Friday, April 28, 2006

If Mr. Hubbert is right

If M. King Hubbert's calculations are correct, the gas-guzzling world is going to be in for one heck of a shock very soon.

If the educated nations of the world don't begin to act soon, the consequences of ignoring Hubbert could far exceed this week's shock of seeing gas prices near the $3-per-gallon mark.

Hubbert was the geophysicist who in 1956 came up with a way to calculate the point when oil pumping would peak in the United States. That point was some time in 1970. At the time he made the calculations and released the results, Hubbert worked for Shell Oil company.

Fourteen years later, the prediction was verified by the American oil fields themselves. In 1970, excess pumping capacity in Texas disappeared and oil output slowly began to decline.

The event hardly registered in the minds of most Americans because Saudi Arabia quickly stepped in. It took control of the world's oil business, controlled the price of oil and has produced seemingly limitless supplies of the black blood that pumps through the veins of the industrialized world.

But that's not the end of the story. As the Middle East pumped out more and more oil, demand for it rose to meet the supply. More people demanded more cars, more plastics, more pharmaceuticals, more synthetic materials—the things that provided more comfortable and healthy lives. So, more oil was pumped.

It's been a nice ride, but Hubbert's calculations applied to world oil supplies say the ride may soon be over. Some of his successors say pumping may have peaked in 2004 when Saudi Arabia admitted its oil fields were in decline.

But so what? Won't life go on in the same way until the last drop of oil is gone? Not according to Hubbert. He predicted that problems would begin when supply couldn't meet demand. Even though supply would drop off gradually, the demand would not. Witness the Chinese beginning to replace their feet and bicycles with cars. And therein lies the potential for some serious worldwide social and political upheaval.

The world, led by Americans who use 25 percent of the world's oil with just 5 percent of the population, has some stark realities to face—even if Hubbert's calculations are off by a few decades.

We can be wise. We can plan for oil deprivation and muster our resources in an effort as large and focused as the ones that developed the atomic bomb and put a man on the moon.

We can help scientists develop the clean technologies necessary to forestall a bleak future of energy shortages and the unspeakable social upheaval that could accompany them.

Or, we can ignore Hubbert and other scientists and be surprised, helpless and horrified when the oil shock arrives.

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