"Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak" by Kenneth S. Deffeyes Hill and Wang, 256 pp., $24 "The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel...
“Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak”
by Kenneth S. Deffeyes
Hill and Wang, 256 pp., $24
“The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy”
by Peter Huber and Mark Mills
Basic Books, 256 pp., $26
These two books mark the endpoints of optimism and pessimism about energy. Kenneth Deffeyes, author of “Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak,” is a geologist, and he says civilization is running out of oil. Our cars, our airplanes and our farms are going to be left high and dry.
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In “The Bottomless Well,” Peter Huber and Mark Mills, who are anything but geologists, say we may run out of oil, but we’ll never run out of energy, and industrial life will continue onward and upward.
Common sense tells me the down-to-earth Deffeyes is right, and yet to stand with the pessimists is to deny human experience. For more than a century, experts have told us we were hitting the Earth’s limits. In every generation, some popular author, usually past his prime, has told us humanity was doomed. All such predictions have been bad bets.
Huber is associated with the free-market Manhattan Institute and writes with an optimism similar to George Gilder. Huber and Mills believe we will be saved by science and invention. Their argument is implicitly based on the economists’ argument: As oil gets scarcer, the price goes up, and inventive minds are set to finding new fuels.
In their book, however, they seem less interested in new fuels than in nifty new uses of energy, such as an electric drive train for cars (in which electrically conducted energy replaces geared mechanisms).
Deffeyes is a former associate of M. King Hubbert, a Shell Oil geologist who predicted in 1958 that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970, which it did. In 1969, Deffeyes says, Hubbert predicted world oil production would form a bell-shaped curve. He drew the curve in two sizes. The more optimistic one peaked in 2000 and implied cumulative total output of 2.1 trillion barrels. Deffeyes says this was about right, and that the peak of the curve — “Hubbert’s Peak” — will be this year.
“We have already found most of the oil,” he says. “If there were attractive prospects available, companies would be clawing over one another” to get them. They would be investing in new capacity — which they’re not. Even the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he says, only moderately excites them.
Deffeyes sees us in denial. Yes, there are fuels other than oil, but liquid petroleum is incomparably useful. Tar sands are tougher to exploit. So is oil shale; his book has a photo of a U.S. oil-shale plant that was abandoned 20 years ago. Gasoline may be made from coal — Germany did it during World War II, as did the South Africans during the boycott of the white-minority government, but neither had an American standard of living. Natural gas is nice, but it has its own Hubbert’s Peak, and we waste it by burning it for electricity.
In the face of geologic logic, Deffeyes is baffled at the economists’ optimism. “It must be something they put in the baby food,” he writes.
These two books do agree on a few things. One is that the energy problem will not be solved with renewables. Huber and Mills argue that the energy in sunlight, wind and plants is diffuse, and that humanity’s progress has been toward stronger, more concentrated forms. They’re for coal and uranium, and after that, something like fusion power. Deffeyes, who often speaks at universities, laments that “almost no students are studying real geology.” Students’ interest is not in joining the energy industry but in regulating it, which adds to his sense of doom.
Both books discount energy efficiency. Deffeyes thinks it won’t be enough — that on the downside of Hubbert’s Peak, “each time that we adapt to a lower level of production, the production falls again.” Huber and Mills argue that efficiency doesn’t really save energy, because the more energy-efficient we make our appliances and cars, the more appliances and cars we buy.
Huber and Mills are right about this so far. But they do not prove that we will never run out of energy. They assert it and they have faith in it, but their analysis ignores geology, a science about which they have little interest. Deffeyes, who humbly maintains, “My expertise ends where the geology stops,” and who writes mostly about geology, is on much more solid ground. But it is not all the ground there is.
The future is unknown. Here are two books to read before you place your bets.
Bruce Ramsey is an editorial writer for The Seattle Times.