Hubbert’s Peak: An Energy Crisis?
Professor David Goodstein
Vice Provost, California Institute of Technology
Professor of Physics, California Institute of Technology
Author, Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil
The 20th century is often referred to as the century of the combustion engine. As hydrocarbons have been the fuel for these engines, our dependence on oil has only increased. With the continuing increase in demand for energy and oil and limited supply of fossil fuels, the potential for climate imbalance and global crisis can not be overstated. Well, with us to talk about his concerns and his new book is Professor David Goodstein from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Dr. Goodstein is Vice-Provost and Professor of Physics at Caltech. Frank Ling (FL) talks to David Goodstein (DG):
FL: Professor Goodstein, thanks for joining us today.
DG: Thank you for having me.
FL: You’ve certainly written a very thought provoking book Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil. Tell us a little bit about it.
DG: Well, it turns out that in the history of the use of any mineral resource, it follows a bell-shaped curve. It starts out at zero, grows rapidly first and slows down, reaches a peak, and it declines forever after that. That’s going to be true in the case of oil worldwide, just as it has been true for any other mineral resource, and there is reason to believe that the worldwide peak may very well occur sometime in the reasonably near future. Perhaps within this decade or perhaps the next.
FL: You mentioned this phenomena called Hubbert’s peak. How exactly does this relate to the declining supply of oil?
DG: Marion King Hubbert was a geophysicist for Shell Oil Company in Houston and in the 1950s when the United States was the world’s greatest oil producer
and much of our military and industrial might grew out of our giant oil industry. Hubbert, very much against the wishes of his employer, made public his position that US oil supplied would peak around 1970 and decline forever after that. He was almost laughed out of the profession at the time because all the oil geologists believed that the discovery of oil would go on forever. Looking back, he turned out to be right and so the whole phenomena that we’ve been talking about — this idea of reaching a peak and declining — is referred to as Hubbert’s peak.
FL: So, based on experience in the US, you believe you could also apply it for the entire world?
DG: A number of geologists have tried to apply Hubbert’s techniques to the worldwide oil supply and they make predictions that vary from this year to later in this decade. As I say, maybe the next decade by the latest.
FL: Not like say a hundred years from now.
DG: Certainly not a hundred years from now.
FL: There are other sources, coal and shale, why can’t we use these as viable alternatives?
DG: Well, you have to look carefully at each of the possible alternatives. For example, I was in Alberta a few weeks ago, people there are excited because they are now mining oil sands profitably because the price of oil has gone up high enough so there is profit to do that. And there is a lot of oil in the oil sands of Alberta. But oil in oil sands is a resource you have to mine and then extract the oil from the ore, and even if you can do it profitably, it’s slow and it’s energy intensive. As you go through all the possible sources of oil, what’s left behind in the depleted oil field, which is called heavy oil or oil sands or tar sands or other resources including coal and especially including shale oil, you find that you run into enormous expense, so it will become more expensive to buy the stuff. And oil shale may actually be energy negative. It may take more energy to get the stuff out of the rock than you get out of the fuel that comes out.
FL: You mention in your book that economists feels that once oil or a resource becomes expensive, there will be a driving force to develop other technologies, but you feel that this may be a little short-sighted. Maybe you can explain this a little bit.
DG: Economists tend to think that the universe is ruled by price. When the price is high enough, something will come along. But the laws of economics never trump the laws of physics. In order to examine the situation, you have to look at each possible substitute and ask is it a realistic one? Natural gas is a good substitute and you can chemically change natural gas into a fuel that’s a liquid at room temperature or you can just compress natural gas as a fuel for cars. If we turn to that to substitute the missing oil, Hubbert’s peak for natural gas is only one or two decades behind the one for oil. So it is a temporary fix at best. The longest term fix is coal because we are told that there is enough coal in the ground for hundreds or even thousands of years, but if we use coal as a substitute for oil, we first of all have to mine it many times faster than we are mining it now because we use twice as much oil as we use coal, so we have to get a larger quantity of coal. The conversion process to a liquid fuel is extremely inefficient. You’d have to do it maybe five or six or seven times as fast as now, and that doesn’t account for growing world population and there are 1.3 billion people in China who want to drive cars. There will be more pressure to mine it faster and faster, and so, saying that there are hundreds of years of it left at the present rate of use is meaningless. We will be using it ten times faster or more and chances are that all fossil fuels, coal included, will run out by the end of the century.
FL: So you’ve described the best and worst case scenarios of Hubbert’s peak. Could you elaborate on this?
DG: Well, what I call the best case and worst case scenarios is in the worst case, Hubbert’s case comes along, we have a worldwide crisis comparable to what happened in 1973 when we had a brief artificial shortage of gasoline. Whatever shock comes along will be accompanied by worldwide inflation because not only will gasoline cost more, but everything that has to be transported will cost more, and petrochemicals, which are a very large part of our lives, will cost more. If we don’t pull ourselves together, get over that shock, and get other fossil fuels into production to substitute for the missing oil, then civilization will decay and people all over the world will find themselves having to burn coal in huge quantities for space heating and primitive industry, and that could throw the climate into a different state that is hostile to life altogether. Worst case really means worst case. End of story.
FL: And the best case?
DG: When the crisis comes along, due to the peak, it serves as a planet-wide wake-up call and we get to work on learning how to live without fossil fuels and I think that it is possible to do that if we try hard enough.
FL: There’s been a lot of controversy over nuclear energy. Obviously, there are dangers but it also has no carbon dioxide emissions, what are your views on nuclear power?
DG: Well, there are two kinds of nuclear power. One is the fusion kind which we have not been able to make work yet. If we ever succeed in doing that, it could probably resolve our problems. There is enough fuel of that kind around to last a very long time. But it has been 25 years away for the past 50 years. People have said that of both shale oil and nuclear fusion that they are the energy sources of the future and always will be. The other kind of nuclear power is the conventional fission kind that we already use and that’s a very well established technology. People are afraid of it. They don’t like it. There’s reason to be afraid of it. We have to do it with intelligence and care. Nevertheless, when the oil source is running out, the need for it likely to become a compelling reason to return to it. However, you have to be careful. You have to look at it quantitatively. That is, in order to make enough nuclear energy to replace all of fossil fuel we burn today, you would have to build ten thousand of the largest nuclear plants possible. Ten thousand, that’s not impossible but it is certainly a daunting task. Even if you did that, the known uranium reserves would last at that burn rate for only one or two decades.
FL: Okay, so there is also a Hubbert’s peak associated with it.
DG: And there’s a Hubbert’s peak also associated with that although we haven’t gone nearly as far in exploiting uranium reserves as we have in exploiting oil reserves. And also there are other possibilities. When I say that there are only 10 or 20 years, I’m not taking into account the possibility of using Breeder reactors. Breeder reactors make plutonium and it’s a very nasty stuff so we’ve tried to stay away from that up to now. And there is also another possible nuclear fuel called thorium and we have very little experience in making reactors running thorium.
FL: It’s been said that in one hour, the Earth receives as much as energy from the Sun as all of society uses in one year, what do you think about implementing photovoltaic technology or windpower as other renewable sources?
DG: Solar energy will certainly be an important part of our future. Photovoltaics yes. Just to give you a comparable number to what I gave you for nuclear energy: If you want to replace all of the fossil fuels we burn today with sunlight gathered by photovoltaics, you would have to cover 200,000 square kilometers with photovoltaics. That’s a land area about 500 kilometers of 300 miles on each side, which is not unthinkable, but all of the photovoltaics made up to now will probably cover less than ten square kilometers. So once again, not impossible but a huge, daunting task. You can also have wind power but not all that much of it. There are not so many places in the world where the wind blows steadily enough or strongly enough to be useful. It becomes economically competitive with coal-fired power plants because you include technology and there are tax breaks for renewable sources, but people don’t like wind farms. They’re ugly and they’re noisy. And they say there aren’t so many places where they can be used profitably. Some places like Northern Europe for example, where there is a lot of wind, it may someday become comparable to hydroelectric power but that’s about it. Hydroelectric power is a form of solar power because the pressure of the water at the bottom of the reservoir drives the water turbine to generate electricity and then the sun makes the water evaporate and go back up into the watershed and into the reservoir again. So, that is solar energy, but we’ve saturated that. We’ve used about as much of it as there is. There are dams where you can reasonably build a dam. Just about. So you can’t increase that to replace the missing oil. So those are the prospects for solar power. One other, biomass, by growing things using sunlight. Biomass tends to be extremely inefficient, on the order of one-tenth of one percent of the sunlight will eventually converted into chemical potential energy if you use biomass.
FL: You mentioned some myths about energy in your book. Perhaps we can go over a couple of them. For example, global warming is bad. It that misstated?
DG: We would not be alive without global warming. If you took away all the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — so the Earth radiated away the same amount of energy it receives from the sun, which is what it would have to do in steady-state –the temperature of the Earth would immediately drop to 255 Kelvins which is equal to zero degrees Fahrenheit. But at that temperature, all the water on Earth would freeze and the Earth would become much more reflective, absorb much less energy, and so the temperature would drop much further and life could not exist. At least advanced life could not exist under those conditions. On the other hand, if you increase the greenhouse effect 100%, it would very likely become like it’s near twin, Venus, which is a little closer to the Sun so it should be a little warmer. Venus, which is permitted to have Earth-like temperature, has a runaway greenhouse effect and has a surface temperature hotter than molten lead. The Earth is precariously balanced in between. The pre-industrial greenhouse effect in the Earth was 88%, which means that of the energy radiated by the Earth’s surface, 88% is absorbed by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and radiated away in all directions both out into space, replacing the incoming radiation, and back down to the Earth, warming the Earth to a very comfortable temperature of 287 Kelvins or about (57 degrees Fahrenheit). And at that temperature, we evolve, climb down from trees, and started drilling oil wells.
FL: Scientists are concerned that there might be too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now. It’s been estimated that since the industrial revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide has increased 44% or so, and we still do not know what effects this will have on the global climate. Do you feel that this is something we should be concerned about?
DG: Well, it’s true. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has increased by a 100 parts per million, which is roughly 30% actually. But the effects are extremely complex. You put a little carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that makes the Earth a little warmer. That causes more water to evaporate but water itself is a powerful greenhouse gas so that is a positive feedback effect. It causes the polar ice caps to shrink a little bit, which decreases the reflectivity of the Earth and causes even more warming. So these are positive feedback effects. They amplify the effects of putting the carbon dioxide in. On the other hand, the water vapor in the atmosphere condenses into clouds and clouds have a cooling effect. The shrinking ice caps freshen the Northern water and may reverse the gulfstream that warms Northern Europe so it could actually lead to global cooling and so on. All kinds of complicated things happen when you change the composition of the atmosphere.
FL: Two dollars a gallon for gas. Is that really expensive?
DG: Two dollars a gallon is about 50 cents per liter. We pay much more than that for a bottle of drinking water. We think that two dollars a gallon is too expensive, but when Europeans come the United States, they are astounded to find that gasoline is just about the cheapest liquid you could buy here.
FL: Let’s talk about policy. Does President Bush’s initiative to develop the hydrogen economy make sense?
DG: Hydrogen is made from fossil fuel and it takes the equivalent of six gallons of gasoline to make enough hydrogen to replace one gallon of gasoline in a hydrogen fuel-cell driven car. So, in the short run, it does not make sense. In the long run, let us say we solve the fusion problem and we have an absolutely unlimited source of power so that power is simply not a problem. That power is useless for transportation because it can only be made in great, big fusion plants. So you need a fuel. Something that can carry that power around locally. In that case, hydrogen or another fuel made from hydrogen, better off combining with carbon dioxide and making methanol or something else. But a fuel made from hydrogen would make sense.
FL: So the rest of the world is striving to reach the standard of living that the US has reached and this will certainly take a lot of energy. Energy which is sought after by many countries. What policies or regulations would you encourage to avoid potential conflicts?
DG: That’s really a tough question. It is true that United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s energy, and the rest of the world would like to be more like us. And the more the rest of the world gets to be more like us, the bigger the burden on energy it becomes. But I don’t think that we’re are going to get very far keeping the rest of the world in its place so that it doesn’t consume so much energy while we use all we can. And so, we have to learn to conserve energy, to reduce the use of fuel, and put into place technologies that will help the rest of the world live better without burning large amounts of fossil fuel.
FL: You’re known as an advocate for science literacy. What advice do you have for people who want to work in developing energy related technologies or polices?
DG: My advice is to get a good technical education. It doesn’t matter what field. I’m a physicist and physics is not the best field for helping this problem. Other fields such as geology, chemical engineering, chemistry, those people make much more direct contributions.
FL: I guess we are running out of time. Are there any last words you would like to add about yourself or the book?
DG: No, I’d just like to advise you to read the book and I think you will profit from it.
FL: Thank you very much to joining us today.
DG: Thank you.