Taking a peak
Enjoy the ride up ``Hubbert's peak.''
The descent might not be so fun.
After a 34 percent spike in the price of crude oil this past year, many industry experts and economists are wondering whether something larger was at play during 2004 - such as the early signs of the ``Hubbert's peak'' theory coming true.
Named after a scientist who correctly predicted that U.S. domestic oil production would peak in the 1970s, others are now worried the entire world oil production could hit its own ``Hubbert's peak'' in 10 to 20 years, with possible dire consequences for the global economy.
No one is predicting oil will run out.
But, under the theory, oil supplies will start to decline while demand keeps going up, forcing possibly wrenching energy price hikes and shortages - in turn affecting every facet of life, from the type of cars we drive to how electricity is produced.
Like last June's record $2.10 per gallon of gasoline in Massachusetts? Think of an easy $10 - or higher - if or when ``Hubbert's peak'' is reached.
Same applies to heating oil, which also hit a seasonal record of more than $2 a gallon this past fall in Massachusetts. Ditto for natural gas costs, whose prices closely track the oil markets.
``We're going to have to shift to a new type of paradigm,'' said Gary Taylor, a principle at the Hub-based Brattle Group, an economic consulting firm.
Taylor generally believes in the ``Hubbert's peak'' model that says the world is approaching the maximum amount of oil it can squeeze out of Mother Nature, though he cautions there's wide dispute about when the peak might hit.
There's generally thought to be about 3 trillion barrels of oil underneath the earth's surface - a trillion of which is in so-called ``pre-reserves,'' or oil fields proven to exist and just ready to be tapped.
But, as Taylor notes, not everyone believes in ``Hubbert's peak.''
``We're not going to hit a brick wall,'' said Ron Planting, an analyst at the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group.
He noted that the ``pre-reserves'' of 1 trillion barrels are, at today's world oil consumption rate, enough to last 35 years. Granted, demand will keep going up - thanks largely to booming economies in such developing nations as China and India, he said.
But new technologies - such as being able to squeeze more oil out of fields, tar sands and shale, for instance - will also improve and become more cost-effective, he said.
``As the technologies change, the possibilities change,'' said Planting.
But Seth Kaplan, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, said all the economic models miss one thing: the impact of fossil fuels on the environment, particularly global warming that many believe is caused by carbon dioxides spewing from cars and industrial plants.
``There are real issues to grapple with,'' he said.
Part of the solution: Developing and employing alternative energy sources - from wind power to solar power to promising hydrogren fuel cells, he said.
``There's no single magic bullet,'' he said. But policymakers need to start putting together ``all the pieces of the puzzle'' to avoid both economic and environmental diasters, he said.
Hold on, says Jerry Taylor, director of natural resources studies at the Cato Institute, a free-market, libertarian institute.
Taylor, no relation to the Brattle's Taylor, said he happens to believe that global warming is partly caused by industry pollutants, though not to the extent that many scientists believe.
He criticized the ``Hubbert's peak'' theory as unreliable and overused. ``We don't know enough about the globe's oil fields,'' he said. ``There's a lot undiscovered.''
The answer to problems, he said, is to let market forces discover any solutions, without intrusive government policies that could be based on faulty assumptions.
The Dodge Neon car - using advanced internal cumbustion engine technology - now gets 50 miles per gallon.
``But nobody drives them,'' he said.
The same applies to hybrid cars that use battery and gas power: They're not popular enough with the public, he said.
On that score, a number of engineers and entrepreneurs are working on advanced engine technologies that would allow automakers to essentially have their cake and eat it, too.
The concept: Improve efficiency enough so that Detroit can still manufacture its most popular models - sport utility vehicles - while at the same time eschewing their gas-guzzling reputation.
Either way, Taylor says, the key is to allow technological improvements - and then let people determine when it's in their economic interests to switch. Society, he says, has a way of adapting.
The 19th century's dominant fuels were wood, whale oil and coal, he said. The 20th century was dominated by fossil fuels and, to an extent, nuclear fuel.
``Nobody can say what will happen'' in the 21st century, he said.
But David Kelly, an economic adviser to Boston's Putnam Investments, said some type of long-term national energy policy is needed. An energy tax to help ``wean people off'' fossil fuels might help make new technologies more economically competitive, he said.
``The age of cheap oil is behind us,'' he said. ``Much depends on what we decide needs to be done.''