Tuesday, May 31, 2005

oil's end
It looks like some mainstream news sources are beginning to pick up on the impending oil crisis. The AP's Matt Crenson posted a story a few days back. He writes,

And then it really will be all downhill. The price of oil will increase drastically. Major oil-consuming countries will experience crippling inflation, unemployment and economic instability. Princeton University geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes predicts "a permanent state of oil shortage."


The basis for this pessimism is something called "Hubbert's peak." As Crenson explains, a Ph.D by the name of Marion King Hubbert predicted in 1956 that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970. Shell, his employer, was livid and scoffed at his prognosis, but Hubbert was right. Oil production in the U.S. peaked 35 years ago and has declined ever since. If Hubbert was correct about U.S. oil supplies, then logically there must be a Hubbert's peak for world oil production as well. As David Goodstein writes in Out of Gas, world oil discoveries peaked decades ago, and the rate of new finds has slowed to a crawl. It is likely that we have made our last big discovery of an oil field like Ghawar in Saudi Arabia.

Most people aren't terribly concerned about the peak because they assume the crisis will hit us when we actually run out of oil. This reminds me of Jared Diamond's speculation in Collapse about what was going through the mind of the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island in the South Pacific. It's cute, but of course the societal crisis occurred as soon as the islanders realized they were permanently running out wood. What will probably happen in the present-day is that oil companies and oil producers will collude for as long as possible to prevent independent observers from figuring out that world oil production has peaked.

But once that cat has clawed its way out of the bag, it may trigger a financial crisis that will make the Great Depression look like a bad night at the slots machine. Every aspect of contemporary mass urban civilization -- from the Eisenhower Interstate system to Wal-Mart to grocery store chains and down onto petrol-products like plastic bags and pharmaceuticals -- depends on the abundance of cheap gas. If petroleum is not replaced by a source of cheap, renewable energy sometime in the next ten or twenty years, modern civilization as we know it may collapse, triggering an epic and bloody decline in the human population of this planet.

Of course, not everyone is so pessimistic. Some assume that human beings, being the ingenious creatures that they are, will invent their way out of this dilemma, either coming up with a new source of energy (like fusion) or discovering new sources of oil, like the oil-shale that litters the Western U.S. My money is on a massive, solar-based energy project. Goodstein describes this "photovoltaic device" in Out of Gas. Using superconductive materials now used only in spaceflight, the sun could be harnessed to provide enough electricity for the entire world:

However, the scale of what is needed is breathtaking. Using present-day PV technology, in order to replace all the power generated from fossil fuels, an array spread over more than 200,000 square kilometers would be needed. That's an area roughly half the size of California. All the PV's made up to now would probably cover fewer than 10 square kilometers.

Now I'm no physicist, but I don't understand why Goodstein is not more excited about this than he is. If we've got the technology, then all we need to do is either produce PV's on a massive scale or improve the technology. The world certainly has no shortage of empty, useless desert terrain, whether it's in Arizona, Mongolia, or Libya. In fact, if Goodstein is correct, even using today's technology, we could conceivably provide enough electricity via PV's to industrialize the entire world, right up to the absurdly lavish lifestyle we live here in the U.S., replete with air-conditieners, iceboxes, and inter-continental jet travel.

But we won't get there with the current leadership in charge of things. Bush and the hopelessly deluded petrol-philes in Congress seem to believe that drilling for the piddling amount of oil located in the Alaskan wilderness will be enough to get us out of this mess, when what is needed is someone like Jack Kennedy to tell us we're going to the moon. Every day that passes without a serious effort to find alternative sources of energy is a wasted opportunity. The Bush administration is terrific at that sort of thing.

3 Comments:

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Antonio Hicks said...

i was just browsing through the blog world searching for the keyword posters and it brought me to your site. You have a great site however it is not exactly what i was looking for. Good luck on your site. sincerely, antonio.

 
At 3:34 AM, Blogger Antonio Hicks said...

i was just browsing through the blog world searching for the keyword posters and it brought me to your site. You have a great site however it is not exactly what i was looking for. Good luck on your site. sincerely, antonio.

 
At 3:34 AM, Blogger Antonio Hicks said...

i was just browsing through the blog world searching for the keyword posters and it brought me to your site. You have a great site however it is not exactly what i was looking for. Good luck on your site. sincerely, antonio.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home