Peak oil packs them in at Stanford

By Bart Anderson

A peak oil presentation November 29 at Stanford University filled an auditorium to overflowing, with an estimated audience of more than 600.

Professor Amos Nur gave a low-key exposition of M. King Hubbert’s peak oil theory, familiar to most of us. He warned against conflicts resulting from tightening oil supplies, citing 9/11 and the Iraqi wars as examples of conflicts between oil-producers and oil-consumers. Even more devastating, he said, would be conflicts between oil-consuming nations, such as China and the United States

Professor Steven Gorelick vigorously took the con side, describing what he said were the fallacies in Hubbert’s Peak Oil theory. I found his arguments unsatisfying: debating points rather than deep analysis. His arguments often were valid, but irrelevant to the basic thrust of the theory. He showed, for example, that bell-shaped curves in the production of commodities can be generated by demand rather than supply — tobacco is one example. But does this apply to oil?

In the end, Gorelick could present no coherent alternative to Hubbert.

I thought, if this is the best that an articulate expert at one of the world’s leading universities can come up with… then Hubbert’s theory is safe.

One difference between the two speakers was the time scale. Nur and Hubbert present their depletion curves with magisterial time scales of hundreds or thousands of years; at such a scale, supply ultimately determines the shape of the curve. Gorelick, on the other hand, is examining the last few decades, in which the influence of demand predominates.

Kudos to the Stanford School of Earth Sciences and the Stanford Institute for the Environment for sponsoring this series. Two more talks are scheduled: “Carbon, Climate and Consequences,” on Feb. 21, 2006, and “Moving Toward Energy Alternatives,” on March 7, 2006. Lectures begin at 7:30 p.m. and are held in McCaw Hall at the Arrillaga Alumni Center (corner of Galvez and Campus Dr.).

(For a more critical view of the event, see David Huck’s article below.)

Bart Anderson is a co-editor of Energy Bulletin.

The End of Oil? Speakers avoid, attack and dismiss

by David Huck

The first in a series of lectures put on by the Stanford University School of Earth Sciences and the Stanford Institute for the Environment, Tuesday night’s “The End of Oil?” set a disappointing tone.

Held at the Arillaga Alumni Center, the evening was introduced by Dean of Earth Sciences, Pamela Matson.

Prof. Stephan Graham began with a presentation on “What You Need to Know About Oil.” Using a series of well prepared Powerpoint slides, he explained the origins of oil deep below the earth’s surface. He briefly referred to tar sands and kerogen-impregnated shale, making it clear that they were expensive, both environmentally and financially. However, he failed to talk about the underlying energetic costs involved in cooking kerogen, or any other alternative fuel, that might result in a net energy loss.

While never brought out into the open, the message Graham left was that there is still lots of oil out there, for example in supergiant fields under Antarctica.

Prof. Amos Nur took the stand next to provide the first of two contrasting views on “How much oil is Left.”

He began by describing the two paradigms: those who believe in the power of the market and demand to regulate supplies of energy, and those who believe in the realities of geologic supply constraints. (Guess which side Nur belongs to!)

Nur went on to explain that in a model of exponential growth, “increased reserves will shift the peak a little, maybe 10 or 15 years.” He went on to show how Hubbert had been correct in 1956 about the US peak a mere 14 years later.

As far as recent developments, Nur pulled up short. There was no discussion of OPEC reserve revisions, no mention of Colin Campbell, Kenneth Deffeyes or anyone suggesting an imminent peak.

The most pessimistic suggestion in Nur’s presentation was that resource wars could erupt, at some undetermined future date, between the US and China.

“The belief in market forces is based on ideology and hope… Supply is not governed by demand,” he said. “To replace our energy use with alternatives means many decades and trillions of dollars.”

Should we panic? According to Nur, “No.” Are we panicking? “Yes.”

Following Nur’s introduction of Hubbert’s Peak, Prof. Steven Gorelick took the stage. He expressed surprise at such a “big crowd for such an obscure topic,” before moving on with his presentation, “The Oil Depletion Myth.”

Gorelick’s entire presentation took on the tone of a legal battle, poking holes in arguments, making jokes and generally trading tit for tat with a debilitated construction of M. King Hubbert.

As one of multiple “fallacies” of Hubbert’s theory, Gorelick claimed that oil depletion doesn’t exactly follow a bell curve. He said that Hubbert’s early curves were drawn by hand (and later updated with equations), that there has been no world success with his model, and that Hubbert wasn’t exactly certain about the total reserves. The other fallacies cited by Gorelick followed the regular pattern of econo-logic, emphasizing that “Katrina explains recent price hikes,” and due to the nature of end-use needs, we have infinite substitutability anyway.

The most often used example of Hubbert’s success is the accurate prediction of US peaking in 1970. Gorelick set out to prove otherwise, using a graph of US production with imports overlaid. He explained that there were no supertankers greater than 60,000 tons before 1965. Then in 1975 the Suez canal was closed and there were over 20 tankers greater than 200,000 tons.

At that point it was, “cheaper to get Middle Eastern oil.” “Although I will acknowledge that this may be a mature province,” he said, the US did not peak due to depletion but because it was cheaper to get the oil elsewhere. “The peak in US production couldn’t have happened without the development of supertankers.”

In Gorelick’s attempt to disprove Hubbert, he makes the mistake of reversing cause and effect. No doubt super tankers helped mitigate the US peak, but they did not cause it. If anything, the US peak in 1971, and thus the need for greater imports spurred the building of those 20 tankers in 1975.

According to Gorelick, “demand dictates production… if you take the per capita energy use of the world and multiply it by the population you’ll get the energy production.” And just in case a resource did follow a bell curve it wasn’t due to depletion but rather went into decline caused by “cheaper substitutes.” Maybe for stones in the stone age, but not for oil.

To the organizer’s credit, David Goodstein’s Out of Gas and Kenneth Deffeyes’ Beyond Oil were both listed as further reading in the event program. I noticed a number of peak aware people in the audience. By and large, even though I felt critical of the program, I was pleased that the topic had been getting publicity.

David Huck is a student at Oberlin College and a Peak Oil activist in the SF Bay Area.