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If the actions—rather than the words—of the oil business’s
major players provide the best gauge of how they see the
future, then ponder the following. Crude oil prices have
doubled since 2001, but oil companies have increased their bud -
gets for exploring new oil �elds by only a small fraction. Like -
wise, U.S. re�neries are working close to capacity, yet no new
re�nery has been constr ucted since 1976. And oil tankers are
fully booked, but outdated ships are being decommissioned
faster than new ones are being built.
If those clues weren’t enough, here’s a news item that came
out of Saudi Arabia on March 6, 2003. Though it went largely un -
remarked, the kingdom’s announcement that it could not pro -
duce more oil in response to the Iraq War was of historic
importance. As Kenneth De�eyes notes in Beyond Oil: The View
from Hubbert’s Peak , it meant that as of 2003, there was no major
underutilized oil source left on the planet. Even as established oil
�elds have reached their maximum production capacity, there
has been disappointing production from new �elds. Globally, ac -
cording to some geologists’ estimates, we have discovered 94
percent of all available oil.
The Saudis’ announcement arrived right on schedule—at
least, once the three-year delay imposed by OPEC’s anti-U.S.
embargo and production cutbacks of the 1970s was factored in.
In 1969, the prominent geologist M. King Hubbert predicted
that a graph of world oil production over time would look like a
bell cur ve, with a peak around the year 2000. Thereafter, he ar -
gued, production would drop—slowly at �rst, then ever faster.
Hubbert had a track record as a prophet: his 1956 forecast
that U.S. domestic oil production would peak in the early 1970s
proved cor rect. Kenneth De�eyes, who started out in 1958 as a
young petroleum geologist at Shell’s Houston labs working
alongside Hubbert, became so convinced by the man’s theories
that by 1963 he had left the oil business, except for occasional
consulting work; he is now a professor emeritus of geosciences
at Princeton University. In Beyond Oil, De�eyes takes readers
through Hubbert’s analysis in a highly readable style, even boil -
ing down the complex mathematics into a few pages of graphs.
The prognosis? De�eyes has no doubt that by 2019, the year
in which Hubbert’s theories indicate global oil production will
drop to 90 percent of current rates, human ingenuity will have
found replacement energy sources (see “What Energy Crisis?”
p. 19). But De�eyes is optimistic about the long term only be -
cause he believes that by 2010, pressures will grow so intense
that they’ll create the resolve necessary to develop a new energy
economy. In the short term, he foresees continually rising oil
prices that force industry after industry closer to the wall. He
fears not just escalating resource wars around the world but also
mass starvation in some countries, since the 6.4 billion people
living on the earth today are fed thanks largely to the successes of
the 20th century’s “green revolution,” which, among other inno -
vations, brought petrochemical-based fertilizers into wide use.
Because 15 years ago we failed to begin developing the new
energy sources and technologies we need now, De�eyes argues,
in the immediate future we’ll have to rely on what we’ve got. In
Beyond Oil, he examines how we might optimize the use of our
geologically derived energy sources.
De�eyes suggests that coal will make a comeback and that
Fischer-Tropsch conversion—the process by which the Nazi re -
gime turned coal into gasoline to keep its Panzers running dur -
ing WWII—might become commonplace. He grants that there’ll
be an outcry over the ecological costs of bur ning coal; similarly,
there’ll be much agonizing as nuclear power plants are again
rolled out. But De�eyes believes that M. King Hubbert, whose
1956 paper predicting the U.S. oil production peak is titled “Nu -
clear Energy and the Fossil Fuels,” was right: nuclear power will
be part of our response to decreasing reserves of oil and natural
gas, as necessity overrides any political opposition.
Ultimately, says De�eyes, we may just have to resign our -
selves to relying more on coal, wind, and nuclear �ssion for
electricity and switching to high-e�ciency diesel and hybrid
automobiles in order to ration our remaining oil reser ves for as
long as possible. Abundant energy from fossil fuels was a one-
time gift, De�eyes concludes, that lifted humanity up from sub -
sistence agriculture and has led to a future based on renewable
Mark Williams is a writer who lives in Oakland, CA.
The End of Oil?
There are good signs that worldwide
oil production is declining.
Best hold on tight.
BY MARK WILLIAMS
TIM JOHNSON/AP PHOTO
Texas Tea Leaves
Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak
By Kenneth S. Deffeyes
Hill and Wang, 2005, $24.00
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