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OIL EXPERT PREDICTS APOCALYPSE, BUT FEW ARE LISTENING
THE THREAT IS PEAK OIL, AND FORMER PROFESSOR THINKS IT'S COMING THIS YEAR
By Alexander Lane
Newhouse News Service
Saturday, August 20, 2005
PRINCETON, N.J. -- Think high gas prices are bad?
Get a load of what ex-oilman and ex-Princeton professor Kenneth Deffeyes
believes are following closely behind:
"War, famine, pestilence and death," he said. "We've got to get the warning
The threat? Peak oil.
The term refers to the time when the worldwide production of oil peaks and
begins a rapid decline. From then on, this incredibly efficient fuel source,
which still costs less than most bottled water, will be ever more scarce and
ever more costly.
Highly respected sources, including the U.S. government, think that day is
distant, and most mainstream economists think it won't cause much of a
But Deffeyes thinks peak oil is coming in November, and could bring
humankind to the brink.
"It's been like pulling teeth to get public awareness," he said.
So who is this well-credentialed Chicken Little?
Deffeyes grew up next to gushing oil wells. He is a former petroleum
geologist himself, having worked for Shell Oil for six years after earning a
doctorate from Princeton.
He is a devotee of former Shell geologist M. King Hubbert, who correctly
predicted U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. Deffeyes is
also the author of "Hubbert's Peak" and "Beyond Oil: The View From Hubbert's
Peak," which was published last spring.
He is among a cadre of peak-oil proponents who sketch out a frightening
near-term future in which the American way of life is upended as the United
States, China and great nations scramble after oil fields like desperate
players in a game of musical chairs.
"He comes out of oil. He was born in oil," said Julian Darley, an energy
analyst, fellow predictor of an imminent oil peak and founder of the Post
Carbon Institute, an Oregon-based think tank. "Ken is one of the leading
people who have done a whole host of analytical work that have helped us
understand the situation."
Today's oil prices -- up in the mid-$60s today from less than $30 a barrel
about two years ago -- presage a time of great worldwide upheaval, these
experts warn. They say the 20th century could look blissfully calm next to
"Starving to death again will become fashionable," Deffeyes said.
Deffeyes, 73, grew up in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming,
following his father, who worked for Indian Territory Illuminating Oil, from
well to well.
Oil was plentiful in the United States then.
Deffeyes studied petroleum geology at the Colorado School of Mines and then,
after a stint in the military, earned a doctorate in geology from Princeton.
In the early 1960s, he worked for Shell, rubbing elbows with the highly
productive and respected Hubbert.
Hubbert predicted in 1956 that U.S. oil production would peak in the 1970s.
The theory was greeted with skepticism by many in the field, but it
persuaded Deffeyes that the future of American oil was bleak enough that he
should leave Shell and enter academia. Several years after the peak, the
accuracy of the prediction was apparent. In 1982, at age 79, Hubbert
published a 150-page paper explaining his methods.
At that time, Deffeyes was about halfway through a 32-year career at
Princeton teaching basic geology and other courses.
He soon found that several respected researchers had already applied
Hubbert's methods to the current world oil supply and determined the peak
would arrive between 2005 and 2008. Deffeyes did the calculations himself
and pinpointed the peak at Thanksgiving 2005.
The exactness of the prediction is somewhat tongue in cheek, but Deffeyes'
point -- that the peak has either already arrived or will very soon -- is
There are peaks and valleys all the time in oil production, and it may not
be clear that the ultimate peak hit until a couple of years afterward, he
In the long term, the nation will compensate with clean coal and nuclear
energy, along with renewable sources like wind and solar power, Deffeyes
"It's the five-year time scale that I'm really scared about," he said.
There are many who doubt his theories. Economists, in particular, believe
the supply and demand equation will spur innovation and conservation, and
the problem will take care of itself.
Cambridge Energy Research Associates, recently released a report saying oil
production capacity would outstrip demand at least through 2010, and that
Deffeyes and his ilk do not fully appreciate the enormous potential of
reserves in Russia, the Middle East, the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. The
U.S. Geological Survey has predicted the peak won't come until 2037.
Mark Mills, co-author of the new book "The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of
Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy," said
Deffeyes is smart about geology, but wrong on this issue.
Higher prices will merely spur humankind to figure out how to extract oil
from previously impenetrable sources, such as the oil sands of Canada, he
"I don't propose that there's an infinite supply of oil," said Mills, a
physicist and partner in a venture capital fund. "I just propose that
there's a lot more than most geologists would believe because the real
metric of availability is technology, not geology."
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