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[cdn-nucl-l] 'Out of Gas': They're Not Making More
Looks like interesting book.
OUT OF GAS
The End of the Age of Oil.
By David Goodstein.
Illustrated. 140 pp. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. $21.95
New York Times
February 8, 2004
'Out of Gas': They're Not Making More
By PAUL RAEBURN
If all you knew about David Goodstein was the title of his book, you might
imagine him to be one of those insufferably enthusiastic prophets of doom,
the flannel-shirted, off-the-grid types who take too much pleasure in
letting us know that the environment is crumbling all around us. But
Goodstein, a physicist, vice provost of the California Institute of
Technology and an advocate of nuclear power, is no muddled idealist. And his
argument is based on the immutable laws of physics.
The age of oil is ending, he says. The supply will soon begin to decline,
precipitating a global crisis. Even if we substitute coal and natural gas
for some of the oil, we will start to run out of fossil fuels by the end of
the century. ''And by the time we have burned up all that fuel,'' he writes,
''we may well have rendered the planet unfit for human life. Even if human
life does go on, civilization as we know it will not survive.''
He's talking about 100 years from now, far enough in the future, you might
say, that we needn't worry for generations. Surely some technological fix
will be in place by then, some new source of energy, some breakthrough. But
with a little luck, many readers of these pages will live until 2030 or
2040, or longer. Their children may live until 2070 or 2080, and their
grandchildren will easily survive into the 22nd century. We're talking about
a time in the lives of our grandchildren, not some warp drive, Star Trek
And what about that technological fix? ''There is no single magic bullet
that will solve all our energy problems,'' Goodstein writes. ''Most likely,
progress will lie in incremental advances on many simultaneous fronts.'' We
might finally learn to harness nuclear fusion, the energy that powers the
sun, or to develop better nuclear reactors, or to improve the efficiency of
the power grid. But those advances will require a ''massive, focused
commitment to scientific and technological research. That is a commitment we
have not yet made.'' Drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and
scouring the energy resources of national lands across the West might help
the constituents of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and Vice President Dick
Cheney's friends in the energy industry, but it won't solve the problem.
Goodstein's predictions are based on a sophisticated understanding of
physics and thermodynamics, and on a simple observation about natural
resources. The supply of any natural resource follows a bell curve,
increasing rapidly at first, then more slowly, eventually peaking and
beginning to decline. Oil will, too.
It has already happened in the United States. In 1956, Marion King Hubbert,
a geophysicist with the Shell Oil Company, predicted that oil production in
the United States would peak sometime around 1970. His superiors at Shell
dismissed the prediction, as did most others in the oil business. But he was
right. Hubbert's peak occurred within a few years of when he said it would,
and American oil production has been declining ever since. There was no
crisis, because this country tapped the world's reserves, and the supply
increased along with demand.
Now Goodstein and many others have shown that the same methods, when applied
to global oil production and resources, predict a Hubbert's peak in world
oil supplies within this decade, or, in the best-case scenarios, sometime in
the next. Once that happens, the world supply of oil will begin to decline
gradually, even though large quantities of oil will remain in the ground.
The world demand for oil will continue to increase. The gap between supply
and demand will grow. But this time the gap will be real; there will be no
other source of oil (from the moon, Neptune or Pluto?) to flow into the
When the supply falls and the demand rises, the price will go up. That's no
problem, economists say. With the high price, companies will go after more
costly oil, and the market will take care of things.
Maybe not, Goodstein replies. ''In an orderly, rational world, it might be
possible for the gradually increasing gap between supply and demand for oil
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.''
In the best-case scenario, he writes, we can squeak through a bumpy
transition to a natural-gas economy while nuclear power plants are built to
get us past the oil crisis. In the worst case, ''runaway inflation and
worldwide depression leave many billions of people with no alternative but
to burn coal in vast quantities for warmth, cooking and primitive
President Bush has pointed to hydrogen as the ultimate answer to our need
for transportation fuels, but Goodstein correctly points out that hydrogen
is not a source of energy. It is a fuel produced by using energy. We can use
coal to produce it, or solar power, or something else, but it is only a way
of converting energy into a form that can be used in vehicles; it doesn't do
anything to ease the transition away from oil.
''Out of Gas'' -- a book that is more powerful for being brief -- takes a
detour to explain some of the basics of energy budgets, thermodynamics and
entropy, and it does so with the clarity and gentle touch of a master
Then Goodstein gets back on message. Even nuclear power is only a short-term
solution. Uranium, too, has a Hubbert's peak, and the current known reserves
can supply the earth's energy needs for only 25 years at best. There are
other nuclear fuels, and solar and wind power might help at the fringes. But
''the best, most conservative bet for ameliorating the coming fuel crisis is
the gradual improvement of existing technologies,'' he writes. We can
improve the efficiency of lights, tap solar power with cheap photoelectric
cells and turn to nuclear power. The problem is that we have not made a
national or global commitment to do so. ''Unfortunately, our present
national and international leadership is reluctant even to acknowledge that
there is a problem. The crisis will occur, and it will be painful.''
I hope Goodstein is wrong. I wish we could dismiss him as an addled
environmentalist, too much in love with his windmill to know which way the
wind is blowing. On the strength of the evidence, and his argument, however,
we can't. If he's right, I'm sorry for my kids. And I'm especially sorry for