Quick Fixes Won't Solve Looming Oil Crisis, Scientists Say

With the cost of oil at or near record territory and gasoline prices hovering around $3 a gallon, the government is advocating new measures to sooth growing public concern over rising prices at the pumps.

But the fixes are only temporary and largely symbolic, scientists say. They will do little to address the more serious threat of what will happen when demand for oil outstrips the ability to produce it.

And that's an inevitable problem that could be just around the corner, though nobody knows exactly when it will occur.

Possible Production Peak

Estimates of when oil production will peak are controversial. But several scientists say the curve will look something like this, with a sharp decline after the peak. This estimate was made by C. J. Campbell, on behalf of Petroconsultants of Geneva and is used by Kenneth Deffeyes, author of "Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak" to support his view.

Production in millions of barrels per day

LiveScience graphic
SOURCE: C. J. Campbell via K. Deffeyes

Quick fixes

In a speech earlier this week, President George W. Bush recommended pushing back deadlines for the transition to cleaner gasoline additives such as ethanol, ramping up the number of oil refineries built, and temporarily halting oil shipments into the nation's petroleum reserve. Each of these recommendations is aimed at making more gasoline available to consumers.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Republicans are advocating $100 rebate checks for citizens to help with the high cost of gas, and one Democrat is proposing a 60-day gasoline tax "holiday."

These are temporary fixes, analysts say, for an oil shortage which, like the 1973 oil crisis, is triggered more by politics and economics than a natural paucity of global reserves or an inability to extract and produce new oil.

The 1973 bottleneck was the result of Middle Eastern oil-producing nations cutting off oil shipments to Western countries that supported Israel in its war against Egypt and Syria; current escalating oil prices are driven by fears of Iran's developing nuclear program, the ongoing war in Iraq, as well as worries over the political stability of places like the Middle East and Nigeria and what some see as possible price gouging by oil companies.

Bigger problem looms

But many scientists warn that there will come a day when rising oil prices will not be due to political or economic pressures, but because a natural peak in global oil production will have been reached. Once we reach this tipping point, known as “Hubbert’s Peak,” global oil production will begin an irreversible decline and less oil will be available with every passing year, scientists say.

Energy experts no longer debate about whether Hubbert’s peak will occur, but when. On this point, estimates vary wildly. Kenneth Deffeyes, a Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, believes it has already happened—in late 2005. Others figure we still have another 20-30 years.

One thing that many experts do agree on, however, is that when we do hit the peak, steps like those Bush is advocating will not be enough.

"It was a pocketbook issue," Larry Nation, a spokesperson for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), told LiveScience. "It's not a long term fix by any means."

Amos Nur, the Wayne Loel Professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford University, expressed a similar sentiment.

"It's more or less symbolic," Nur said about Bush's proposals. "I don't think it's going to make any real difference because it doesn't really deal with the basic problem that we're facing."

The 10-year warning

In February 2005, Robert Hirsch, a Senior Energy Program Advisor at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), and colleagues submitted a report to the U.S. Department of Energy that examined the likely consequences of the impending global oil peak.

The researchers used the peaks of individual oil producing nations and regions around the world to predict what will happen on a global scale. In all of the historical cases they examined, it was not obvious that peaking was going to occur until about a year before the event. Also, the peaks were followed by sharp declines in oil production that did not gently slope or flatten out as some forecasters have predicted.

The authors also stressed that steps must be taken to identify and deploy alternatives fuels at least 10 years before peaking occurs. And even then, there will be some dire economic consequences.

If steps are taken 20 years before peaking, there may be a chance that serious economic harm will be averted, the researchers concluded.

In addition to economic consequences, scientists also warn that oil deficits could trigger a global recession, lead to food shortages and incite conflict between nations—the United States and China in particular—over dwindling oil supplies.

In testimony given before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality last December, Hirsch said "The era of plentiful, low-cost petroleum is approaching an end ... We would like to believe that the optimists are right about peak oil being a distant problem, but the risks of error are beyond imagination."

The costs of acting too late

Hirsch and colleagues also noted that because scientists can't be sure when peaking will occur, there is a chance that action taken now will be premature. However, they point out, the costs of acting too early are not the same as acting too late.

"Mitigation initiated prematurely would result in a relatively modest misallocation of resources," but "failure to initiate timely mitigation ... is certain to result in very severe economic consequences."

Nur agrees that immediate actions should be taken and believes the actions taken so far are inadequate.

"I think that we have avoided taking the steps we should've taken in the 1970s to seriously invest in alternative energy technologies," Nur said in a telephone interview. "We haven't done anything for 30 years basically, and now it's catching up with us. We are burning 31 billion barrels of oil a year worldwide, and to find that many barrels a year has just become impossible."