OUT OF GAS
David Goodstein (W.W. Norton & Co, New York)
In 1956 Marion Hubbert, a Columbia University academic who went to work for Shell Oil, calculated that the oil being extracted from the lower forty-eight United States would peak around 1970 and would rapidly decline thereafter. Although his calculations were widely dismissed at the time, they subsequently proved to be accurate.
Hubbert used a number of calculations to arrive at his conclusions (too lengthy to discuss in a book review) but, in short, Hubbert said that if the rate of oil being pumped out of the ground were plotted, it would be a bell-shaped curve. So it would rise to a peak which would never be exceeded and then decline forever.
In Out Of Gas, first published in 2004, David Goodstein writes that, by applying Hubbert's calculations to the world supply of oil, we can work out, approximately, when the peak will occur.
The world is estimated to have had two trillion barrels of oil. Since the Industrial Revolution, it's estimated that we have consumed over half of that total. Goodstein estimated that peak oil will occur within the next ten to fifteen years.
The crisis will emerge and deepen when an increasing demand begins to exceed an diminishing supply - not, as is the popular misconception, when the last drop of oil is pumped from the ground.
Writes Goodstein: 'In an orderly, rational world, it might be possible for the increasing gap between supply and demand to be filled by some substitute. But anyone who remembers the oil crisis of 1973 knows that we don't live in such a world, especially when it comes to an irreversible shortage of oil. It's impossible to predict exactly what will happen, but we can all too easily envisage a dying civilization, the landscape littered with the rusting hulks of useless SUV's. Worse, desperate attempts by one country or region to maintain its standard of living at the expense of others could lead to Oil War 3.
In this short and readable book Goodstein, an academic at the California Institute of Technology, concentrates on the scientific dimension of the looming crisis - of which the increasing oil prices is merely the first ripple.
Can human civilization survive without oil? It's a stark question with no easy answers.
Goodstein examines the alternatives, which largely revolve around nuclear and solar energy. However there are problems associated with these energy forms and Goodstein concludes that 'there is no existing technology capable of replacing the oil we soon will be without, nor is there any on the horizon that we can depend on to replace the remaining fossil fuels when they are exhausted..The best hope for our civilization lies in technologies that have not yet arisen -possibly based on scientific discoveries that have not yet been made. Most likely, progress will lie in incremental advances on many simultaneous fronts, based on principles we already understand: Controlled nuclear fusion, safe breeder reactors, better materials for manipulating energy, more efficient fuel cells, better means of generating hydrogen and so on'.
The problem is that there desperately needs to be concentrated and sustained research done on energy alternatives and there is no commitment to such research from our so-called 'leaders'.
For example, the United States continues to consume oil like there is no tomorrow - which is a possibility. The United States with five percent of the world's population, consumes 25 percent of the world's oil. The American population expect a ready supply of cheap fuel -they pay more for bottled water than they do for fuel. But, as Goodstein points out, cheap petrol is not the solution its part of the problem.
The response of the Bush administration has ben to prop up the energy status quo by gaining ready access to Iraqi oil. Its energy policies lack intelligence, vision and political courage.
Nor is there any real alternatives on offer from the other wing of American big business, the Democrats.
And we can't be smug about the situation in New Zealand either, where we have two right wing parties jostling for political ascendancy. They too base they're energy policies around an assumption of a ready and relatively inexpensive supply of oil.
The Green Party meanwhile, more conscious of the looming crisis than the other parliamentary parties, has hitched its wagon to the Clark Government, with all the compromises and concessions that suggests - which goes some way to explain the Green's decline in electoral support.
Out of Gas is an excellent book, which is increasingly more relevant. Next time you're out and about, check out the cars on the road and you'll quickly realise that the majority only have one person in them. Check out too the large number of gas-guzzling 4WD's clogging the streets. It's akin to partying before the bomb drops.
A crisis will occur - but our politicians and most of the general population remain largely oblivious to the storm clouds on the horizon. Says Goodstein: 'there may be a future for us. The remaining question is, Can we get there?'