Running on empty, part 2

Coincidentally, after my post about the scientist forecasting the end of oil production growth, I picked up the Scientific American now on newsstands (with Herr Doktor Professor Einstein on the cover), and, whadda ya know, they’ve got a kind of oil-supply update in it.

It turns out the SA article I remembered about oil peaking in 2010 wasn’t published 10 years ago but only 6 (“The End of Cheap Oil,” March 1998). The article’s authors agree with geophysicist Kenneth Deffeyes that oil production may peak as early as 2005. Others say it’ll be a lot further off.

There are a lot of discrepancies in available data. The US Dept. of Energy’s Energy Information Association says production will peak between 2021 and 2112. But, according to Rodger Doyle, the author of the article in this month’s SA:

“The difference between oil optimists and pessimists is crucial, for if the pessimists are correct there will be insufficient time for an orderly transition to alternative energy sources. The variable estimates over timing of the peak may exist in part because official agencies such as the EIA are under intense pressure not to throw the markets into a panic by coming out with pessimistic forecasts.”

Too late!! I already panicked.

Indeed, oil-exporting countries, oil companies, and government agencies all have incentives to inflate their own projections about future oil availability. But by now I think there’s little disagreement that the world must make a change of energy sources to support future economies. There are technologies under development that might make that possible. But the operative phrase here—the problematic phrase—is “under development.” Timing is everything. How long will it take to develop new technologies and then put enough in place to enable billions of people to live decently at reasonable cost? Well, a lot longer than the next few years.

Perhaps the silver lining in the forecast of 2005 as the peak of the oil slope is that it will be abundantly clear very soon that we’re in for a new era. “It’s been fun, but the party’s over” so to speak. Deffeyes has put his butt on the line and said 2005 is the year, so we’ll know whether or not he’s right very soon. If he is, you won’t read it in a newspaper headline: you’ll know each time you fill your car, each time you look at your utility bill, and probably when you read the employment figures. Solar, wind and hydrogen power will no longer be the interest of geeky “green” energy devotees.

Some would say Deffeyes and his kind are “alarmists.” Perhaps, but alarms are important; they tell you something may be wrong before disaster happens. We put smoke detectors in our homes because we want to know something’s wrong before flames are licking at the foot of our beds. Sometimes they go off when something’s just too hot on the stove. I don’t think alarmists have anything to apologize for.

If the issue interests you, an interesting—and chilling—site to read is