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Finite fuels threaten life as we know it

If predictions are correct, no future generation will forget 2005 - the year the world began eating into the second half of its oil reserves.

Or, as Professor David Goodstein of the California Institute of Technology argues, the beginning of the end of the civilisation as we know it.

In his latest book, Out of Gas - The End of the Age of Oil, Professor Goodstein argues that all fossil fuels are finite, and so are our current lifestyles.

"Everybody has come to imagine that the flow of oil is like the rivers that flow from the mountains to the sea," Colin Campbell, of the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre, said.

"It's just perceived to be a natural part of the world we live in."

But according to the Hubbard's peak theory, discoveries of fossil fuel reserves have already peaked.

"The historical peak in oil discovery worldwide occurred around 1960, discoveries have been declining ever since," Professor Goodstein said.

"The historic peak and natural gas discoveries occurred in the 1970s and so the maximum for natural gas production probably is only 10 years or so behind that for oil."

He says estimates of how much fuel Earth has in reserve are unrealistic.

"We seem to make hundreds to thousands of years estimates at the present rate of extraction but that's completely unrealistic because we use twice as much energy now from oil as we do for coal," Professor Goodstein said.

"If you're going to mine coal to substitute for the oil you have to mine it much faster, the conversion process is inefficient, the world's population is increasing.

"The poorer parts of the world want to be more like us and use more energy and finally... we will be in trouble with coal not when we mine the last tonne, but when we reach the peak production which is about the halfway point."

We may not know when we have passed that halfway point.

"We can't know for sure," Professor Goodstein said.

"I've always thought that we will know that the peak has occurred when Saudi Arabia maxes out, when it reaches its peak in production.

"The Saudis claim they will be able to increase their production by a million barrels a day in a relatively short period of time.

"That promise has not yet been kept. We don't know whether it's true."
Rubbery figures

Professor Goodstein says that the history of proved oil reserves show how hard it is to quantify how much is left.

"The proved reserves of oil in the OPEC organisation of petroleum exporting countries, increased by 300 to 400 billion barrels in the late 1980s," he said.

"There were no important discoveries of oil during that period.

"What happened instead was that OPEC changed its quota system how much oil each country could pump based on in part its claimed reserves and the claimed reserves just appeared out of nowhere by magic.

"So half the world's proved reserves may be an illusion and the information we're given is so undependable we really just can't say."

"I've always thought that we will know that the peak has occurred when Saudi Arabia maxes out..."

Professor Goodstein says putting a timeline on the impending energy crisis is not easy.

"We will probably have an oil crisis reasonably soon," he said.

"It may have already begun.

"We are much too close to the situation to know for sure. The information we're given is much too undependable for us to know for sure."

But he makes no apologies for being alarmist.

"It's meant to alarm people, to wake people up," he said.

"There are other fossil fuels that can be made a substitute for oil, at a price.

"So we might be able to muddle on for a while, though a much more likely scenario is that we will have resource wars and other terrible things happening."

He says even if coal is substituted for oil, the solution will only be temporary.

"If we do all that, for one thing we will do an unpredictable amount of damage to our climate, and for another thing it's my guess that we would start running out of coal," he said.

"Let us say we would reach the point where we're depleting the resource faster than we can develop new sources probably in the this century."

"..a much more likely scenario is that we will have resource wars and other terrible things happening."

Professor Goodstein says it has to be accepted that all fossil fuels are finite.

"The people who would like to believe that the Hubbard's peak is further away than some of us fear, believe that we may make great discoveries in the deep oceans and the Antarctic... and central and northern Siberia and so on," he said.

"I think they're grasping at straws.

"Two-thirds of the world's oil reserves are in the Middle East the Persian Gulf.

"That's 10 times as much as Africa, 10 times as much as the Middle East, 10 times as much as in the former Soviet Union.

"There are no other important players in the game."
'Silver lining'

Some scientists are convinced that global warming, which is primarily thought to the caused by the burning of fossil fuels, will cause the Earth to reach a catastrophic tipping point within 30 years.

If the Hubbard's peak theory is correct, humans will run out of fossil fuels before destroying the environment.

"There are some people who see that as the silver lining in the cloud," Professor Goodstein said.

"We'll reach Hubbard's peak and have to reduce our burning of fossil fuels and that will keep us from... doing irreversible damage to the planet.

"It seems to me that's like hoping that the patient will have a fatal heart attack to save him from dying of cancer."

Professor James Lovelock, who is considered by many to be the father of the environmental movement, says "the industry world must now embrace nuclear power as the only viable alternative to oil and other fossil fuels".

"..that's like hoping that the patient will have a fatal heart attack to save him from dying of cancer."

But Professor Goodstein says there is no magic bullet to solve the energy crisis.

"[Nuclear power], it's at best a bridging technology," he said.

"I think that we must make use of all possible alternatives to fossil fuels, nuclear power included.

"I'm just trying to stress that it's not the magic bullet that will by itself save us from our problems, but I certainly think we have to use it."
Reluctance

Professor Goodstein recognises the challenge that is making politicians around the world confront these looming power problems.

"We went through a presidential election in the US in which neither party mentioned anything having to do with this problem, which I think is the most important problem of our era," he said.

"Politicians do not want to touch this subject.

"Any politician who tells Americans that they'll have to give up their SUVs has committed political suicide.

"But it does seem to me that a courageous and visionary politician could say to us, 'By burning fossil fuels we're putting ourselves at the mercy of some very nasty and unstable parts of the world and we're also endangering the climate of our planet.

'For the sake of our children and grandchildren we simply must learn to kick the fossil fuel habit.'"

Can engineers and scientists help people kick the habit?

"I'm hopeful, not confident," Professor Goodstein said.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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