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Counterpoint: World Production Crisis Looms
April 14, 2004
By Arthur M. Sleeper
The recent increase in gasoline prices to record levels may herald the most serious problem of our age: We are running out of gas. A new book by that title, "Out of Gas," written by physicist and CalTech vice provost David Goodstein, develops the case for an impending crisis in oil production.
In the 1950s, geophysicist Marion King Hubbert, using three statistical methods, predicted that oil production in the United States would peak by 1970. Although not well received at that time, his forecast, known as "Hubbert's peak," proved accurate. U.S. oil production peaked in 1970 at 9 million barrels per day and has declined since to the present 6 million barrels per day.
Applying these methods to world oil production, a worldwide Hubbert's peak is predicted within the next several years. Goodstein notes that shortly thereafter the widening gap between production and consumption will result in worldwide inflation as competition for limited oil reserves intensifies. Ultimately, as worldwide energy stocks are depleted, our modern lifestyle could revert to that of the 18th century. Goodstein further notes that such a society, without fossil or nuclear energy, could only support 5 percent of the current world population.
How to avoid this impending crisis? Goodstein does not offer much comfort. Our options include coal, which is dirty and CO2-producing; nuclear fission, which is potentially dangerous; and solar energy, which is diffuse and expensive. The advertised hydrogen economy, he correctly notes, is only a storage battery; a primary energy source is required to separate hydrogen from water.
Solutions must come from two areas. The first, longer-term solution is greatly increased funding for controlled thermonuclear fusion. This is the worldwide program to produce energy by the fusion of isotopes of hydrogen. The energy source is unlimited and the process relatively clean. Unfortunately, the program has been starved for funds, and only recently has the United States rejoined an international consortium to build an experimental reactor.
The second, more immediate solution is a major effort in conservation. This will require an adjustment to smaller, fuel-efficient automobiles, smaller homes in urbanized settings to lower heating and cooling costs and reduce commuting times, and mass transportation. Given the fragility of our political institutions, a major change in national expectations will be necessary to negotiate the transition on a time scale to avert catastrophe.