Special Report: Peak Oil

A Personal Peak Oil Discovery Process, Part I

A retired nuclear physicist traces his discovery of peak oil theory.

By John Rawlins
Published May 26, 2006

(Ed. Note: This is Part I of a two-part series. Part I chronicles the process by which John Rawlins discovered the scale and extent of the coming peak oil crisis. Part II details the steps he has taken to prepare for a world of diminishing oil resources.)

I recall reading a Scientific American article in 1998 about world oil supply, titled The End of Cheap Oil. Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère predicted that the world oil extraction rate would increase until around 2005-2010, then peak and quickly enter decline, with decline rates of a few percent per year.

That seemed interesting but not all that worrying to a 58 year old semi-retired nuclear physicist teaching astronomy and physics in a community college in northwest Washington state. I posted their graphs on my office door and occasionally discussed the topic with students, but I didn't really get it. Just having less gasoline for transportation seemed the least of our worries.

I basically did nothing to begin getting ready for the cursed event until more recently. Now, in May 2006, world oil extraction seems to be peaking, gasoline prices are rising even before the summer driving season, the next hurricane season starts soon, geopolitical nightmares are developing in many oil-producing regions, and my wife and I feel unprepared for (and worried about) collapse.

In my previous career with Westinghouse Hanford Company in eastern Washington, I spent a few very frustrating years in the early 1990s working on US energy policy issues. In the end I was convinced that our democratic form of government is totally unable to formulate a wise, technically coherent, long-lasting national energy policy.

Fifteen years later, my worst fears are being realized, and my faith in any government "solution" is at absolute zero for this country. We consume far too much energy, and two-thirds of what we consume depends on fuels that are no longer reliable: oil and natural gas. Of these, oil is the most fundamental: almost everything that moves uses an oil derivative for fuel.

In the fall of 2003 our investment advisor noted that our portfolio was heavy in big oil stocks and she suggested we review our situation and think about changing our investment profile. I visited a local bookstore and browsed for recent books on oil and just happened to buy Richard Heinberg's book The Party's Over [read the RTH review].

What a surprise reading that was during the December 2003 holiday break! His thesis: world oil extraction would soon peak, and everything in our life would change because everything depends to some extent on oil. The economy would disintegrate, and chaos would likely envelop the world of all who depend on oil. Furthermore, he claimed that alternatives to oil would prove insufficient by a large margin.

In a state of semi-shock I began reading everything I could find on the subject.

First I looked for predictions about oil supply from retired, independent oil geologists and read Hubbert's Peak, a book by Ken Deffeyes, who worked with M. K. Hubbert. Hubbert developed a method for predicting oil extraction time profiles, given a few decades of extraction and discovery experience.

I then read similar treatments by other retired oil geologists and found that to first order they were in agreement with the original predictions I'd seen from Campbell and Laherrère in 1998. My worry factor increased because I was unable to conclude how to protect our investments from this oil-depleted future.

My next major discovery was the food connection, which I suspected could be a problem. The dean at our college sent me a Harpers Magazine article by Richard Manning, titled The Oil We Eat, which argued that our food production since the green revolution has become at least 90 percent correlated with and dependent on oil and natural gas. A more detailed analysis by Dale Allen Pfeiffer titled Eating Fossil Fuels confirmed this conclusion.

Now I had to find out about the natural gas situation, another unhappy story. Soon I found a book by Julian Darley called High Noon for Natural Gas, which warned that gas extraction in North America was about to peak (it did), and that prices would rise and decline could be rapid (they did, and it is). He further warned that world extraction rates would peak soon after oil peaked. In that case increasing US imports of natural gas in the form of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) would not be a rescue option for long, and a poor investment in any case.

About this time I began teaching an introductory physics/energy course at the college, and the course focuses on the peak oil problem and potential adaptations. During that teaching process, I became convinced that Heinberg and others were absolutely correct in asserting that no combination of alternatives to oil could come anywhere close to replacing oil at present use levels. That includes coal to liquids, natural gas, oil shale, methane hydrates, hydrogen, ethanol, bio-diesel, and nuclear/wind/solar-based electric (including compressed air) cars comparable in size with today's subcompacts.

The required adaptation time (2-3 decades) is quite simply not available. This is a scary conclusion for a technocrat like me.

Finally I found a book about investing viewed through the lens of peak oil, by Stephen and Donna Leeb, titled The Oil Factor. The Leebs reiterated all the peak oil predictions I'd stumbled on and recommended investing in a variety of stocks, mostly related to energy. We rather quickly loaded up even more heavily in energy and mining stocks and eliminated stocks from our portfolio that we thought would not do well in a world of high oil and gas prices and never-ending inflation.

With that issue finally settled we began to do things to get ready for a future of permanent shortage.

Next issue: John Rawlins begins to prepare for a world of diminishing oil resources.

John Rawlins is a retired nuclear physicist who lives in Washington with his wife (a psychologist). He teaches physics at Whatcom Community College. They live on ten acres of mostly wooded land about sixteen kilometres (ten miles) northeast of Bellingham and enjoy bicycle trips on the islands, skiing (near Mt. BGaker), sea-kayaking in the Sound, and occasionally some river kayaking. Prior to his retirement, Rawlins worked for 19 years for Westinghouse-Hanford Co, but took early retirement because he wanted his work to make a difference. Visit his website: http://faculty.whatcom.ctc.edu/jrawlins/.

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By jane (anonymous) | Posted May 26, 2006 at 15:40:58

My comment is not issues that you have recently discussed,but on today's poverty forum on James St N.
Lack of job skills,learning problems,mental health issues,family issues i.e. lack of good parenting skills seem to be just a few reasons for the poverty cycle.I realize age ,physical infirmatity etc. are also part of the picture too. However,in looking at crime stats you do see that lack of education ,skills useful to the community,and for the self respect of the individuals themselves. It seems a conundrum that on paper looks to be an easily answered issue,of course we know it is not. It does seem that at the very earliest children need testing,i.e. observing ,and guided more closely into programmes that suit them and their needs. I believe some of the inner city schools are doing this to their best ability.
It seems such a tragedy when you see someone roaming the streets in some cases begging for money at a very youthful age. How have we failed these young folks?How did they miss the opportunities?Why in some cases the only gainful "job" they have had is a criminal activity? Where and how can we create a more failsafe experience for these young folks?Is there a way to prevent the tragedy before it becomes ingrained?? Stronger families, more community support?
Hamilton is a caring community just having today's forum tells us that. May we make some headway toward looking at our weakest links ,and strengthening them. Thanks, Hammer

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By mike bendzela (anonymous) | Posted May 26, 2006 at 20:23:37

I see the heartbreak is spreading. I, too, teach peak oil, but as a research project in a college writing class. I discovered the very articles you mention 2 1/2 years ago, and realized to my shock that I learned about this in 1981, in a geology course in Toledo, Ohio. One of my favorite professors there, Craig Bond Hatfield, even wrote and early warning back in 96 (?) called "How Long Can Oil Supply Grow?" Look it up. He sets the template for a lot of the commentaries you see now. Luckily, my partner and I have been living a semi-subsistence lifestyle on a farm for two decades now, and we could "probably" live pretty comfortably if there should happen to be a hard landing. I'm finding that the subject of peak oil either grabs people or it doesn't. I've warned all my friends and family about it, but I only "talk oil" with those who bring the subject up. I'm with you in that I have no hope for either a government or a "market" solution. There will be "demand destruction," of course, but as far as who gets destroyed........

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By mike bendzela (anonymous) | Posted May 26, 2006 at 20:29:08

I see the heartbreak is spreading. I, too, teach peak oil, but as a research project in a college writing class. I discovered the very articles you mention 2 1/2 years ago, and realized to my shock that I learned about this in 1981, in a geology course in Toledo, Ohio. One of my favorite professors there, Craig Bond Hatfield, even wrote and early warning back in 96 (?) called "How Long Can Oil Supply Grow?" Look it up. He sets the template for a lot of the commentaries you see now. Luckily, my partner and I have been living a semi-subsistence lifestyle on a farm for two decades now, and we could "probably" live pretty comfortably if there should happen to be a hard landing. I'm finding that the subject of peak oil either grabs people or it doesn't. I've warned all my friends and family about it, but I only "talk oil" with those who bring the subject up. I'm with you in that I have no hope for either a government or a "market" solution. There will be "demand destruction," of course, but as far as who gets destroyed........

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By jerrystinson (registered) | Posted May 27, 2006 at 07:09:54

Question: How important (and how helpful) will ethanol prove to be in the imminent oil shortage crisis? I've read quite a lot about oil peak, but the handful of books I've bought on the subject, most of them published one or two or three years ago, give only a paragraph or so to ethanol. On television, one group of pundits chuckles knowingly about "another farm subsidy boondoggle," while those who hope for entrepreneurial jackpots pose straight-faced into the camera and solemnly swear that ethanol is a panacea.

Can you recommend a site that offers an unbiased analysis? Or, if there's no such thing as "unbiased," can you point me at a couple of knowledgeable sources?

By the way, your site looks very promising! I like your unpretentious tone, and the fact that so far it's entirely possible to "get a word in edgewise" on your Comments page.

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By mike (above) (anonymous) | Posted May 27, 2006 at 13:01:45

I can help a little, jerrystimson, with a thread and discussion of an article here:

http://www.peakoil.com/fortopic20595.html

Hunt around there. You'll find lots of material.

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By Mechanieker (anonymous) | Posted May 27, 2006 at 21:05:50

Hi,

Just a few points. In order to keep connected with people around you have to discuss the whole story with each person in turn. Hiding this aspect of your ootlook might confuse people so don't.

If you find this situation heart breaking, then it's time to obtain a more religious understanding of the world. Fear and pain have been staples of human experience since the dawn of time. We act, causing reactions, which guide our lives. Do not desire the reactions but act according to duty. Learn what duty is and be happy.

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By Norm Erickson (anonymous) | Posted May 27, 2006 at 23:48:53

All of our corn processed into ethanol would yield 7-15% of our liquid fuel needs. Check out www.butanol.com. Not an answer but the butanol alcolhol makes more sense than ethanol.

Also look at www.badgersett.com. Hybrid hazelnuts have ~60% oil. You can press them and run our farm on hazel biodiesel. It is a perennial bush, saves soil, has low inputs, etc.

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By snuffy (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2006 at 13:13:25

I am another former"nuke" who has seen the peak oil light,from a different starting point.My backround is Health Physics,radiation safty,sometimes called Radcon.My work at nuke stations primarily was babysitting non-nuke types working in "controlled area",as well as emergency responce when things went sour.Things can go from 0 to nightmare fairly fast at a station,so you get a feel for what can bite you. 37 outages at 17 nuke station as a Senior H.P.as well as 2 years DODFEMA shipyard c/105
My understanding of peak began post Y2K,when reading several analisis of reactions,and eveluations to the [non]event.In passing ,a comment was made to the effect that peak oil was what people should be prepare for...further information trickled into my awareness,to the point of my devloping a itch to find out all I could.In 04 I had prepared myself enough to start takeing action,such as a presentation to the natural resourse commitee of the Ore state .gov,as well as raiseing awareness with those around me,or whom I come into contact...

The primary responce to me from most .gov types is SHHH! dont scare the public.

My reaction to this is the public should be scared at the .gov types refuseing to discuss what plans they have for dealing with peak,because sure as god made little green apples they have made plans...and plans we the public may not agree with..

My advice? Plant pereninal food plants,fruit trees,and start going low tech.Learn how to fix bicycles.And stay aware.Chronic,acute fuel shortage are a distinct possibility in our future good luck.





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By reidvinette (registered) | Posted June 08, 2006 at 03:00:45

June 7, 2006

The world is now at Peak Oil for the United States with the five supergiant oil fields supplying this country now in decline as of March 16, 2005. It takes one year to realize an oil field is in decline.

Beginning on March 16, 2006 the energy crises for the United States began ... or did it.

If there is an energy crises, it is a crises which has been created by the oil companies and industrial governments like the United States and Canada.

There is an energy solution to power modern day vehicles and it is called on demand water fracturing into hydrogen and oxygen.

www.waterpoweredcar.com www.waterfuelcell.org

This technology is so powerful that industrial governments are trying to keep a lid on it.

Why?

Money.

Industrial governments cannot tax the water it takes to fill your water tank in your car.

Oil companies cannot profit from the sale of water it takes to fill your water tank in your car.

Discover water fracturing technology and begin experimenting in your garage.

The energy crises I believe is a myth now.

Water fracturing technology can preserve valuable oil for petro-chemical products, and agricultural uses. Water fracturing technology can be used for vehicle transportation, and energy to power electrical generating plants now dependant on natural gas.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 08, 2006 at 10:40:17

Sorry, reidvinette, but this is almost certainly a hoax. Stanley Meyer, the inventor behind the water fuel cell, was convicted of "gross and eggregious fraud" in swindling his investors.

Water certainly does contain hydrogen, and hydrogen certainly does contain energy, but converting energy from one form to another always carries a net energ loss.

A water powered car would have to use electrolysis to separate the hydrogen and oxygen, and electrolysis is very energy intensive. Quasi-scientific descriptions about inducing vibrations simply begs the question: what energy will you use to produce the vibration?

Finally, big corporations would be delighted to get their hands on a cheap, abundant energy source. That's why we use petroleum so widely in the first place.

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By Norm Erickson (anonymous) | Posted June 19, 2006 at 11:31:59

Regarding ethanol: We have lost our way. Ethanol makes sense as an oxygenate replacement for MTBE, but as a transportation fuel it is hopeless. It appears that a "better alcohol", butanol, can now be produced with a two stage fermentation process from a wide range of biomass. Read about it at www.butanol.com. The advantages are lower vapor pressure (safer than ethanol or gasoline), higher energy content than ethanol, does not require new infrastructure (separate pumps, redesigned fuel/engine systems), and can be used in blends from 1% to 100% without problems in any car. There is so much money flowing into ethanol that it seems to have blinded the market to butanol's possibilities.

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