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Imagine what your life would be like if the world suddenly lost its hydrocarbon power. If, for some reason, all the supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas on our planet vanished, you would be faced with life far different from the one you now know. Flick the light switches in your home and you would still be left in the dark. No matter how hard you pressed the buttons on the remote control of your TV set, Survivor, American Idol, and every other broadcast show would still fail to appear on the screen. You wouldn't be able to listen to music, from Bach to Bruce Springsteen, on your living-room stereo system. You wouldn't be able to surf the Internet, because your personal computer or laptop would sit on your desk as a useless piece of high-tech rubbish. And you wouldn't be able to call friends or family members, because the global phone system cannot function without energy. Your morning shower would be an unpleasantly frigid one, because no electricity or natural gas would be available to operate your hot-water heater. But most likely no water would come through your home's plumbing anyway, because it takes power to pump it to your neighborhood from the municipal reservoir or a well. Much of the food in your refrigerator and freezer would spoil after a few days, because there would be no electricity to run those kitchen appliances.
Whether you live in a small town or a major metropolis, your community could rapidly collapse into disorder without fossil fuels. After sunset, streetlights would stand useless, and crime could increase dramatically. Local police departments would find it impossible to quickly respond to calls because patrol cars would sit idle without fuel. The same problem would be faced by other emergency services, such as fire departments and ambulances. The combustion engine of your car or truck most likely runs on fossil fuels, so unless you owned a horse or mule, you would be forced to travel only walkable or bikeable distances. If you are like most Americans who usually commute many miles by car to work, you would find it extremely difficult to get to your office or factory site. Not that it would matter. Without fossil fuels to operate the facilities, the factory or office building in which you work would be closed down, just like most other job sites around the world.
Without fossil fuels to generate electricity, public schools in every community across the nation could be closed. So you would need to find other ways to educate your children and help them spend their day. The doors of public libraries and community centers would be locked by city officials because there would be no way to supply patrons with heat, light, and other electric-powered services. Supermarkets and convenience stores would also soon be forced to lock their doors as they ran out of stock. If not quickly sold, perishable items would soon spoil as they sat defrosting on unrefrigerated store shelves. There would probably be enough food in warehouse storage to last for a short while, but the food must reach the markets, and that distribution depends almost entirely on petroleum. All the grain in the silos in Kansas will do little good for people in California and New York if it can't be shipped. Over a short time, most food production throughout the world would virtually stop because modern agriculture depends on oil and natural gas. The oil is used to plant and harvest crops. Most fertilizers are produced from natural gas. Chemicals to treat for pests and other problems come largely from petroleum. (In developing countries, more human and animal labor is used to grow crops, so they would be less vulnerable to the negative impact of food shortages.) Even more important than food, however, is drinkable water. Fossil fuels are used to process and pump this precious resource through canals and pipes all around our nation. Some water is shipped by trucks and that depends on oil. Within days, people would be desperate for clean H2O. It's easy to see how law and order could quickly break down if food and water suddenly became scarce.
If fossil fuels were to suddenly disappear, our economy would quickly collapse. Stores would run out of merchandise because no diesel-powered trucks and trains could transport items down America's vast network of highways and railroads. Modern hospitals wouldn't be able to function. Without fossil fuels to move them, all the airplanes and trains in every nation on Earth would stand useless. Letters and packages could not be easily delivered across the span of distances because it takes petroleum energy to convey them by plane, train, or truck. After the fossil-fuel disappearance, national and international news information also could not be widely distributed by TV, radio, the Internet, or newspapers and magazines. When the winter months arrived, Americans in cold climates would find themselves shivering under blankets during blizzards or extreme freezing temperatures.
This scenario is hard to envision happening, but it's not just in the realm of imagined catastrophe. Although fossil fuels won't dramatically vanish in a frightening flash, our global civilization is right now facing a future where the limited supply of hydrocarbon energy from oil might indeed soon start to diminish or become prohibitively expensive. And concerns about the impending climate crisis and severe environmental changes from global climate change might put a political brake on coal use.
Already, we're facing growing political and social anxiety as the nations of the world awaken to the real prospect that we might be nearing the end of the fossil-fuel era. The fact is that the world economy is completely dependent upon fossil fuels. A sudden major, long-term shortfall in world oil supplies would result in unprecedented human suffering. Compounding the problem is the impending threat of global climate change. If the worldwide consumption of fossil fuels continues climbing at the maximum possible rate, the resulting climate changes will have the potential to completely disrupt civilization. Global warming's impact on water supplies could alter our current political systems, causing mass migrations, wars, and starvations. Unfortunately, global warming and the predictable sharp reduction of hydrocarbon fuel supplies will happen together, reinforcing the need to take action now while we still have the capability to effect changes that would result in a healthier, more prosperous society. So to better understand how we can face the society-changing challenges of our energy future, it is vital for us to know something about two major concepts directly connected to the topic of fossil fuels. They are Hubbert's peak and greenhouse gases.
On March 8, 1956, Dr. Marion King Hubbert, a highly respected geophysicist who was just as cantankerous as he was brilliant, sat on a platform in a conference hall in San Antonio, Texas, preparing to drop a bombshell in a scientific research paper he would soon present. In his report "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels," he intended to reveal to members of the American Petroleum Institute what he had mathematically calculated to be the future of U.S. oil production. That fuel forecast was not a pleasant one.
Hubbert had grown up in central Texas and had earned his Ph.D. in geology and physics from the University of Chicago during the 1920s. After a period teaching as a professor, he had gone to work for Shell Oil Company, where he led a major research laboratory devoted to oil exploration and production. At Shell, he was known for his feisty attitude when it came to arguing technical details. This persona quickly inspired a saying among his colleagues that "Hubbert is a bastard, but at least he's our bastard." During his years of researching the intricacies of oil, he had provided the world of geology with several significant discoveries. Early in his career, for example, he demonstrated mathematically that the tremendous geological pressures deep in the planet's crust cause rock to exhibit plastic characteristics much like clay. This accomplishment and many others gained the geophysicist wide esteem in the scientific community, as well as in the oil industry.
On that March day in 1956, as San Antonio's mayor gave the conference's welcoming speech, someone signaled to Dr. Hubbert to come to a nearby phone. With minutes to spare before Hubbert was supposed to go up to the podium to address the audience, a public relations man back at Shell's head office in Houston started pleading with the scientist to withdraw or at least tone down his gloomy vision of oil's future. Hubbert refused to budge. He believed in his findings and bluntly told the PR man his intentions to go through with his presentation. After hanging up, he soon delivered what is now considered one of the most influential speeches in the history of the oil industry. Hubbert showed the audience a graphed bell-shaped curve he had created by using a complex math formula. It illustrated the stages of growth of oil extraction in the lower forty-eight American states over a span of many decades. This graph was based on an estimated total U.S. reserve of between 150 billion and 200 billion barrels—an approximation geologists at that time believed was accurate. Hubbert showed the people attending the meeting how the top of the graph projected that oil would peak in the lower forty-eight states sometime between 1965 and 1971. After that, oil production would begin a steady decline as the nation's reserves started to diminish. See Figure 1-1.
Understanding the important consequences of Hubbert's findings if they proved to be accurate, members of the U.S. petroleum industry immediately went into action. They began a denial campaign to refute the geophysicist's prediction. It was partly an emotional reaction to Hubbert's presentation. After all, billions of future dollars were at stake. Many of the oil industry's geophysicists also began to challenge the figures that Hubbert had used to make his calculations, saying the United States still had many more oil discoveries waiting to be made—such as in the frontier of Alaska. Some even suggested that Hubbert was a doomsday crackpot. They said that other scientists had prophesied the end of the oil supply as far back as 1900, incorrectly proclaiming the United States had only a decade or so before the nation's fuel tank would hit empty. But those scientists had used a different mathematical formula from Hubbert's. They had divided America's known petroleum reserves by an annual rate of production. Instead, during the course of the twentieth century, more oil fields were discovered, allowing the industry to continue its highly profitable boom years.
Reality, however, eventually confirmed Hubbert's calculations were correct. By November 1970, America's oil production did indeed reach its peak point and began a consistent decline that continues today, just as Hubbert predicted in the 1950s.8 No one really knew the exact time the actual pinnacle moment occurred until a couple of years later, when data demonstrated that the United States was indeed undergoing a steady decline of production in its oil fields. That moment, often called Hubbert's peak, marked an important milestone for America and the world. It also provided us with a cautionary message that a nation that derives nearly all its energy requirements from fossil fuels is living on borrowed time.
In the 1970s, Americans started to wake up to the fact that they faced an uncertain oil outlook. One of the loudest alarm clocks went off when service stations began to run out of gasoline and the economy was severely hurt following the oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the fall of 1973. As chaos disrupted the country, elected leaders began to truly comprehend the major impact of the oil peak in the United States. Hubbert was invited to speak to a congressional subcommittee on the environment on June 6, 1974, and there, as a senior research geophysicist with the Department of the Interior's U.S. Geological Survey, he discussed how he derived his equations and data. He then presented the forecast date when his calculations showed the planet's oil production might crest. During his testimony, he informed the members of Congress that "the peak in the production rate for the world, based upon the high estimate of 2,100 billion barrels, will occur about the year 2000." That same month, a National Geographic article quoted the geophysicist as saying, "The end of the oil age is in sight."
Unlike his U.S. projection, Hubbert's estimate of world oil production's peak did not hit a bull's-eye. His theory requires inputting accurate oil reserve estimates into the calculation, and the data are often unverified by outside sources. It can also change as new oil fields are discovered or as geopolitical situations reduce the consumption of petroleum (as occurred during the energy conservation movement in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s). Also, many OPEC nations tend to overinflate their estimates of oil reserves, adding to the uncertainty of the data. Most significantly, advanced oil exploration and drilling technology developed in the thirty years following Hubbert's testimony helped to more efficiently extract the crude out of Earth's crust. Even Hubbert himself pointed out that his famous curve is not a crystal ball but only an indicator based on mathematical statistics requiring a reliable estimate of Earth's reserves for an accurate prediction. A computation is only as accurate as the numbers plugged into it.
But Kenneth S. Deffeyes, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, believes that Hubbert came close enough in his original estimate of the year 2000 for when global oil production could peak. Deffeyes, who worked under Hubbert's supervision during his years at the Shell lab, believes his colleague would have no doubt revised his prediction based on more accurate estimates of Earth's oil reserves. Calculations today, made by some petroleum experts using Hubbert's methods and more accurate data than Hubbert had, predict that the world's oil production will reach a peak sometime around the year 2010. Some oil experts believe that if it hasn't done so yet the world is close to hitting that historic mark, forecasting it will probably happen between the years 2005 and 2020. We won't know the exact time frame it occurs until perhaps a year or two after it happens, when there is statistical evidence of a marked decline in global oil production. But we do know that when the world reaches the top of the bell curve in oil production and begins its inevitable plummet, it will prove to be a dramatic transition point for humankind. It will mark the moment when we must acknowledge that unless we develop other sources of energy to replace petroleum, our civilization is living on borrowed time.
Excerpted from CLEAN ENERGY NATION by Jerry McNerney Martin Cheek Copyright © 2012 by Martin Cheek and Gerald McNerney. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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