Yet all along, there had been the warning issued by geologist M.K. Hubbert back in 1960. Pointing out that new deposits of oil were scarcer by the year, Hubbert predicted that the industrial world would soon encounter oil peak, a moment at which the maximum daily amount could be extracted from the Earth, a moment from which the industrial world would have to accommodate itself to gradually lower levels of oil use. Few people wanted to believe Hubbert's theory, because there seemed to be no good alternative; the world had never enjoyed a fuel so usable as oil; and it seemed unlikely to find another. So, oil use continued to expand, and by about 2005, the rapidly-emerging industrial nations of China and India were together using as much as 10 million barrels a day.
Optimists had, in the past, expressed the view that Third World nations could not compete in the demand for oil because the price would rise so dramatically that they would fall behind. This was proven wrong early in the 21st century's first decade; oil use expanded everywhere, around the globe, and it was apparent that Third World nations, in some ways, had the upper hand. This was especially the case with China, which held a large part of the U.S. national debt.
Europeans and Japanese had long accustomed themselves to driving smaller cars and to making do with alternative methods of home heating, but Americans remained somewhat blasé till the disaster created by Hurricane Katrina in the early fall of 2005. Gasoline prices rose to the highest level ever seen in the United States, sometimes as much as $3.50 per gallon. Public outrage was directed at major oil companies like Exxon and Chevron, but congressional investigations found, as had always before been the case, no obvious evidence of price gouging. Rather, it was concluded, the United States needed a new energy policy.
No new policy emerged during the first 7 years of the administration of President George W. Bush. A former oil man, and with a former oil man as his vice-president, President Bush seemed content to continue in the same direction, with U.S. oil consumption rising to as much as 27 million barrels of oil per day around 2007. Many claimed that this consumption was unsus tainable. The nation had to expand its repertoire in the area of energy use. Solar power, wind power, and other alternatives had to be employed before it was too late. Many authors spoke to this belief, two of the best known books being The Long Emergency and Out of Gas. However, some claimed that oil was the best source of convertible energy ever discovered, and it had endured through a number of ups and downs in public sentiment since 1970. Oil would continue to be the backbone of American energy use. Some pointed to Jeff Goodell's Big Coal, which pointed out the shortcomings and dangers of relying on coal for the foreseeable future.
Most scientists were unsure of the sustainability of oil use. The critical factor was how much oil remained under ground, and how much of it could be rapidly converted into oil and natural gas. If new deposits were found, and if oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia could be persuaded to pump more barrels per day, then the worldwide use of oil could continue, at least for a few decades to come.
Saudi Arabia remained the biggest single question mark. The House of Saud was notoriously secretive when it came to the total extent of its energy reserves. Some scientists believed that the oil fields of Ghawar, the largest ever found, might still be producing 20 years into the future, while others heeded the words of Matthew R. Simmons, whose Twilight in the Desert described what might soon be seen as the Saudi oil collapse. Many people disagreed with Simmons's figures, but they concurred that his statistics were correct, and if Saudi Arabia had to significantly lower its oil output, the industrial world would be shaken. Without enough oil to run its cars, heat its homes, and make numerous oil-rich products, the Western world would be in serious trouble.
Oil continues to have its defenders. There are those who point out, accurately, that oil is safer and cleaner than coal, at least once it is on land (there have been some disastrous spills from oil tankers over the decades). But their arguments run up against some fundamental, painful facts. Oil is running out quite rapidly. It has lasted longer, in some respects, than scientists of the 1970s thought. Oil may remain a big part of the energy use of industrial nations well into the future, but that will only be so if there are other energy sources to complement it. Otherwise, the world's oil reserves will be exhausted at some point in the 21st century.
sEE ALsO: Automobiles; Developing Countries; Energy; Oil, Production of; Saudi Arabia.
BIBLIOGRAphY. K.S. Deffeyes, Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (Princeton University Press, 2001); Jeff Goodell, Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future (Houghton Mifflin, 2006); David Goodstein, Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil (W.W. Norton, 2004); J.H. Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Coming Catastrophes of the 21st Century (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005); M.R. Simmons, Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy (John Wiley & Sons, 2005).
Samuel Willard Crompton Independent Scholar
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