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Deffeyes at Caltech:

“I’m not so worried about the next 15 to 20 years.
I’m very scared about the next five.”

Jamey Hecht

© Copyright 2005, From The Wilderness Publications, All Rights Reserved. This story may NOT be posted on any Internet web site without express written permission. Contact May be circulated, distributed or transmitted for non-profit purposes only.

December 7, 2005 0800 PST (FTW) -- At 8 p.m. on December 1st, Kenneth Deffeyes gave this year’s Lauritsen Memorial Lecture to a packed house at Beckman Auditorium on the California Institute of Technology campus. Just over 800 people heard the thesis and supporting arguments of his most recent book, Beyond Oil. It’s a brief, graceful book whose two strengths are a new non-technical presentation of M. King Hubbert’s work aimed at laypeople (without the use of logarithmic curves), and a survey of the various non-conventional sources of hydrocarbon energy (including coal gasification, tar sands, methane hydrates, and others). The venue was ideal, as the press release explained: “Though he is not affiliated with Caltech, Deffeyes’ work is of keen interest to the Caltech community, in part because the Institute’s vice provost, David Goodstein, is also an authority on the coming production peak of oil.”

The slides were bracing. One showed the NY Times headline indicating that Saudi Arabia could no longer increase production; the next noted the recently-announced “exhaustion” of the world’s second largest oil field, Burgan in Kuwait; followed by Chevron’s advertised admission that we’re burning three barrels of oil for each barrel we find. The last year when we found more oil than we burned was in the mid-1980’s. Shell Oil has announced that they are now, in effect, Shell Gas, having essentially given up on the prospect of significant new oil discovery.

The oilfields that we have now found probably contain 94% of the existing oil. Deffeyes assured us that there’s a lot of oil still to be produced by exploring already-discovered but long-neglected fields. These are not mature fields being squeezed dry with secondary and tertiary recovery; they are forgotten fields whose viability had been prematurely discounted and never reconsidered. Deffeyes’ colleague Robert Sneider has made a fortune revisiting such fields. They help account for the four-decade lag between world petroleum discovery, which peaked in 1962, and the peak of world petroleum production, which Deffeyes’ calculations place at 2005. In a now-famous gesture of exquisite symbolism, he proffered to the world an artificially specific date for Peak Oil: Thanksgiving Day of this year. At FTW, we capitalize “Peak Oil” to indicate that it’s an event, like D-Day or the Storming of the Bastille. And like those events, it has come and gone.

Deffeyes also acknowledged the institutionalized dissent of Daniel Yergin, dean of the cornucopians, and showed that his claims are based on a high stack of unrealistic assumptions and unrealized miracles. What’s most troublesome about Yergin’s argument is not its strength, Deffeyes explained, but its effect on public perceptions. Unfortunately, editorial fairness seems to require the inclusion of the cornucopian voice as if it were half of a complete picture. As Matt Simmons observed at ASPO’s Lisbon conference, news editors faced with conflicting experts tend to assume that “the truth must be somewhere in between.” While petroleum data are notoriously ambiguous, and geology is a discipline in which reasonable people can disagree, it’s clear that one trillion barrels have been depleted and that not much more than another trillion remains. Two plus two does not equal five: even if I claim it does, while you insist it’s four, the answer does not lie “somewhere in between” at four and a half.

After a strong but familiar treatment of the daunting connection between natural gas and the food supply, Deffeyes turned to transportation:

The greatest thing on the horizon for the automobile are these high efficiency diesels being marketed in Europe – they get more than 100 miles to the gallon, far more miles than a gasoline-electric hybrid will get you, but they’re not being marketed in the United States and I don’t know why. [But] in the case of aviation, they don’t have any alternatives. They’re hooked on JP4 jet fuel, and hooked very tightly. Aircraft manufacturers, passenger airlines, air freight, everything – is going to be in a squeeze; half the airline carriers in the U.S. are now in bankruptcy.

Consumers will have to lower their expectations. “There will be rationing. Whether it’s by price or inconvenience or coupons or something else, we don’t know.” As for mitigation,

There are things that we can do right now, like turning off the lights, like opening the windows at night when it’s cool so that we don’t need air conditioning in the daytime. In the next category, there are things that we know how to do, where the engineering is already done and we just need to start building: wind, nuclear, high efficiency diesel, etc. Then there’s a need for R & D, a kind of Manhattan Project or Apollo project that may or may not work.

In that last category, he referred to “the most technological of the dreams,” the work of the late Richard Smalley involving nanotechnology for high efficiency DC electric transmission with local storage.

This reporter was somewhat surprised by Deffeyes’ enthusiasm for coal gasification. It’s a promising technology being brought to market in coal rich states like Pennsylvania, Montana, and Illinois. But it will mean enormous amounts of carbon liberated from its current sequestration underground. Deffeyes showed that there is currently a robust market for CO2, since oil companies inject it into tired wells as a way to bring up the deeper oil (this is part of “secondary recovery”). The speaker himself had recently visited a coal gasification plant in North Dakota that sells its waste CO2 to the Canadian petroleum industry. Still, it’s not easy to believe that a scaled-up coal gasification infrastructure could power even a scaled-down American economy without leaking so much carbon as to trigger accelerated climate change.

After a look at agriculture, transportation, and electrical power generation, enough tiles were in place for a look at the whole mosaic. The picture is not pretty:

Part of the debate is, do we have a hard landing or a soft landing? For a soft landing, you need to get in place enough new nuclear power capacity, wind generation, efficiency in housing and automobile transportation – in place by last Thursday – to have a seamless transition. But it’s very likely – the longer we go, and [given] the fact that we didn’t listen to Jimmy Carter – that it’s going to be a hard landing. The least vicious of the hard landings is a global recession possibly worse than 1930. To picture the harder hard landing, I’ve borrowed from the book of Revelation, where the four horses are traditionally known as War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death.

In the Q&A period, he said this: “A number of people have told me that until something sufficiently ghastly happens, to convince everyone that, yes, there’s a real problem – nothing’s going to be done, nationally or internationally. To me that means the World Trade Center disaster wasn’t bad enough. Well, the next question, is there going to be something very much worse than the World Trade Center, that finally says, yes, Peak is here, we’re going to deal with it?”

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