Review: When Oil Peaked by Ken Deffeyes

October 14, 2010

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

When Oil Peaked
By Kenneth S. Deffeyes
176 pp., hardcover. Hill and Wang – Oct. 2010. $24.00.

Image RemovedIn 1959, scientist and author C. P. Snow delivered a lecture titled “The Two Cultures,” in which he identified what he saw as a major rift in Western society between scientists and non-scientists. He lamented that the two groups shared “little communication and, instead of fellow-feeling, something like hostility.”* Snow’s observation has since become part of conventional wisdom. Who isn’t familiar with the disdain felt by many scientists toward non-scientists who take it upon themselves to pontificate on scientific matters, or for that matter the dismay that non-scientists often feel toward scientists who cavalierly dismiss the humanities?

Let’s defer for the moment any judgment about which side may be right and simply say that the rift is just as pronounced in debates over world oil resources as it is anywhere. And for those who insist on the opinion of a bona fide oil expert, it doesn’t get any more bona fide than Ken Deffeyes. A Princeton professor emeritus of geosciences and a former Shell geologist, Deffeyes worked with the late M. King Hubbert, originator of the peak oil theory. (In a nutshell, peak oil says that a given region’s oil production invariably conforms to a bell-shaped curve, with a midway point of maximum production—the “Hubbert’s peak”—and a subsequent steady decline until the oil is depleted.) Hubbert accurately predicted peak oil for the U.S. lower 48 states a decade and a half before it happened, which was in 1970. And now Deffeyes is among a handful of experts to have used Hubbert’s methods in predicting the world peak.

In his book Hubbert’s Peak, published in 2001 by Princeton University Press, Deffeyes predicted a mid-decade peak in world oil production. He later refined this prediction in a January 2004 Internet post in which he wrote that the global peak was going to fall “right smack dab on top of Thanksgiving Day 2005.” The next year, with the release of his book Beyond Oil (published by Hill and Wang) and amid the worst energy price shocks in decades, this prediction turned him into something of a household name. Choosing Thanksgiving seemed more like a statement about how blessed we should feel at the gifts given us by cheap oil than a literal prediction—and indeed, Deffeyes did caution that there was a six-week window of uncertainty on either side of this date.**

Deffeyes did eventually revise this date slightly in light of better data, but he’s stuck with 2005 as the peak year. Hence the use of the past tense in the title of his latest book, When Oil Peaked. This new book updates the peak oil debate on a broad range of fronts, beginning with oil prices and their role in the current recession, the topsy-turvy economics of oil exploration and development in a post-peak world and the uncertainty inherent in so many new oil prospects that have been glibly touted as our energy saviors. The book also looks at possible solutions/responses to energy-related environmental problems such as rising CO2 levels and nuclear waste disposal, as well as constraints on the future availability of a number of important non-oil resources, including copper and phosphate. Yet the most intriguing part of the entire book may be its portrait of M. King Hubbert, with its insightful glimpses into his life’s work, his personality and even some flaws in his methods.

Deffeyes is adamant about the futility of supply-side responses to peak oil. Using cold, hard mathematics, he shows why the “drill, baby, drill” mentality is a misguided waste of time. The simple fact is that 95 percent of all the oil to be ultimately recovered on this planet has already been found. Thus, scouring existing fields for oil that may have been missed with more primitive technology would be a far more productive use of time than doing grassroots exploration for new oil. Deffeyes maintains that efforts to find significant amounts of new oil are doomed to disappointment, no matter how high oil prices may go.

He also explains how the drop in oil prices seen during this recession has left us all the less prepared for the production declines soon to come. As prices plummeted, oil companies cut scores of exploration and development projects that had suddenly become uneconomical. Every little bit of oil that these projects might have brought online would have helped. Their postponement and cancellation, Deffeyes argues, almost certainly ensure that the 2005 peak in world oil production will never be surpassed. And he adds that the Deepwater Horizon disaster has only compounded matters by bringing new offshore drilling to a halt.

The material on Hubbert is part character sketch, part reappraisal of Hubbert’s work. Deffeyes and Hubbert worked together at Shell Oil Company during the 1950s, and Hubbert was a challenging man—”M. King Hubbert, curmudgeon” was his tongue-in-cheek title. This book recounts a particularly telling run-in that someone had with the irascible Texan. The person in question was a graduate student delivering a presentation at Shell as part of a job interview. Hubbert asked the young man about something on a slide, and he answered that it was outside the scope of his thesis. Furious, Hubbert called the student’s graduate program to urge that he not be allowed to graduate. Deffeyes recalls that the student did eventually graduate but didn’t get a job offer from Shell—and that everyone else present during this incident “learned a lesson about dealing with Hubbert.”

Luckily, Deffeyes and Hubbert hit it off well and remained close friends until Hubbert’s passing in 1989. But Deffeyes doesn’t let their friendship get in the way of providing a rigorous, critical analysis of Hubbert’s work. The first big error that he sees is Hubbert’s seemingly arbitrarily choice of the more optimistic of two estimates as to U.S. oil reserves. (The less optimistic estimate would have had the United States peaking in 1965 rather than 1970.) After doing the math, Deffeyes has concluded that Hubbert had no grounds for rejecting the other estimate. Also, while Hubbert made the peculiar choice of a logistic bell-shaped curve in his graph of U.S. oil production, Deffeyes finds that the more standard Gaussian bell-shaped curve (the “normal curve”) is actually a better fit. Deffeyes goes into great detail about these and other oversights; fully summarizing them is beyond the scope of this review.

In his discussion of finite resources besides oil, Deffeyes focuses almost exclusively on other geological deposits, particularly of minerals and metals. He acknowledges the critical importance of water, land and construction and manufacturing materials, among many other non-oil resources, but humbly admits that they fall outside of his expertise as a geologist, which is fair enough.

The chapter on possible responses to energy-related environmental problems is brimming with sound ideas. Above all, Deffeyes recommends practicing conservation and instituting government-mandated minimum support prices for fossil fuels. In his case for minimum support prices, he cites late peak oil legend Matt Simmons, who pushed vehemently for them. Minimum prices for oil and other fossil fuels would help ensure that existing reserves don’t run out as quickly and that new prospects are more economical to produce. Deffeyes’ other suggestions include using the planet-cooling capacity of jet plane contrails to combat climate change, and employing underground salt and anhydrite beds in the storage of nuclear waste. (These geological layers’ impermeability is proven beyond any doubt—it has prevented vast volumes of oil and natural gas from escaping to the planet’s surface over millions upon millions of years.)

For peak oil devotees, When Oil Peaked is a special treat, an eminently welcome update from a heavyweight within the field. For those who are new to peak oil or who just want a general overview, however, it’s a little more of a mixed bag. The sections on logistic versus Gaussian curves and other technical matters get awfully involved and esoteric, and casual readers may lack the fortitude to wade all the way through them. But the less involved parts on solutions, recommendations for policymakers and steps that each of us can take will hold the rapt attention of serious and casual readers alike.

* C.P. Snow, The two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1962).
**Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); Deffeyes, Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005); Deffeyes, “Current Events,” Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak by Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Jan. 16, 2004, (accessed Sept. 19, 2010); Deffeyes, “Current Events,” Feb. 11, 2006, (accessed Sept. 19, 2010).

Frank Kaminski

Frank Kaminski is an ardent reader and reviewer of books related to natural resource depletion, climate change and other issues affecting the fate of industrial civilization. He lives in southwestern Washington state near the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  

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