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Seeing only the title of David Goodstein's compact book, Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil, skeptics will react predictably. We have plenty of oil, they will say, and by the time we start to run low, economic forces will drive technology to develop alternative sources of energy. We'll do just fine by allowing the market do its magic. The crunch won't come until fifty years from now, and we've heard alarmists before.
What's different about this book? To begin, Dr. Goodstein, a Distinguished Teaching and Service Professor at Caltech, accepts the skeptics' principal assumptions. He agrees that we have not tapped even half of the Earth's easily accessible oil, and we won't start running out for decades. He also recognizes that technological solutions may well emerge in the coming decades.
Unfortunately, we will face trouble long before the planetary gas gauge approaches "E," Dr. Goodstein notes. He cites the prescient analysis of Shell Oil geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who in the 1950s predicted that U.S. domestic oil production would peak in the 1970s and decline thereafter.
"At the time, his prediction was not well received by his peers, but he turned out to be right," writes Dr. Goodstein. "U.S. oil extraction peaked at about nine million barrels per day.... Today, it's just a little under six million barrels per day. Oil companies now routinely use Hubbert's methods to predict future yields of existing oil fields."
Hubbert's analysis predicts that the extraction rate of a natural resource reaches a maximum when about half of that resource has been extracted. For the world's oil, that halfway point appears to be about a decade off. After that, extraction rate will increasingly lag demand. The artificial oil shortages we experienced during the 1973 embargo will be permanent and increasingly severe.
Following that introductory section, the professor provides brief tutorials on thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and geology. Then he applies those lessons to a global system and describes technologies that can replace our reliance on fossil fuels. That leads naturally to this concluding warning and call to action.
"We, or our children, or our grandchildren face some very difficult times. If the problem were widely understood and acknowledged, we could go a long way toward easing the pain that the crisis will cause.... There are many ways in which we [Americans] could reduce our consumption of fuel without abandoning our comfortable way of life. That would give us more time to convert.... Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels."