Sunday, June 15, 2008

The View from Hubbert's Peak


The peak in question is not a mountain. And the view is depressing. Hubbert's Peak is the high point on a graph depicting world oil production in the past and predicting future oil production. Hubbert's graph is a bell curve, and the peak is the point at which half of the available oil has been used. It's all downhill from there. The concept is named for the late Marion King Hubbert, who was born in San Saba, Texas, in 1903. The lost San Saba Mine figures prominently in J. Frank Dobie's delightful exploration of Texas folklore titled Coronado's Children. I once heard the self-effacing Hubbert speak at a geological meeting; he had a sort of a lopsided face that he explained by saying that a log had rolled on him when he was a child.

Hubbert worked for many years as a geophysicist for the Shell Oil Company. In 1956, he made calculations of U.S. oil reserves and issued a prediction that shook the American oil industry. Many scoffed at Hubbert's forecast that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. He could hardly have been more accurate. The turnaround came in 1970, when U.S. oil production reached about nine million barrels per day.

Geologists who are concerned about the exhaustibility of the world's oil supply today have made similar calculations. All predict that another Hubbert's Peak, this time in world oil production, will occur in this decade. And it will come regardless of whether the amount of ultimately discoverable oil is the low estimate of 1.8 trillion barrels or the high estimate of 2.1 trillion barrels.

And if the oil runs out? Optimists point to alternate fuel sources: oil shale, tar sands, natural gas and even coal. But these will only add to the greenhouse effect. If the oil supply will only last for decades, they say, the world's supply of coal is good for hundreds of years, and we may one day see the return of the Stanley Steamer automobile. What that much coal burning will do the Earth's already warming atmosphere is something no rational human being would want to contemplate.

Future generations will undoubtedly despise us for what we have been doing with oil: burning it wastefully. But petroleum is an unusual commodity. It can provide raw materials for an infinite variety of products: plastics, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, colorants, fertilizers, pesticides, detergents, artificial fibers. Ever since Edwin L. Drake, a former conductor on the New York & New Haven Railroad, drilled the first American oil well near Titusville, Pennsylvania, our principal use of oil has been to burn it wastefully--first in lamps, then in the engines of automobiles and airplanes, and in the early 1920s, to heat homes.

Our profligate society has greedily plundered the planet of its oil--and other valuable raw materials--as if supplies were limitless--without exhibiting an iota of concern for future generations who will populate this planet after we are gone. Hubbert's Peak, the point when the world's supply of available oil reaches the halfway point, is rapidly bearing down on us--if it is not already here. It will occur when the rapidly diminishing supply of oil meets the rapidly rising demand for oil. Then we shall be driving our SUVs to the poor house while we struggle to live in the greenhouse we have created.

Casual is the word that best describes this nation's attitude toward the looming energy problem. Experts, many with ties to the fuel industry, contend that the world has enough oil to last for many years. And when it runs out, they tell us, we can turn to other sources of carbon fuels. Natural gas can be compressed to run internal combustion engines--until the Hubbert's Peak of natural gas is reached. Sedimentary rocks of the Green River formation found in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, they assure us, contain more shale oil than all the conventional oil in the world.

The term "shale oil" is a misnomer coined to attract gullible investors. And it is not oil at all. It's kerogen, a waxy substance that can be converted into oil if the shale is mined, crushed and heated, an expensive process. Then there are the so-called tar sands and oil sands found in Alberta, Canada, which yield oil at high cost and with a high sulfur content. Coal, one of the dirtiest of fuels, exists in quantities sufficient to last hundreds of years and now produces about half the electricity generated in this country. Most of the mercury already in our atmosphere, oceans and the fish we eat is the result of coal burning.

If, after the supplies of oil and natural gas run out, we begin to burn even more coal, we could create an unstoppable runaway greenhouse effect. The planet Venus is an example of this: space probes have shown that its atmosphere is 96 percent carbon dioxide. Its surface temperature, 867 degrees Fahrenheit, is hot enough to melt lead.

Here on earth, there has always been a natural greenhouse effect, giving us a reasonably comfortable average global temperature of 57 degrees. Our atmosphere, made up mainly of nitrogen and oxygen, is transparent to sunlight, so that the Sun's radiation reaches the surface of the planet in the form of visible light. Other gases in the atmosphere--the so-called greenhouse gases--including water vapor, the largest component, methane, carbon dioxide, ozone, nitrous oxides and chlorofluorocarbons absorb the infrared energy reflected from the earth's surface and radiate it back to the earth and into space. What concerns scientists is that when James Watt's improved steam engine touched off the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere was 280 parts per million. This was roughly the same level it was at when civilization began in the Middle East. Today, it is 378 ppm, a rise of 35 percent.

Increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases the amount of infrared energy radiated back to the earth, warming the planet. This has caused glaciers and polar ice caps to shrink, generating further warming by reducing the radiation reflected by the ice. There is one possible brake on global warming: because warmer air can hold more moisture, increased moisture may create more clouds that will keep sunlight from reaching the earth, but that will also cut agricultural production.

Is the planet heating up? It would seem so. Climatologically speaking, for many years we have been in the warm period that has always followed each period of continental glaciation. Antarctic ice cores reveal that our planet is now as warm as it ever has been in the last 420,000 years. Climate is fundamentally variable, of course, but five of the past seven years have been the hottest years since instrument records were kept. Permafrost in the Arctic is melting, major glaciers are shrinking, the oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, and the range between planetary day and nighttime temperatures is growing smaller.

Little is being done in the United States, the single largest emitter of carbon dioxide, to reduce CO2 emissions. Moreover, forests, which turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, are being clear-cut everywhere at an unsupportable rate. We should create tax incentives for those who improve insulation of their homes or purchase more efficient motor cars. We should expand public transportation. And we must explore alternate sources of energy. Waterpower has already peaked. Most stream valleys that could hold reservoirs have already been dammed. Interestingly, waterpower is not a renewable resource; reservoirs eventually silt up behind dams.

Tidal power is untapped. In 1966, France constructed the world's only tidal power plant in the La Rance estuary on the Brittany coast. It generates enough electricity to supply a city of 300,000. Other tidal power plants were planned until the French opted for nuclear power. Geothermal energy, using heat recovered from the earth's crust, is in its infancy. Solar power, employing panels of solar cells on earth or in space, is a new frontier. Wind power produces less than one percent of U.S. electric power today. Thanks to improved technology and tax breaks, wind farms are now competitive with gas- and coal-fired plants. But even if all nonpolluting alternative power sources were exploited to the fullest, it is unlikely they could directly replace oil and natural gas.

There are 441 nuclear power plants in the world, more than a hundred in the United States. Surprisingly, environmentalists are warming up to nuclear power, which adds no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, as the only viable replacement for petroleum and natural gas. When the inevitable oil crisis occurs--and it will occur--fear of nuclear fission will be overcome by necessity, but concerns about waste disposal and safety will always remain. Nuclear power is not adaptable to vehicle propulsion, although it is fine for moving ocean-going vessels like aircraft carriers and submarines. Nuclear power can generate electricity to charge batteries for electric cars or make and compress hydrogen as an alternative automotive fuel. There are tradeoffs with every alternative. Although burning hydrogen or using it in fuel cells only produces water vapor as a byproduct, the inevitable release of hydrogen into the atmosphere would threaten the earth's protective ozone layer.

Another form of nuclear energy, nuclear fusion, if not standing in the wings, is hanging around the stage door. Its abundant raw materials are deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, and lithium. The process, which would also not create carbon dioxide, may one day be perfected; it is taking place right now--in the Sun. Increasing demand for oil and diminishing supplies can only lead to higher and higher oil prices, galloping inflation and global depression. Add to these economic woes a planet made less livable for its growing population by more frequent and more severe droughts and heat waves, shifts in patterns of violent storms, an increase in insect-borne diseases, changes in crops, and inundations of coastal areas and low-lying islands.

A lot of people in their monster suburban McMansions who can't imagine the energy honeymoon not going on forever will get hurt. The little people of the world, who have always managed to make do with less, will survive somehow. In the new energy-sparing society, we may see a return to self-sufficient small farms, the resurgence of farm animals, and even the horse and buggy. The Wal-Marts and huge shopping centers will disappear. Their places will be taken by a welcome revitalization of retail trade in small towns. Won't it be great to have an old-fashioned butcher in a straw hat, white apron and protective sleeve cuffs who knows your name, and a friendly grocer who totals up your few purchases in pencil on the paper bag in which you carry them home?

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