Oil Doesn't Grow on Trees By DAVID GOODSTEIN

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Oil Doesn't Grow on Trees


David Goodstein is vice provost and professor of physics at Caltech.

This is a singular moment in our history. We are rushing toward a calamity that may very well bring our way of life to an end. It is entirely predictable and almost inevitable. It is not the doing of terrorists, but the terrorists may have given us a unique chance to do something about it. The calamity I speak of is the end of the age of oil.

Here is the basic physics: Life on Earth exists because of radiant energy from the sun, plus a small amount of nuclear fuel that condensed with the Earth when it was formed billions of years ago. Over the eons, a tiny fraction of that sunlight was converted by natural processes and stored in the form of fossil fuels. In the course of a few generations, we have nearly used up the Earth's entire supply of accessible petroleum.

When that and the other more-difficult-to-use fossil fuels are used up, we will have nothing left to live on except the light from the sun and whatever nuclear fuel on Earth we haven't burned. Even nuclear fuel is a finite resource. How much oil is left in the ground? Even if we knew how to answer it, that would probably not be the right question. A better question is: How long can we go on increasing the rate at which cheap oil is pumped out of the ground?

We in the United States had a clear preview of what will happen when conventional oil supplies start to decline. Extraction from wells in the Lower 48 peaked in 1970 at 9.4 million barrels per day. That number is now down to 5.8 million barrels and declining rapidly. Americans consume about 20 million barrels per day. When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries took advantage of that situation by reducing supplies in the early 1970s, the result was immediate and drastic.

The most reliable source of information about how much oil is left may be retired oil geologists, no longer beholden to their employers, privy to confidential data and possessing the technical skill to make use of the data. Their estimates of when conventional oil supplies will peak (found in various obscure journals and Web sites) range from 2007 to 2016. In his recent book, "Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage," retired geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes' estimate is 2004. After that, we will have no choice but to learn to live on less oil.

For as long as we have the sun, we have at our disposal a steady stream of energy amounting to about 300 watts per square meter, averaged over the face of the Earth. The sunlight falling on our country amounts to about 10,000 times the electricity we Americans consume. Each of us also consumes 30-plus barrels of oil each year.

We already use little bits of solar energy in the form of hydroelectric and wind power, biomass (wood from trees, alcohol from corn) and photovoltaics, in addition to the fossil fuels we use up. We could learn to live within our energy "income," but that would amount to a technological and economic revolution of historic magnitude. That revolution is precisely what President Bush should challenge the nation to accomplish.

Last May, a task force under the leadership of Vice President Dick Cheney issued a now-notorious report on energy that was heavily influenced by testimony from oil and energy company insiders. The report urged increasing the rate at which we pump oil as rapidly as possible. That may have seemed the best solution for next quarter's bottom line and for popularity in the next election--provided the peak doesn't occur by then--but it was never the best solution for our future.

The Sept. 11 terrorist acts have made it politically possible to do what is really needed. A president with courage and vision, particularly one who is himself a former oilman, could seize the moment and challenge the nation to devise the means to kick its fossil fuel habit over the next decade. With all of our industrial might and scientific talent applied to the effort, we might be able to accomplish it.

That is the way to win the real war. The alternative is to go on hunting terrorists while our civilization slides into oblivion.

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-- Anonymous, March 18, 2002

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