the wings. Sure we do. What’s more, it was waiting in Hubbert’s day. The title of his 1956 paper was “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.” His purpose in writing had been to point out that, in contrast to oil, the U.S. had sufficient reserves of fissionable fuels, chiefly uranium, to last hundreds and likely thousands of years.

We all know what happened to the nuclear-power industry. Yet Hubbert’s argument has lost none of its force: The uranium in little more than three square miles of Chattanooga shale contains as much energy as all the U.S. oil reserves known in his day. What’s more, his theory offers promise that the shift from oil to something else needn’t be the catastrophe some fear. The curve is, after all, a curve. Oil production won’t suddenly stop; it’ll drift downward as oil fields dry up. Once we’ve shifted from a buyer’s to a seller’s market, of course, the cost of petroleum will spike, making today’s gas prices look cheap. That won’t be pleasant; one recalls the sour 70s. But it will promote, in a way that no amount of hand-wringing up to this point has done, a search for less costly alternatives. Petroleum sources heretofore considered marginal or uneconomic, such as oil shale and oil sands, will look a lot better. But even they won’t last long. The pessimists think we’ve got a trillion barrels of oil left, the optimists three trillion. At present consumption rates, the world will burn through three trillion barrels in 105 years —70 years if consumption increases 50 percent as predicted. Mind, that’s the optimistic estimate. After that we’re left with wind, solar, coal, biofuels, and yes, nukes. To be sure, people fear nukes and will resist till the last. But they’ll come around when it becomes clear, as it will, that the alternative is to freeze in the dark.

Cecil Adams

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