Op-Ed LA Times: Oil decline

From: Al Koop <koopa@gvsu.edu>
Date: Mon Feb 16 2004 - 13:23:12 EST

An op-ed column from yesterday's LA Times.


Beyond Fossilized Thinking
The world needs innovative technology now to meet energy needs

By David Goodstein

If Earth had no greenhouse effect, it would be a frozen ice ball,
far too cold for advanced life. If it had a 100% greenhouse effect,
it might well be like its near-twin Venus, whose runaway greenhouse
effect gives it a surface temperature hotter than molten lead.
Instead, we live on a planetwide Garden of Eden, delicately balanced
between those extremes.

Our atmosphere is transparent to the white-hot radiation from the
sun, but it is nearly opaque to the much cooler radiation with which
Earth tries to send its received energy back out into space. The
result is a balmy average temperature of 57 degrees Fahrenheit. In
those benign conditions, we evolved, climbed down from the trees and
began drilling oil wells.

Over the last 150 years, we have evolved a civilization firmly
anchored in the mathematically impossible promise of an endless
supply of cheap oil. Now there is good reason to believe that
sometime in the next decade or two, the world's oil fields will
start to be depleted faster than new ones can be tapped. When that
happens, a gap will begin to grow between the supply of fuel and the
need for it.

If we lived in an orderly, rational world, it might be possible for
some other fossil fuel to fill the gap. But anyone who was alive in
1973 knows that we don't live in such a world, especially when it
comes to a shortage of our precious gasoline. In 1973, a temporary,
artificial shortage immediately caused mile-long lines at gas
stations and panic and despair for the future of our way of life.
When worldwide oil supplies reach their natural peak, the shortages
that follow will be neither temporary nor artificial.

It is technically possible to make a substitute fuel out of coal or
natural gas, and as the price of oil skyrockets (along with the
price of all petrochemicals and everything that has to be
transported), more oil at this higher price will be grudgingly
extracted from oil sands, tar sands and depleted oil fields. So,
ignoring the effects of runaway inflation, possible armed conflict
and the like, it might be possible to muddle on for a while.

How long? We are told by countless studies that there is enough coal
in the ground to last for hundreds of years or more, but that
estimate is surely flawed. For one thing, if we use coal as a
substitute for oil, it will have to be mined many times faster than
now. In addition, the world's population continues to increase, the
poorer peoples want to live more like the richer ones, using far
more energy, and coal supplies, like those of any mineral resource,
will peak and begin to decline long before the last ton is dug out
of the ground. It's a pretty good bet that the peak will happen
before the end of this century.

And, if we let all that happen, the increased greenhouse effect
produced by burning all those fossil fuels may well destroy the
delicate balance that makes it possible for us to live on this

President Bush has asked us to think beyond our mundane concerns and
dream of placing humans on the hostile surfaces of the moon and
Mars. He would do better to offer a far more visionary and
courageous challenge: to kick the fossil fuel habit now, before we
have made Earth hostile to humans.

Beyond fossil fuels there is only sunlight and nuclear energy.
Finding ways to run a civilization as complex as ours on those
resources alone would be exceedingly difficult, but not entirely
impossible. The scientific principles on which the new technologies
would have to be based are well known.

We are very good at solving technical problems when we put our minds
to it. The task to be accomplished is enormous, but we could do it.
What's lacking now is leadership.

David Goodstein is a professor of physics and vice provost at
Caltech. His latest book, "Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil,"
was published recently by W.W. Norton.

Received on Mon Feb 16 13:24:09 2004

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