Professor Goodstein discusses lowering oil reserves

November 22, 2004


TONY JONES: Now to tonight’s guest – David Goodstein is professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology or Caltech.

In his latest book, ‘Out of Gas’ – the End of the Age of Oil’, he explores the consequences of oil reserves getting lower and lower in the coming decades.

Professor Goodstein joined us from San Francisco.

David Goodstein, thanks for joining us.


TONY JONES: Your most alarming statement you make in your book is that civilisation as we know it will come to an end before the end of this century when we run out of fuel?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: Yes, that is, it’s meant to be alarming, it’s meant to alarm people, to wake people up and help prevent that from happening.

TONY JONES: So, how long do you reckon we’ve got in reality?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: Well, that’s not an easy question to answer.

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: We will probably have an oil crisis reasonably soon.

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.

It might not actually happen until later this decade or even in the next decade.

Those differences are very important to us because we would like to go on living the comfortable lives we lead.

But on the long scale of human history 10 or 20 years is absolutely negligible.

So we will have a oil crisis.

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.

But it is possible we’ll be able to muddle on for a while, even turning to coal, for example, which can be liquified and used as a substitute for oil and which is in very large supply.

But 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.

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.

TONY JONES: This is one of the interesting things because people tend to think that coal and natural gas are available in virtually infinite quantities.

If oil runs out you can turn to them.

What you’re saying is all fossil fuels are finite?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: All fossil fuels are finite.

We don’t have a very clear idea of how much there is for the various resources.

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

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.

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.

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 run out of, 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.

TONY JONES: We’ve just heard about Hubbard’s peak and the speculation that we passed the point of no return.

How does anyone know for sure that we’re actually past that point?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: We can’t know for sure.

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.

If you look at the history of what’s called proved oil reserves.

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

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.

TONY JONES: Do you believe oil companies have lied about this?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: We know that Royal Dutch Shell did because they were audited by the SEC, by an external auditor an independent auditor forced to reduce their estimated reserves by 20 per cent.

That sent shock waves through the entire oil industry.

But 90 per cent of the proved reserves are held by countries, not by companies and nobody ordered the Saudi books.

TONY JONES: Have we really discovered all the remaining great oilfields though.

We know for example geologists claim there is a great lake of oil under Antarctica?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: 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, as you say, and central and northern Siberia and so on.

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 a Africa, ten times as much as the Middle East, ten times as much as in the former Soviet Union.

There are no other important players in the game.

We recently saw a spike because there were a couple of storms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Just think of what’s going to happen when the Saudi regime collapses.

TONY JONES: As we know, many scientists are convinced that global warming is happening so fast that if we don’t stop burning fossil feel fuels the earth will reach within 30 years a catastrophic tipping point.

Are you saying that effectively we’re going to run out of fossil fuels before we destroy the environment?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: There are some people who see that as the silver lining in the cloud.

We’ll reach Hubbard’s peak and have to reduce our burning of fossil fuels and that will keep us from damaging 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.

It’s not the way I think we ought to do things.

TONY JONES: Professor James Lovelock who’s called by many 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”.

What do you say to that argument?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: It depends on what kind of nuclear power you mean.

If you mean the kind of conventional power that we use for power in the United States, burning uranium 235, which is a rare isotope of uranium, there are a couple of problems.

One of them is you would have to build 10,000 of the largest power plants that are feasible by engineering standards in order to replace the 10 terrawatts of fossil fuel we’re burning today.

10,000 nuclear plants of the largest kind possible – that’s a staggering amount and if you did that, the known reserves of uranium would last for 10 to 20 years at that burn rate.

So, it’s at best a bridging technology.

If you’re talking about nuclear fusion, then in the long range the fuel is almost limitless but it’s been 25 years away for the past 50 years and it’s still 25 years away.

It has been said of nuclear fusion and also shell oil which is one of the possible fossil fuels that they are the energy sources of the future and always will be.

TONY JONES: So, with nuclear power, even if we could build those 10,000 nuclear power plants presumably right around the world it would only be a temporary thing?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: It would only be a temporary fix.

You can use the rest of the uranium to breed plutonium 239 then we’d have at least 100 times as much fuel to use.

But that means you’re making plutonium, which is an extremely dangerous thing to do in the dangerous world that we live in.

TONY JONES: So, what do you say then to the arguments of the Professor Lovelock and others, who say that nuclear power is the only alternative to avoid reaching the fatal tipping point?


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.

TONY JONES: There is one other alternative we should be talking about and that is hydrogen as fuel for future motor cars.

What do you think of the hydrogen alternative?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: Hydrogen is made from fossil fuel.

It is not a substitute for fossil fuels.

It’s just a way of conveying energy.

It is not a source of energy.

The economics today are if you make hydrogen by burning fossil fuel to generate electricity and then electrolyse water to make the hydrogen, it will require somewhere between three and six gallons of gasoline to make enough hydrogen to replace one gallon of gasoline.

So, a hydrogen economy doesn’t solve anything really.

In the long-term future if you had plenty of fusion power available, stationary power, and the only problem was to make it mobile to serve for transportation then making hydrogen might make sense.

TONY JONES: So, what you’re saying is that right now, making hydrogen could actually create more global warming than we’re seeing at the moment?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: Yes, unless you make it from renewable sources such as solar energy or atomic energy.

TONY JONES: You were pointing out, and I think this is one of your major points – there is no magic bullet.

So, presumably we have to combine our efforts using what we have – solar power, wind power, tidal power in combinations unlike anything we have seen before.

Is that feasible though, would any politicians agree to make such great changes?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: Well, 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.

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.”

If that kind of challenge were given to our scientists and engineers I think we could do it.

TONY JONES: But as you say, the vision our political leaders is usually constricted to the three or four years of their electoral cycles.

How long would be it be before the crisis reaches the point where great powers have no choice but to a make radical decisions?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: It’s impossible to guess.

Everything we read about in the papers every day suggests that the worldwide system for production and distribution of oil is stretched to the breaking point.

That certainly is a symptom one would expect if we have already reached the peak.

But the fact we have a symptom doesn’t mean we have already reached the peak, it’s just an indication.

As I say, we are too close to the situation.

The information we get is far too undependable for us to say.

I can not predict how soon it will happen.

But it will happen and when it happens there will be a huge price shock in the cost of gasoline at the pump, in the cost of everything that has to be transported and not insignificantly, in the cost of all petrochemicals.

There are 6.4 billion people living on the planet today.

Most of them reasonably well-fed as a result of what was called the ‘green revolution’ in the second half of the 20th Century.

That consisted in a very large part of fertilising land using that using petrochemical-based fertilisers.

So, that stuff is pretty valuable.

I don’t think we can sustain the population we have today, much less what we’ll have in 20 or 50 years without petrochemical fertilisers.

TONY JONES: Just looking around the world, do you see any political leaders who appears to understand the full extent of this crisis?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: If there is one I have not met him or her yet.

TONY JONES: All right.

Let’s try, if we can, to end on a positive note.

Are you confident that human ingenuity, scientific ingenuity will in the end find a way out of this problem?

PROFESSOR DAVID GOODSTEIN: I’m hopeful, not confident.

TONY JONES: Professor David Goodstein, let’s hope we have better news for our children and grandchildren than you’re predicting.

We thank you though, for joining us.


Tags: Energy Policy, Fossil Fuels, Nuclear, Oil, Overshoot