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Books Media Book Reviews Science

Out of Gas 1098

Oil -- and energy in general -- has long been a big topic among Slashdot readers. Predictions about The End of the Age of Oil (about which, claims the subtitle, this book provides "all you need to know") certainly are not new -- and if civilization lasts long enough, one day they'll prove true. It's nice to consider that automobiles aren't necessarily tied to petroleum, but mine certainly runs on 87 octane gasoline, and there aren't enough turkey guts or grease to power everything that we use petro-fuels for right now (though places like Iceland are trying hard to tap other sources). Current gas prices (in the U.S. at any rate) are higher than they have been in a decade or so, but in constant dollars, gasoline prices have certainly been worse. How much to panic, and when? Read on below for Arthur Smith (apsmith)'s brief review of David Goodstein's Out of Gas for a rather gloomy look at the future of oil-based energy.
Out of Gas: All You Need to Know about the End of the Age of Oil
author David Goodstein
pages 128
publisher W.W. Norton & Company
rating 9/10
reviewer Arthur Smith
ISBN 0393058573
summary Why replacing oil is the world's most urgent and ignored problem.
Americans have started to notice prices at the pump with an unfamiliar '2' on the sign. Meanwhile, crude oil prices are hitting 13-year records close to $40 per barrel. As the International Energy Agency reports, there is "no relief in sight". All this should come as no surprise to readers of David Goodstein's Out of Gas - the only question is, have we left it too late to survive the inevitable shocks that are coming?

In this slim and subtly illustrated volume Dr. Goodstein, physics professor and vice provost at Caltech, explains in clear and simple terms why the fossil fuel age is coming to an end. A "massive, focused commitment" is needed to develop alternatives, and every year of delay in that commitment adds immeasurably to future human suffering.

In years, or at best a decade, we will reach the global "Hubbert's peak" for conventional oil, when production starts to decline even with rising demand. Such a peak was reached for US production in 1970. "Foreign oil" has sustained us until now, but Goodstein shows why it cannot for much longer.

A number of books on this subject have come out in recent years, some very pessimistic about the future (for example Heinberg's "The Party's Over", which warns of a greatly decreased world population). Goodstein offers some hope in alternatives, substantially based on the analysis of climate scientist and space solar power advocate Martin Hoffert.

Solar-based renewables and fusion are the only long-run energy solutions. According to Goodstein, natural gas and nuclear fission can help tide us over. All of these have problems, with the most scalable (solar power from space) still the least mature. Goodstein's longest chapter discusses thermodynamics and the physical laws that explain usable energy and its relation to entropy. As a physicist, I was pleased and surprised to learn something from Goodstein's clear explanation here.

Goodstein also discusses global climate problems with continued use of fossil energy, particularly an increasing dependence on coal. He concludes: "Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we find a way to live without fossil fuels."

There were a few minor things to complain about. Transitions between the chapters are too abrupt, perhaps caused by the wide range of discussion in such a short book. A few technical things seemed wrong - for example, it is quite feasible to run transportation systems off grid electricity (electric trains, subways, etc. do this) - would it be so hard to do it for personal transport too?

But Goodstein's book is the clearest explanation yet of our need to get beyond fossil fuels. Is it enough to get the public, and our leaders, actually paying attention?

You can purchase the Out of Gas: All You Need to Know about the End of the Age of Oil from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, carefully read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Out of Gas

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:17PM (#9187252)
    Our beloved President George W. Bush says that we'll never run out of oil, and since he has been appointed by God to save us from evil, it is truth from the mouth of God. Amen.
    • by NanoGator ( 522640 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:23PM (#9187346) Homepage Journal
      "Our beloved President George W. Bush says that we'll never run out of oil, and since he has been appointed by God to save us from evil, it is truth from the mouth of God. Amen. "

      Heh. I can't tell if you're making fun of Bush, or if you're making fun of the perception of Bush. Way to make a political joke that means something to both sides!

      Damn I wish I had a mod point.
  • by FatSean ( 18753 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:19PM (#9187285) Homepage Journal
    I gotta roll my eyes...the sheep are squealing, led by the glowing pictures of news anchors. Gas prices are not that high...they've been much higher historicaly. If a few cents a gallon is making such a huge impact, you are LIVING BEYOND YOUR MEANS...and you'll get fucked eventually.
    • I don't think that's quite the point. Gas prices are going up, to be sure, but the real issue is peak production. Sure, we won't absolutely run out of oil in the next few years, but we will probably be peaking in production while demand increases at the same time. You can guess what that'll do to the economy.

      We've been led astray by believing the estimates of the OPEC nations with regards to their reserves. Well, the price they get, according to their agreement, is tied to how large their reserves are. There is zero incentive for any of the OPEC nations to provide an accurate estimate if it means lowering the number. In addition, many of the wells are pumping out large quantities of water that was pumped down into the oil fields to force out more oil. They are beginning to go "dry" so to speak.

      Check out www.peakoil.net [peakoil.net] for more information.

      • by Killswitch1968 ( 735908 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:39PM (#9188532)
        PeakOil.net is a scare-monger site with similar doomsday prophecies as Lester Brown's the Population Bomb, which also predicted massive die-outs in the 90s. Brown's mistake was assuming everything was going to stay the same and all he had to do was extrapolate.
        PeakOil does the same thing, in spite of his silly rebuttal in the FAQ. They assume that oil consumption will not change, technology will not improve, and we'll cease to adapt.
        • Brown's mistake was assuming everything was going to stay the same and all he had to do was extrapolate.

          Yes, that was a mistake. It's also a mistake to liken an equation attempting to predict human behavior with an equation attempting to predict the physical amount of a substance that is left, namely oil. Human beings can change themselves, oil reserves cannot.

          As to www.peakoil.net being a scare-monger site, it's hard to imagine what they're trying to scare us into, unless it's thinking ahead. Or perhaps you might be afraid that Colin Camplbell, the founder of peakoil.net is a liberal. I don't know what his exact politics are, but check out his background, taken from this article [fromthewilderness.com]:

          Colin Campbell is both an academic and a businessman. Educated at Oxford and holding a Masters degree he has served as a geologist for Oxford University, Texaco, British Petroleum and Amoco (prior to the BP Amoco merger). He has served in executive positions with Shenandoah Oil, Amoco, Fina and was Chairman of the Nordic American Oil Company. He has served as a consultant on oil for the Bulgarian government as well as for Statoil, Mobil, Amerada, Total, Shell, Esso and for the firm Petroconsultants in Geneva. He is the Convener and Editor of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and a Trustee of the Oil Depletion Analysis Center in London.

    • by Valdrax ( 32670 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:43PM (#9187644)
      As one of the first posts in the article indicates, prices for all goods are going up because it costs more to ship them. Milk is more expensive because refueling milk tanker trucks is more expensive. Products derived from milk, like ice cream, take on the burden of the expense to ship the milk to the factory (which is passed on to the customers) and then pass on the cost of shipping THAT product to the stores' warehouses to the customers while the stores pass the cost of shipping from the warehouse to the retail stores to the customer. This is slightly multiplied by each company in the chain desiring to maintain the same relative profit margins.

      I remember only a few years ago -- sometime before 2000 -- there was a summer where gas prices dipped below a dollar in my area. Gas prices are now twice that, and diesel prices are in the $1.50-1.60 range. A 50% increase in the cost of transportation hits the prices of everything hard. Oil prices have a ripple effect on the entire economy, not just the ~$20-40 you spend refilling a gas tank.
      • by denzo ( 113290 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:57PM (#9188819)
        I remember only a few years ago -- sometime before 2000 -- there was a summer where gas prices dipped below a dollar in my area. Gas prices are now twice that, and diesel prices are in the $1.50-1.60 range. A 50% increase in the cost of transportation hits the prices of everything hard. Oil prices have a ripple effect on the entire economy, not just the ~$20-40 you spend refilling a gas tank.
        That's because the two years before 2000, the oil industry had just gone through one of its worst price crashes due to demand for crude sharply decreasing in Asia and mild winters. The price of oil was unusually low; in fact, it was basicaly close to the lowest real (adjusted for inflation) price that the industry has seen.

        I love how the media likes to dramaticize the increase in oil prices by comparing the current peak to the previous trough (instead of against trendline). If businesses relied on the price of oil to stay unusually low, then they were being way too optomistic for their own good.

  • by ziggy_zero ( 462010 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:20PM (#9187297)
    In case any of you got that "May 19th is Gasoline Boycott Day!" e-mail, here are some articles on why it won't work:

    Article by Matt Helms [freep.com]

    Snopes Article [snopes.com]

    If all the idiots don't get gas tomorrow, just means less of a wait for me!
    • What would work is for everyone to carpool one day a week, or otherwise find a way to drive less than you otherwise would have. That would cut demand and have a huge impact on prices.

      Of course, even with the high prices, I still see lots of people buying gas at the more expensive station on the other side of the street--even if they have to cross traffic to get there. Obviously they don't mind the prices.

      And I laugh at those single drivers in their giant trucks and SUVs.
  • by adequacy ( 544972 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:22PM (#9187322) Homepage
    Cyclists are gods.

    Fuckin bring it on.
  • Great Article: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ArmenTanzarian ( 210418 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:23PM (#9187339) Homepage Journal
    Cold Turkey [inthesetimes.com] by none other than great hero to the geek race Kurt Vonnegut. [vonnegut.com] It compares America to a junkie who's having trouble finding that last fix.

    A highly recommended read on what appears to be a similar topic. My favorite line:
    There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don't know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.
  • by paroneayea ( 642895 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:23PM (#9187347) Homepage
    US gas prices may seem rediculously high... but they actually aren't that bad. In fact, I'd argue that they should be higher. The US government subsidizes oil.
    Of course, this concept is almost completely unknown to most people, I find.
  • Grmbl... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jawtheshark ( 198669 ) * <slashdot@ja w t h e s h a r k . com> on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:24PM (#9187360) Homepage Journal
    You guys complain? Bah! In Europe we're worse off. I live in one of the countries with the lowest gas prices in the EU, but we nearly reached the 1€/litre mark last week. That's 4$ per gallon for you American folks. My commute being 16 miles single way (which seems to be the norm according to this slashdot poll [slashdot.org]) doesn't really help. Yes, I know, I could take the bus, but that would take me 60 minutes instead of 30 minutes with the car.

    It would be way worse if the dollar was higher, I guess... after all the barrel is quoted in dollars.

    Damn, I should have bought a diesel instead of a roadster that does 10l/100km (25mpg). *sigh*

    • The only part of your post I disagree with is your use of a slashdot poll as though it were meaningful information.

    • taxes (Score:4, Informative)

      by blunte ( 183182 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:40PM (#9187602)
      How much of your 4$/gallon is EU or local taxes? From my quick search it looks like the UK and France have gas price + 300% tax. That suggests $1gas plus $3taxes. These are 1997 numbers too. It's likely taxes have increased since then. (details [cam.ac.uk])

      The US has what we consider high taxes on gas. Hawaii is 53.5c (as of July 2002), California is 50.4c, and Texas is 38.4c/gallon. (details [ca.gov])
  • What about alcohol? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hal2814 ( 725639 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:27PM (#9187393)
    I don't know why nobody is hyping alcohol as a fuel replacement. Liquor is only expensive because it has to taste reasonable and it is loaded with taxes. If we can get distilled water for $1.00 per gallon, I don't see why we can't get a gallon of white lightning for $2.00 per gallon.

    Also, it would take very little to no modification to get a petrol car to run on grain alcohol.
    • by Jaywalk ( 94910 )

      Also, it would take very little to no modification to get a petrol car to run on grain alcohol.

      The problem is that alcohol is not as efficient as gasoline when used as a combustion fuel. If you'll recall the "gasohol" stuff that was produced in the 70's, it barely dented gas consumption and was eventually scrapped.

      More promising is using alcohol in fuel cells rather than gaseous hydrogen. Alcohol is not as good at combustion as gasoline, but it has more hydrogen and less carbon. If you use a Direct Me [h2fc.com]

  • Most Americans do not seem to realize that they have been paying ridiculously LOW prices for gas for years. FYI, regular petrol has cost around 2 euro over here for the past two-three years. And before that, it wasn't much less. American prices are still much lower (2 dollars a gallon is about .50 euro/liter - most Europeans pay FOUR times that amount). The low prices have resulted in excessive petrol consumption in the US, with people buying ever more and ever bigger SUVs. The average American consumes about 7 times more energy than the average European and I think that the low gas prices have contributed to the fact that most Americans do not seem to be aware that energy actually comes at a cost. So, perhaps, the current rise in petrol prices will serve as an eye-opener and lead to a more conscious use of energy. One can always hope, no?
    • Correct me if I'm wrong, isn't the cost of petrol in Europe (and the US) artifitially inflated by taxes? It's just that the US doesn't tax gasoline as heavily as European countries.

      If this is so, it would see that neither Europeans nor Americans are truely aware of what energy costs, both suffering from a tax induced distortion. And of the two the Americans would seem to have the least distorted notion of the price of energy.
    • Taxes (Score:5, Insightful)

      by crow ( 16139 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:51PM (#9187769) Homepage Journal
      As others are pointing out, the difference between the price of gas in Europe and the USA are mostly due to taxes. In Massachusetts, the combined state and federal taxes are $.399 if I remember what was posted at the pump when I last filled up. Other states have different tax rates, and there may be additional indirect taxes factored into the price as well.

      So why are European taxes so much higher? Because they tax as a percentage of the price, whereas the USA taxes as a amount per volume. Hence, if the cost of gas before taxes doubles, in Europe the price at the pump doubles, whereas in the USA the price may only go up 25%.

      Now some will argue that the taxes are too low, as they don't cover all the related costs, but all of those studies have included environmental impact costs that are wildly subjective at best.
  • by dgrgich ( 179442 ) * <drew@@@grgich...org> on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:29PM (#9187434) Homepage
    I picked this volume up after researching the issue myself over the web. There is an excellent Scientific American [dieoff.org] article on this issue from 1998 that serves to provide a similar view from the perspective of another geologist. I highly recommend it.
    After reading these materials in early January of this year, as I watched oil prices rise higher and higher, I couldn't help but think about what I read!
    The other interesting thing about this book is that it points out how petroleum provides us with benefits far beyond keeping our cars running. Plastics? Herbicides? Fungicides? CD-Rs? Certain medicines? All are dependent on keeping the oil flowing.
  • by Ricdude ( 4163 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:30PM (#9187438) Homepage
    Suburbia is the killer. If our lives could be structured such that cars were not *necessary*, we can do fine. Residential infill, cohousing, mixed use zoning are all steps in the right direction. Oddly enough, so are rising gas prices.

    Eventually, something will click in someone's head, and they will start to seek alternatives. I started looking at hybrids when my gas pump cut me off at $50.00 without filling my tank ('92 ford bronco, 11 mpg, 32 gallon tank). About a year later, I bought a VW New Beetle with the TDI (diesel) engine. Now it's *possible* to run my car with *no* foreign oil (biodiesel), and to date, about 1/3 of the fuel I've used has been from renewable sources, grown by my local farmers. It costs me $3.00 per gallon at the pump, but thanks ot a rebate program, I'm only paying $1.50 per gallon, net. I'd rather pay $3.00 to the benefit of my local farmer, and local economy, than sending it overseas to support societies that *hate* us. If I get particularly motivated (or more likely, when my warrantee is getting closer to expiration), I can recycle used vegetable oil into fuel at an estimated cost of $0.40-0.50 per gallon.

    Not to mention the added benefit of getting 45 mpg without even trying. =)

    James Howard Kunstler is my personal favourite "end-of-the-oil-age" critic. He takes the time to posit potential *solutions* to the problem of a transportation-dependent society.

  • by JWW ( 79176 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:30PM (#9187440)
    The biggest thing I find interesting in this is that in a free market economy High prices are pretty much Required to spur new invention and alternative sources. Ethanol, people complain, costs more than regular gasoline. But as prices increase this isn't going to necessarily hold (please no lon debates and rants about the cost of ethanol production, its just an example).

    With totally alternate technologies, as gas prices increase they become more cost competitive with gas. The extra cost/complexity of hybrid vechicles becomes less of a factor. Savings from using (now expensive) gas and moving to other fuels can be calculated. If you project increase in gas prices into the future maybe starting to invest in hydrogen powered vehicles can have a faster ROI (regarding all the infrastructure required) than before gas prices went up.

    Basically, to sum up, I'm saying higher gas prices just show the need for new technology, they actulally are required to make it happen.
  • Running out of gas (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Experiment 626 ( 698257 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:30PM (#9187454)

    At a 1930's World Fair, there was a "robot" answering people's questions about what life in the future would be like. One of the questions was when we would run out of fossil fuels. This is a topic people have been worried about for a long time.

    Thus far, all the predictions of doom have been averted. New techniques for locating oil reserves, and tapping resources in previously unreachable places, through technologies like offshore platforms, have allowed new supplies to keep up with demand.

    Of course, the total amount of fossil fuel is finite, even if petroleum engineers become clever enough to locate and extract every drop, that won't keep the world running forever. But much like with Moore's law, new advances have kept us from running into a brick wall so far, and will continue to at least for the near future.

    • by GeoGreg ( 631708 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:41PM (#9187612)
      Yes, it's a question that's been asked forever. However, what was new about Hubbert was that his predictions actually came to pass. U.S. oil production peaked about 1970 and has been on the decline ever since (with minor bumps upward due to Prudhoe Bay and the 1970s oil shocks). Hubbert's thesis, based on empirical studies of oil producing provinces, was that the big, easy fields are found early on. As the province matures, smaller and smaller fields are found for higher finding costs. Eventually, the rate of production exceeds the rate of new reserves coming online.

      The big questions to ask today are

      1. Are there new major petroleum provinces to be discovered?
      2. How much can technology buy us in existing provinces?

      As to the first, I don't know. Some say India might have some unexploited basins. Certainly, North America and Europe don't have any frontier exploration areas. As to the second, well, that's why I'm in grad school :) But, there are certain physical limitations that mean we will only be able to extract so much oil without spending lots of money and/or energy. That money and energy might be better spend elsewhere.

      • by CreatureComfort ( 741652 ) * on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:18PM (#9188209)

        What Hubbert, and so many of his followers fail to realize is the reason U.S. oil production peaked in the 70's. It had nothing to do with failing reserves, or empty oil fields. It had everything to do with rising costs for extracting oil in the U.S. My family has owned mineral rights in western Oklahoma for over 100 years (land rush in 1889). The first oil and gas wells were drilled on family land around 1940. From about 1978 untill 2002, those wells were pumping at "maintenance levels" only. This means they pumped just enough to keep the self lubrication working and fill the holding tanks as slowly as possible. This was because, the cost of maintenance and transport in the U.S. for that time meant that a barrel of oil cost the oil company $38 to deliver it to the refinery. During that same time avareage world oil prices were $20 - $35 per barrel. The royalty checks for the family, that used to run $4,000 a month or more during the 60's dropped to a couple hundred a month during the 80's and 90's. Most of the family sold thier share of the mineral rights during that time. Now, with higher oil prices those wells are being put back into pruduction and the royalty checks are looking better. Last estimate we received from the oil company surveyors was that we still have probably over 50 million barrels sitting under our land. But if the price per barrel drops again, our wells will be shut back down until they can be profitable.

  • by GeoGreg ( 631708 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:30PM (#9187456)
    Hubbert's Peak [priceowl.com] by Kenneth Deffeyes. I read this book shortly after it came out. If I recall, Deffeyes was a colleague of M. King Hubbert. Estimates of when the peak will come vary (10 to 50+ years), but few doubt it will come (except those who buy into Thomas Gold's hypothesis that most hydrocarbons originate from primordial methane dating from the earth's formation rather than the breakdown of organic material). It will be interesting to see if OPEC is able to lower prices by increasing production. Until now, we've relied on Saudi Arabia to open the taps when prices get too high. If they can't, then that's a good sign the peak is near (or already here).
    • Still a Peak (Score:3, Interesting)

      by meehawl ( 73285 )
      few doubt it will come (except those who buy into Thomas Gold's hypothesis that most hydrocarbons originate from primordial methane dating from the earth's formation rather than the breakdown of organic material).

      Even if you accept this hypothesis, you still run into a crunch because the rate of metabolysis for oil is incredibly slow over human timescales. Whereas our economic growth rate and thirst for oil is incredibly rapid by comparison. Waiting for new petrol to be squeezed out of rocks is not goin
  • Cost to society (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bigberk ( 547360 ) <bigberk@users.pc9.org> on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:31PM (#9187463)
    Americans have long been enjoying underpriced gas. Why the big surprise that the levels are rising to something that more accurately reflects the cost to society? It's not unfair, it's not a conspiracy, it's just about time.

    More generally (and more importantly) oil is underpriced, period. Look at the costs to society:
    • Increased CO2 emissions, with decreasing carbon sinks (we're losing all our forests). How is the planet going to assimilate all the extra CO2? It won't happen magically!
    • Petrol-based products, namely plastics, litter landfills and sewege. Every day there is an increasing mass of garbage on earth. You know calculus... what happens to a system when your entry rate is high and your exit rate is low (slow assimilation by nature)
    • I'm sure there are others, but I'm a busy man
  • Adjustment is tough (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Geoff-with-a-G ( 762688 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:32PM (#9187484)
    Yes, we are of course running out of oil, and we of course need to find new energy supplies. People have been beating this drum for years. If it has taught you anything, it should be that scolding people and chanting predictions of disaster doesn't actually make people change their behavior. If you believe it's morally reprehensible that not everyone sold their SUVs and bought a Prius, that's fine, that's your viewpoint, but whining about it hasn't really changed much.

    On the other hand, what will change things is the rising price of gas. This is a big news item lately, and the reactions kind of freak me out. People everywhere are outraged, and want to know when this will be "fixed". Like maybe they'll go back down next month, or if we boycott ExxonMobil for 24 hours. This is crazy. In the long run, they're gonna go up, forever. It's a resource we have in finitie quantity. It's running out. As it runs lower, it will get more expensive, until eventually nobody is using it to power their cars.

    In the short term, the US has far lower gas prices than European countries. It's not like "they're screwing you" with crazy, unjustifiable markup. If you really think that "Big Oil greediness" is to blame, I suggest you start your own gas company and sell for $1.25. You'll certainly have plenty of customers, if you can sustain that profit margin.

  • by xtal ( 49134 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:32PM (#9187488)
    Has all you need to know, and it's not crackpottery - just thousands and thousands of pages of studies and data from the Horses's mouth - Congress and the US Petrochemical industry. The people in power know what the deal is and it's not pretty. We will fight wars over oil in the future.

    Ignorant people think gasoline is unlimited. I'll see the end of it, and the inevitable disaster is not going to be pretty. People think the government should lower prices - that's called communism, and it means shortages. Next time you gripe about the price of gasoline, wonder what you'll do when there is none.

    I really hope those stories of the oil companies keeping free energy devices suppressed are true - because the oil companies aren't going to be oil companies for much longer.

    Oil is far too valuable to be burning at the TREMENDOUS rate of consumption worldwide currently. There will be NO industrial revolution for most third world countries because of the lack of oil available to build infrastructure.

    Green energy sources are a bad joke compared to the amounts of energy we consume from oil. The only long term solution is a 0 growth economy combined with population decrease. The alternatives long-term are not pretty.

    Unless, of course, cold fusion works or a feasible technology for extracting energy from the ZPE is found. I sure hope something happens.

    • by jlrobins_uncc ( 136569 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:01PM (#9187910)
      We will fight wars over oil in the future.

      The future is already here, my friend.
  • Good News/Bad News (Score:4, Insightful)

    by occamboy ( 583175 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:34PM (#9187515)
    I've been hearing about the near end of fossil fuels for most of my 40+ years. It hasn't happened yet, and I have no reason to believe that it's about to happen. We keep finding new reserves, and whatnot.

    On the other hand, fossil fuels cause astonishing trouble. Most of the bad craziness in the Middle East and Africa is fueled by petrodollars. Does anyone think that we'd be quagmired in Iraq if it weren't for oil? Certainly, we'd end more suffering by going into Sudan, or other places. Why do we coddle the House of Saud after they financed al Qaeda, if it isn't for oil and the promise of growing wealth for the House of Bush and the House of Cheney?

    There is also a growing body of evidence that pollution is bad (prior to recently, it was purely conjecture).

    It would be great to switch from fossil fuels, and to do it quickly. A Manhattan-Project-like effort for fusion reactors would be appropriate.

    Unfortunately, the average SUV-driving American pinhead will keep this from happening for a long time.
  • by Mr. Neutron ( 3115 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:34PM (#9187522) Homepage Journal
    Oil production is going to peak, then slowly decline over half a century. According to the most alarmist estimates, this peak has already occurred. But even the most optomistic estimates have the peak happening in 2030 at the latest.

    This isn't a matter of giving up our SUVs for hybrid cars. That isn't going to matter one bit. The fact is, we've spent the last 100 years building an entire economy around absurdly cheap energy. This energy is going to run out. If we do not find a way to run our world without petroleum and coal, we are doomed. What's really going to be fun is, when this peak occurs, the powers of the world are going to fight more and more visciously for the remaining scraps. We will face war, poverty, and social upheaval which will grow ever worse as the lights slowly dim... and then burn out.

    The only way around this is some serious technological advances. We need to develop a sustainable energy economy, and we need to do it yesterday. Lifestyle changes, solar panels, wind farms, and hybrid cars won't do a damn bit of good without massive new technology.

    Boys and girls, we have about 25 years. I suggest you study physics and chemistry. Hard.

  • by sjwaste ( 780063 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:34PM (#9187529)
    For those that have read it, you know what I'm talking about. Any of these titles disregard markets as a means to force the hand of technology. Believe me, markets reflect scarcity, and new solutions arise as a result. Read back to the timber crisis in the early 1800's during the railroad boom, or the rubber crisis which led the way to synthetics and recovery/recycle programs. If we're running out of oil, it WILL get damn expensive and we'll find a better way of doing things. Many of these books seem to ignore this, making them very aggrivating to read. For a change, I suggest "The Doomsday Myth". For the record, I have a degree in economics and I've done a lot of environmental economic research. I'm tired of turning page after page of text basically written to shock the public.
  • by circletimessquare ( 444983 ) <circletimessquare&gmail,com> on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:52PM (#9187771) Homepage Journal
    for places like iceland, who are cursed with volcanoes and earthquakes, the silver lining is, of course, the potential ability to remain completely free of oil dependency because of steam generators that can be plugged right into the ground

    in january i had the pleasure of visiting the largest such natural steam generator facility in the world on another island cursed/ blessed with geothermal activity, on the island of leyte in the philippines [calenergy.com]

    it powers virtually the entire island, for free, as well as parts of samar and lower luzon

    the natural steam sources are really quite amazing up there in the mountains: it is always raining, for example, downslope from the facilities because of all of the steam that is always issuing forth... and run off rivers of steaming brilliant cobalt blue from superheated hyperdissolved minerals from deep in the earth mixing with the cold muddy waters in the middle of the mountain jungle... and to find, deep in the poor rural mountain jungles where water buffalo roam free on dirt roads and unhusked rice dries by the roadside, to find what looks like an evil genius's lair of ultramodern technology and giant steaming generators surrounded by nervous machine gun toting filipino forces at military checkpoints

    unfortunately, a few weeks after i visited the facility, it was overrun by local npa (communist) guerrillas... this was tied to election politics in the philippines, where remote rural guerilla forces often demand protection money in exchange for allowing voting to proceed... it would be hoped that the poor rural areas in the mountains north of ormoc city around lake danao [mobilemediaph.com] would benefit from this facility more directly through tourist facilities and other infrastructure development

    then they would be invested in the success of the plant, rather than it having be controlled by manila and calenergy from afar

    but for those who are hellbent on imagining a dystopic future where civilization fails because we don't make the transition from oil to fusion energy, for example, know that there are oases in the world like iceland and leyte where mankind's power hungry needs can and will be satsified for centuries to come, virtually for free
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:54PM (#9187803) Homepage
    If we have to, we can run everything on fission power and coal, with batteries for vehicles. The US still has about 400 years worth of coal left.

    Nuclear waste disposal isn't really a problem. It's a political football in the US, but that's a political problem, not a technical one. There are rock formations that have been stable for twenty million years. (Yucca Mountain isn't one of them, though.)

    The problem is Chernoybl-sized disasters and air pollution from the coal. Everybody worries about the first, but the second is more dangerous.

  • Wanna bet? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jonny Royale ( 62364 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:56PM (#9187832) Homepage Journal
    I remmeber there was a book (Malthusian something or other?) that said that the whole world was going to end in 20 years or so because of the inability of people to be fed, destroying the climate, etc, etc. The ususal doom and gloom stuff. Written in or around the 70's, IIRC.

    What I also remember is a $1000 (US) bet between the author of the book and a professor who's name escapes me at the moment. The bet was that the cost of a cross section of commodities, picked by the author, adjusted for inflation, would be LOWER in 20 years than they were at the start of the bet. The book's author lost. Every time, he lost.

    The problem? The books author took advantage of the then crises going on (stagflation, unavailable gasoline in the US because we wouldn't buy from countries like Iran) to prey upon people's fears to make money, or to promote their particular dicipline (physics professor pushing for fusion research? Who would have thought that?). This book seems little different.

    Saying that we're going to run out of fossil fuels is fine. It'll happen. Saying it's gonna happen in the next decade, and that solar and fusion are the only long term replacements is assinine. What happens if someone figures out a way to make a gasoline replacement from genetically engineered microbes next year? The unpredicibility of the human mind and spirit in finding solutions are completely ignored, and when the author's predictions turn out to be as false as every other prediction, I have little doubt that thsese same attributes will be the culprit.

    The current hike in the price of gasoline is not solely based on the availabllity of crude. It's as much, and possibly more, affected by the inability of refineries to process the crude oil into gasoline that is driving prices up. If prices, or demand, were going to stay this high, you'd think oil companies would be falling over themselves to build more refineries...but they're not. Why not? Because they know that, in the longer term, those refineries won't pay for themselves when the price of gasoline drops again.

    Finally, I noticed that one of the authours wrote about a lower population in the future? Wouldn't that lead to lowered demand for petroleum? And a longer lasting supply? Or did doomsayer #2 forget to talk to doomsayer #1 before publishing (again)? ;)
  • Doomsayers (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Alomex ( 148003 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:58PM (#9187870) Homepage
    Look, we can curtail consumption dramatically overnight if need be. In fact we could increase the car efficiency by a factor of 3 overnight. Not only the technology is already here, but you can drive it off the parking lot today!

    Do you know that the average mile per gallon today in the US is lower than in the mid-80s?

    What would be the reduction in gas consumption if we all dumped our SUVs and bought Honda Civics?

    Now, what if we then switched to Hybrids?

    What if we gave up the back seat for our one-person commute and we all switched to smart cars?

    What if we equipped said smartcars with super-efficient bicycle-like wheels as California is suggesting we do?

    Mark my words: in two years people won't be able to give away for free their gas guzzling SUV (people who are old enough will remember that in the late 70s you could not give away your LTD Crown Victoria).

  • misunderstandings (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sup4hleet ( 444456 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @03:59PM (#9187878) Homepage
    For one, the problem isn't running out of oil, it's running out of cheap oil. It takes some energy to get oil out of the ground. The less oil in the well the more energy it takes. When it takes one barrel of oil to pump out one barrel of oil, the well is abandoned (zero sum). The problem isn't running out of oil, it running out of oil that's relatively easy to get out of the ground.

    Nuclear power would be a great short term stop gap, it's only problem is that it takes a decade to build a reactor.

    My last point is that this issue is HUGE. Oil is used in the production of EVERYTHING including alternative energy sources and research. Just imagine how much time and money it would take to produce enough ethenol (or what ever) for everyone's cars, distribute/store it (would current distribution systems work?), and convert every car, truck, big rig, ambulance, firetruck, motorcycle, etc in the country! That only covers land transportation.

    Look around you. There is in everything you see a number that represents the ammount of oil it took to create whatever you're looking at and bring it to the spot that it's currently at. Oil was used to produce and transport everything you own (except unimproved realestate). Oil is the constant in equation of everything we make or raise.
  • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:00PM (#9187900) Homepage
    All Energy except Nuclear we currently use is merely some form of solar energy.

    Gasoline is solar energy converted to hydrocarbons by plants, then processed by time and pressure.

    But the real source of Energy is the Sun. Mankind's total energy useage per year is still MUCH less than the Sun's total output per year, and is even less than the amount of energy the sun delivers to the planet earth in a year.

    It should be obvious that we might be forced to find other ways of converting that energy into useable forms, but that we have no need to worry about running out of energy.

  • by gspr ( 602968 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:05PM (#9187975)
    "gasoline prices have certainly been worse."
    Or great, depending on how you view it. Here in Norway, whose economy is based on the export of oil and natural gas, high oil prices are viewed as good.
    I'm not saying that a high usage of oil is any good (to the world as a whole), but for some of us, high prices on oil is just perfect.
  • by mprinkey ( 1434 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:08PM (#9188033)
    ...and I don't mean just by buying huge SUVs and being generally glutonous. I mean by defeating Saddam!

    See, when that crazy SOB was running loose in Iraq, Saudia Arabia and the other OPEC nations were scared. They needed their big buddy, the US, to keep him in line. Now that he is gone and Iraq has declined into a state of continuous *local* guerrilla war, the possibility of Kuwait or Saudia Arabia being invaded is zero. So now, things are a little different between the US and OPEC. Sure, we did them a huge favor by removing Saddam, but now, the US has nothing over them. So, if oil prices should drift up and up and up. So sorry. Pay me, sucker.

  • by feelyoda ( 622366 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:33PM (#9188431) Homepage
    I would like to point out a simple fact that while oil prices are as low as they are, there is little or no hard incentive for alternative sources of energy.

    The US has a VERY large reserve of oil, and the world's oil fields are completely under produced. We have at least enough oil for 50-100 more years, unless everyone in China & India start to drive. US consumption can be supported for quite some time.

    Either way, if you think that gas-powered cars are evil, you should be rooting for higher oil prices. Otherwise, no serious effort will be made for alternatives.

    That said, a serious effort at an alternative has been found and it is called nuclear energy (pronounced "new-clear" -- i know these new fangled science terms are hard).

    It harnesses the power of the atom and can be made small enough to power your small car or large enough to power your small country.

    Too bad that people think it is unsafe. It is understandable though, given a total of ZERO deaths caused by meltdowns in the western world.
  • by amiable1 ( 770808 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:34PM (#9188449)
    There is a very clear online recent lecture on this topic by Nathan Lewis, a chem professor at Caltech who is active in this field. It is titled "The Future of Power and Energy in the World"

    You can find it with many slides at http://online.itp.ucsb.edu/online/colloq/lewis1/

    The summary is roughly that we need to make photovoltaics about 10 fold cheaper than they are today(about $4/watt ->$.40/watt), on the way to making them as as cheap as housepaint (say $.20/watt). There is no theoretical obstacle to doing this, and several promising lines of research. If (really when) we can do this ($.20/watt), solar electric energy will be cheap enough to electrolytically reduce CO2 to methanol (CH3OH) which is a fine fuel for transportation, etc., and is already nicely interfaced to out current energy distribution and use systems.

    At this low cost, we can even pull CO2 out of the atmosphere directly, directly reversing the CO2 greenhouse effect (my own addition).

    Furthermore, this is by far the best option, e.g. otherwise we would need 5000 new 1GW fission reactors to supply the growth in energy needs contemplated in the next 50 years (construction of 2/wk for 50 yrs.) This seems much too dangerous.

    Since this is the best apparent practical way out, since we are really talking about a major determinant of the fate of the earth, and timing is critical, one might wonder why the federal funding is so low (about $10M/yr in the US maybe).

    Some of the recent research, and the progress made by startup companies is summarized at

    http://www.konarkatech.com/news_articles-forbes_ no v.php

    http://www.konarkatech.com/news_articles-solracs -h ybPV.php

    http://www.st.com/stonline/press/news/year2003/t 13 55h.htm


    (this is an updated version of a previous post)

  • Umm Ethanol (Score:4, Interesting)

    by nurb432 ( 527695 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:34PM (#9188453) Homepage Journal
    We have plenty of corn ( and soy ) to make ethenol to drive our cars and trucks..

    Much of this country's corn is wasted, or sent to other places as 'aid'. We dont need any of the gasoline we are using now.

    Even most lubricant oil can be replaced with soy oil..

    The only real reason we still have an oil industry is due to the $$ it generates for washington.
  • by Orne ( 144925 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:34PM (#9188457) Homepage
    Oil futures prices are down 2.7% today [bloomberg.com]. The rumor on the Drudge Report is that Iraq is already pumping oil above expected output...

    Meanwhile, the USA is filling its strategic oil reserves to the highest levels ever [quicken.com]. The thought is that with the proper reserves, they could soak any future terrorist attack that may cut off supply... recall that Bill Clinton tapped the oil reserves in 2000 [bbc.co.uk] for price control, a move widely seen as covering up effects of the dot-com recession that had begun earlier in the year. In 2000, it was noted that the reserves could support 100% production levels in the USA for two months, and that was at 571m barrels. Prices at the time were only about $26/barrel as shown on this graph [oilnergy.com].
  • by tedgyz ( 515156 ) * on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:35PM (#9188459) Homepage
    Attendant: Out of gas.
    Jake: Yep. Fill 'er up.
    Attendant: No. We're out of gas!
  • Methanol from coal. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bgeer ( 543504 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:36PM (#9188481)
    This talk about not enough turkey guts and McFood runoff is somewhat too alarmist. When gas really does start to run out and prices start to skyrocket, we'll probably start using either pure methanol or an 85% methanol/15% gas mixture as a replacement. Methanol can be produced from biomass, but more likely we'll make it from coal or natural gas. The germans used methanol from coal in their cars during WWII, and there is no reason we can't do it again.

    Coal is in the long run a better choice because we have so much of it--about four trillion tons in the US alone which translates roughly to 8 trillion barrels (global oil reserves are estimated at about 1 trillion barrels). One problem is that coal conversion plants are relatively expensive to build, and since there's little demand right now we don't have the capacity to start producing huge quantities immediately if there is a sudden spike in gas prices.

    Methanol has about half the energy density of gas (so you'd have to refill more often) but it also has lower emissions. On the other hand the lower emissions are offset by the environmental damage from coal recovery, i.e. strip mining.

  • Water, not Oil. (Score:5, Informative)

    by umrgregg ( 192838 ) on Tuesday May 18, 2004 @04:44PM (#9188616) Homepage
    As a geoscientist I can attest to the leaps and bounds that are made monthly and yearly in the petroleum industry for exploiting, locating, and distributing hydrocarbons. The transition to alternative forms of energy for personal transportation will eventually come, but it will hardly spell the end for the petroleum industry. Movement to pure hydrogen energy will only happen when a methods for producing free hydrogen don't require more energy than the use of the hydrogen itself produces. It requires energy to make that hydrogen folks. Hopefully all of you proclaimed physicists realize that.

    The energy sector will move completely to natural gas alternatives (condensates, gas hydrates, LNG) long before it moves to free hydrogen. But this movement has already been happening and is already proving highly profitable for domestic and international companies (Double Cross, TXO, Chesapeake, Devon, CDX, Marathon, etc.). The petroleum industry is economically the largest industry on the planet. It has the resources to adapt to changing energy markets. In a way, the companies and people who work to bring you your hydrocarbon energy will never be out of business, their model will merely change. The end of the oil age shouldn't concern you nearly as much as the end of civilization due to demand for water and the rapidly declining availability of usable water.

    Almost every part of the globe is seeing a decrease in available water supply. Disputes over water will be much more devastating than the disputes over oil have been. Not one hydrologist I've talked to has an optimistic outlook on the future of the worlds usable water supply. It's a problem that doesn't have even half of a percent of the resources or attention that is poured into petroleum and that's unfortunate because it's a problem that will kick the worlds ass a lot sooner than the lack of fossil energy.

If graphics hackers are so smart, why can't they get the bugs out of fresh paint?