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The curve of human expectations is no match for a Hubbert curve

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If human expectations have a mathematical curve, I often think that it is forever rising against an asymptote of reality which, as it approaches that reality, comes down very sharply, and not at all gradually as the bell-shaped Hubbert curve created by geophysicist Marion King Hubbert, a fitting analogy to his comment that, "Our ignorance is not so vast as our failure to use what we know."

While my focus had been on the water wars that I predict will make recent petroleum contests seem tame by comparison, After the Oil Runs Out reminded me that the Hubbert curve and its peak followed by gradual decline is returning to world oil production at a time when there are no more worlds to conquer in terms of easily exploitable reserves and that there are vastly more consumers and their governments contesting that declining energy stock.

Hubbert was a remarkable man. Think how startling was his 1949 prediction that the fossil fuel era would be of very short duration, perhaps as short as fifty years. The US was recently triumphant in WW II and the world appeared to be our oyster. Oil production and exploration in Texas and Louisiana seemed a life force in and of itself and then bounded offshore and overseas. Hubbert next predicted in 1956 that US oil production would peak around 1970 and gradually decline thereafter -- which it has done. Go here for a succinct description of the Hubbert peak of the curve.

"After the Oil" notes that:

"It now appears that world oil production, about 80 million barrels a day, will soon peak. In fact, conventional oil production has already peaked and is declining. For every 10 barrels of conventional oil consumed, only four new barrels are discovered. Without the unconventional oil from tar sands, liquefied natural gas and other deposits, world production would have peaked several years ago."

The article goes on to discuss various means of conservation and efficiency gains (such as electrifying mass transit routes), but it only offers a glace at what happens when other nations do not conserve and instead continue to expand their consumption without improving their efficiencies.

The US now has significant geopolitical competitors for energy stocks as their components (oil, natural gas, and coal) are both the feedstock and engine of the modern world.  Without them the industrial world as we know it halts.  Hydrogen is not an answer as the electricity demands would treble in order to produce the hydrogen. The US is not slaking its vehicular demand for petroleum and when the cost becomes prohibitive I suspect that Japanese badges will harvest buyers as they did in the oil shocks of the 1970s.

Countries such as China will not reduce their energy intake even if their economy falls off.  The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) can only maintain its "mandate from heaven" to govern by providing rising economic growth, nor can it maintain the PLA (People's Liberation Army) solely on the "imperial wheat" of government subsidy. Expectations are rising and the changes that I have seen since 1980 are enormous yet the Chinese are only at the bloom of a vast consumer boom that will draw in more energy.

No wonder that there has been a recent request for a feasibility study for a new nuclear power reactor in the US. Unless new, massive reserves are discovered soon, the current world Hubbert peak is believed to be in the 2015-2025 period, but as short as 2010 and as "distant" and 2040. Demand will not be dropping in that period short of a Malthusian intervention.

We now have fundamentalist terrorists in the mix that will use every opportunity to increase the cost of oil and so further damage our economies. And if the fates collude, we can have simultaneous energy and water wars. After all, the next major conflict in the Middle East is said to be a water war and this time it will not be an exclusive Arab-Israeli event. (I am already musing over which Arab states will ally themselves with Israel.)

After the Oil Runs Out
By James Jordan and James R. Powell
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page B07
Washington Post

Energy from Fossil Fuels
Science
February 4, 1949

The Energy Resources of the Earth
Energy and Power, A Scientific American Book, 1971, pg 31-39
Scientific American

Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit
By Vandana Shiva
South End Press, 2002

Water Wars: Drought, Flood, Folly and the Politics of Thirst
by Diane Raines Ward
Riverhead Books, 2002

Gordon Housworth



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