Experts ponder fallout of oil production peak
Those who believe that depletion of the world's oil supply is imminent are sometimes derided as Chicken Little-like eccentrics who tell governments, the media, the energy industry and just about anyone else willing to listen that the world is on the front edge of an emergency.
One of the worriers is David Goodstein, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology. In his book, Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil, Goodstein writes that once production peaks, people will have to switch to alternative fuels in time to meet rising energy demand.
Otherwise, "runaway inflation and worldwide depression" will force billions of people to burn coal, he says. The so-called "greenhouse effect" -- the rise in temperature caused by gases trapping energy from the sun -- could make the planet unlivable, Goodstein says.
"End of story" is his somber conclusion. "In this instance, worst case really means worst case."
Not everyone who has studied the world oil supply believes production is about to peak. Researchers at the U.S. Energy Information Administration say they believe production will not peak until 2037, while other analysts point out that previous predictions of a peak date proved to be wrong.
In an interview, Goodstein indicated that he tries to do his part. He drives a hybrid car, which runs on a combination of gasoline and electricity, and lives close enough to his job that he can walk some days. But he realizes his contribution "doesn't make very much difference. I don't use 20 million barrels of oil a day."
Marion King Hubbert, a Shell Oil Co. geologist, predicted in 1956 that American oil production would peak between 1966 and 1971. Skeptics questioned Hubbert's projection, but U.S. crude oil production reached 9.64 million barrels a day in 1970 and by last year had dropped to 5.74 million barrels, according to the EIA.
The world produced 69.3 million barrels of crude oil a day last year, the largest total on record. The United States was the largest consumer of petroleum, using 20.04 million barrels a day.
Some researchers who have studied oil supplies believe that the peak in world production is decades, not years, in the future. They point to numerous variables, such as the development of alternative sources of energy, the possibility of finding new fields and the emergence of technologies that could make it economical for producers to pull more oil out of a field than they do now.