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The era of cheap oil is history, geologist warns

Kenneth S. Deffeyes, a Princeton University geologist, has a suggestion for Thanksgiving 2005: "Give thanks for a century of cheap and plentiful oil."

That is when he predicts global oil production will peak, making it increasingly difficult to meet the world's voracious appetite for inexpensive energy.

"The exploration game is essentially over," Deffeyes said yesterday at the American Chemical Society's national meeting at the Convention Center and nearby hotels.

"We are unable to find new oil at the rate society or chemical engineers would request," Deffeyes said to a roomful of chemists, whose industry has been pummeled by rising energy costs.

Deffeyes and other scientists, including Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard E. Smalley, urged at yesterday's symposium a research push on the scale of President John F. Kennedy's 1960s space program to figure out what will replace oil as the lifeblood of the global economy.

"I believe this is the biggest challenge any of us will face in our lifetime. This is the big one," said Smalley, a professor at Rice University in Houston.

Scientists concentrated on future energy supplies, while the public and many government officials have focused on this year's sharp increase in oil prices, which are 43 percent higher than a year ago, despite declining in the last three trading sessions.

Volatility in oil prices may be here to stay because demand - which is soaring in China, India and other rapidly growing economies - is nearly at the world's production capacity.

"The reality is that no unused surplus production capacity exists anywhere in the world," Deffeyes said.

Deffeyes based his prediction that production would peak next year on a methodology developed by M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist for Shell Oil, now the Royal Dutch/Shell Group. Hubbert predicted in 1956 that oil production in the United States would top out in the early 1970s.

As he forecast, annual oil production in the United States peaked at 4.1 billion barrels in 1970, and it declined to 2.1 billion barrels last year, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Even if Deffeyes is wrong about global production, as some critics say, the world economy faces an upsurge in energy demand that oil alone cannot meet. Smalley said he expected global energy consumption to more than double, and perhaps increase by a factor of four, by 2050.

Nuclear, solar and geothermal energy are "the only real options," he said.
Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.

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