Review: "Beyond Oil" by Kenneth Deffeyes

While studded with gems of information and insight, overall I found
this book somewhat disappointing. As a former colleague of
M. King Hubbert at Shell, geologist Kenneth Deffeyes gives an excellent
account of the theory behind “Peak Oil” – in particular the compelling
straight-line plots comparing current to cumulative production that
are the surest foundation of the predictions. Deffeyes derives from
these plots that the effective peak in oil production will be within
one month of November, 2005.

But the insight after that point seems
lacking – what does the peak actually mean, why
does the decline happen? Is the price volatility Deffeyes identifies,
rather than just high prices, the key to the failings of economic
analysis of the problem? Does that come about from substitution,
or is there really going to be a decline in energy resources available?
The fact that oil companies have not been building new refineries recently
suggests they are well aware they will need fewer, not more, in future.

The bulk of the book, as the title suggests, looks at what comes after
oil; Deffeyes notes that this reflects his own expertise in the issues
of extracting things from the ground, but that means he
neglects renewables. From Deffeyes one would think that what
comes after peak oil is little different from what came before, just
in more limited quantities; past centuries’ experience
with technological change suggest that’s a very short-sighted viewpoint.
There is also a rather inconsistent stance throughout the book on
the near-term problem vs. long-term solutions: some long-term solutions
are dismissed because they will not help with the immediate crisis,
while others of equally long delay are discussed at length.

Deffeyes seems to see carbon sequestration as a helpful step,
but of his seven conditions explaining why oil deposits are rare,
at least four would also be required for safely storing carbon dioxide
underground; are there so many likely locations in the world?

Deffeyes has some interesting insight on the resource issue
for nuclear power – is there enough uranium available to satisfy
world energy needs for a good length of time? Deffeyes once had access
to restricted uranium discovery data from the Department of Energy
that was enough to indicate there is a continuum of uranium deposits
available, of gradually declining quality, with tens of trillions of
tons in totol. At ore grades below 100 parts per million
uranium it’s been argued that the energy required for mining exceeds
the energy payback from a fission reactor (at least for the once-through
cycle). From Deffeye’s chart there seem to be 100 million to 1 billion
metric tons of uranium in higher-grade ores, enough to power the world
using a standard once-through fission cycle for hundreds to
thousands of years.

Deffeyes’ discussion of unconventional fossil fuels – oil shales,
heavy oils, and so forth, is also very interesting. From the
perspective of a petroleum geologist, these deposits have been known for
a very long time (the most recent discovery being ocean-floor methane
hydrates) and billions of dollars in research devoted to them still
hasn’t made them successful, at least to any large degree.

The final summary seems to be a future of diminished circumstances for
the human race, a dreary future with more pollution from coal use
and nuclear power, and little real hope for change. Deffeyes pushes
half-heartedly for investment in efficiency technologies, but mostly
seems to think we just have to weather the coming storm somehow and
hope for the best.

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