Tapped out

SN&R catches up with physicist David Goodstein at UC Oil Forum

On May 16, a remarkable event occurred at UC Davis. Nearly 400 students and faculty showed up at an evening symposium sponsored by the UC Oil Forum at the Activities and Recreation Center at UC Davis to hear David Goodstein, an honored physicist and the vice provost at the California Institute of Technology as well as the author of the book Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil, deliver a lecture on the future prospects of oil and other fossil fuels. His lecture concluded with a single dramatic prediction projected on a large screen: “Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century, when the fuel runs out.”

Professor Goodstein’s message was essentially reinforced by other speakers, including UC Davis geology lecturer David Osleger, a consultant for Gulf Oil, who also told the crowd, “The age of oil is coming to a close. The sunset of our oil supply is on the horizon. … The time to start the transition to alternative energy sources is right now.”

SN&R sat down with Goodstein before his talk in order to get a summary of his core findings, his motivation and his outlook on the future.

Ralph Brave: What’s the essence of the message in your lecture tonight?

David Goodstein: We’re going to run out of oil. Sooner or later, we must run out of oil. It’s a finite resource. It took hundreds of millions of years to accumulate, and we used it up in a hundred years. So, we will run out of oil. The question is what do we do then? If we switch to other fossil fuels and burn them all up, it will do untold damage to the climate. And even then, we will start to run out of all fossil fuels, even coal, by the end of the century. So, we need a substitute for oil, or our civilization will come to an end.

What substitute for oil and fossil fuels are you promoting?

I’m not promoting any substitute. I think we have to try everything. Every idea, every possibility has to be tried, prototype-tested, to see if it works, what the upside is, what the downside is, to find out how to use it.

In what kind of time frame do you see us needing to arrive at a viable alternative before the end of civilization is likely?

Well, I think by the end of this century, we will have to solve the problem. And that’s a tall order. I think the transition I’m talking about will be absolutely essential, because without it, there will be a huge inflationary episode: Oil will cost more, cars will cost more, everything that has to be transported will cost more, all petrochemicals will cost more, and it will do untold damage to everything that we hold dear.

What was your personal turning point in taking oil depletion seriously?

The turning point came for me on June 11, 2001, when I read a story in the Los Angeles Times that had with it a graphic predicting Hubbert’s peak in 2007, a worldwide Hubbert’s peak [the point at which global oil production goes into irreversible decline]. I said to myself, “That’s a prediction of worldwide catastrophe in six years. I better find out what this is all about.” Since then, I’ve been educating myself.

Is there anyone out there with doubts about your argument with any credibility?

Yes, there are people who have doubts about my argument. They largely come from the oil industry. I believe they’re credible. After all, they’re the human beings that have to face the future as much as we do. Their perspective is distorted somewhat by being in the oil industry. But they tend to be intelligent, thoughtful people who want to be right. They believe that all fossil fuels are fungible [interchangeable], so that there’s lots of fossil fuels. I don’t think anybody anymore believes that oil is inexhaustible. But they believe that there is lots of fossil fuels. If we burn all the fossil fuels we can get our hands on, we will do untold damage to the climate. But even aside from that, I think that if we burn all the fossil fuels we can get our hands on, we will start to run out of all fossil fuels by the end of this century.

What do you think of the prospects of nuclear energy?

I think nuclear is an important bridging technique. That is to say, it will be important during its period. But we will run out of the nuclear fuel as well. There is enough nuclear fuel at 10 terrawatts—which is the amount of fossil fuel we’re burning—there’s enough nuclear fuel to last about 10 years, and that’s all. If we’re running at full capacity, if we’re not using breeder reactors, if we only use U-238 and U-235, that’s a fact.

Is there any nation responding adequately to the crisis as you see it?

Oh, perhaps Iceland, which is switching to a hydrogen economy. But that’s a very special case.

What do you think is blocking the world from moving at a more accelerated pace?

As long as we have oil, we’ll go on burning it. And as long as we go on burning it, we can be complacent and not move at an accelerated pace.

So, it’s simply a matter of price and supply?

Yes, that’s right.

What’s the next bump in the road that’s going to get the world’s attention to this?

I don’t know. When I wrote my book [Out of Gas] three years ago, mine was a voice in the wilderness. Nobody paid any attention; nobody cared. Now it’s become part of the everyday dialogue. It’s on everybody’s radar screen. So, maybe we are catching up. I don’t know.

What do think of geologist Colin Campbell’s concern that the oil-depletion crisis will cause a financial crisis, since the whole banking system is fundamentally leveraged on oil reserves?

It’s out of my field. But I think he’s right.

Have you spoken with Governor Schwarzenegger or President Bush or any of the political leaders that could make a difference?

I haven’t spoken personally with any of the top leaders that could make a difference. Governor Schwarzenegger and President Bush think that the hydrogen economy will make a difference. But it takes six gallons of fossil-fuel-equivalent to make enough hydrogen to replace one gallon of fossil fuel. So, that is not a solution.

Any other possibilities that you’re more optimistic could make a difference?

There are all kinds of possibilities, including ethanol from sugar. Ethanol from corn is much more problematical than ethanol from sugar. There is biodiesel. There are all kinds of possible solutions. But they all have to be prototyped and tried before they become real. Otherwise, it’s just vapor.