What Happens Once the Oil Runs Out?
Re-printed from the The
New York Times op-ed page
By Kenneth S. Deffeyes
Published: March 25, 2005
President Bush's hopes for the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge came one step closer to reality last week. While Congress must
still pass a law to allow drilling in the refuge, the Senate voted to
include oil revenues from such drilling in the budget, making eventual
approval of the president's plan more likely.
Yet the debate over drilling in the Arctic refuge has been oddly beside
the point. In fact, it may be distracting us from a far more important
problem: a looming world oil shortage.
The environmental argument over drilling in the refuge has often been
portrayed as "tree huggers" versus "dirty drillers" (although, as a matter
of fact, the north coastal plain of Alaska happens to have no trees to
hug). Even as we concede that this is an oversimplification, we should
also ask how a successful drilling operation would affect American oil
The United States Geological Survey has estimated that the Arctic oil
field is likely to be at least half the size of the Prudhoe Bay oil field,
almost 100 miles to the west. Opening that oil field was like hitting
a grand slam: Prudhoe Bay, which has already produced more than 13 billion
barrels, is the biggest American oil field. (I was once at a party with
a bunch of geologists from Mobil Oil when an argument broke out: who discovered
Prudhoe Bay? Everybody in the room except me claimed to have done so.)
Unfortunately, you don't hit a grand slam in every at-bat. The geological
survey estimates that the Arctic refuge could produce at least half as
much oil as Prudhoe Bay. It is also possible, however, that the refuge
could produce no oil at all – it often happens in the oil industry. At
the other extreme, the upper range of the geological survey's estimate
soars to 16 billion barrels. Although the geologists at the survey are
widely respected, the upper ranges of their petroleum estimates for the
refuge have drawn criticism, sometimes expressed as giggles, from other
Despite its size, Prudhoe Bay was not big enough to reverse the decline
of American oil production. The greatest year of United States production
was 1970. Prudhoe Bay started producing oil in 1977, but never enough
to raise American production above the level of 1970. The Arctic refuge
will probably have an even smaller effect. Every little bit helps, but
even the most successful drilling project at the Arctic refuge would be
only a little bit.
But if the question of whether to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge is the wrong one, what's the right one? In 1997 and 1998, a few
petroleum geologists began examining world oil production using the methods
that M. King Hubbert used in predicting in 1956 that United States oil
production would peak during the early 1970's. These geologists indicated
that world oil output would reach its apex in this decade - some 30 to
40 years after the peak in American oil production. Almost no one paid
I used to work with Mr. Hubbert at Shell Oil, and my own independent
research places the peak of world oil production late this year or early
in 2006. Even a prompt and successful drilling operation in the Arctic
refuge would not start pumping oil into the pipeline before 2008 or 2009.
A permanent drop in world oil production will have serious consequences.
In addition to the economic blow, there will be the psychological effect
of accepting that there are limits to an important energy resource. What
can we do? More efficient diesel automobiles, and greater reliance on
wind and nuclear power, are well-engineered solutions that are available
right now. Conservation, although costly in most cases, will have the
largest impact. The United States also has a 300-year supply of coal,
and methods for using coal without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere
are being developed.
After world oil production starts to decline, a small group of geologists
could gather in my living room and all claim to have discovered the peak.
"We told you so," we could say. But that isn't the point. The controversy
over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a side issue. The problem
we need to face is the impending world oil shortage.
Kenneth S. Deffeyes, a professor emeritus of geology at Princeton,
is the author of "Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak."
© 2005 New York Times and Kenneth Deffeyes
The Post Carbon Institute
and Los Angeles Post Carbon Present
Options and Actions in a Post Carbon Los Angeles
Sunday, April 10th, 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Learn about the issues of oil and natural gas
depletion and the options we have in the Los Angeles area as we approach
the global peak in fossil fuel extraction. This Post Carbon Institute
sponsored event features the documentary, "The End of Suburbia: Oil
Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream" as well as a panel
of speakers from local organizations. The speakers will include
Richard Bruce Anderson who's presentation is titled, "Endless
Growth" Meets Reality: Finding Our Way in a Post-Carbon World, Roger
Gray, co-founder of Pasadena Walks!, an organization which advocates for
walkable, livable cities, and Joan Stevens of the Los Angeles Permaculture
Guild. The event will also include vegetarian food, poetry and music.
Documentary, 78 Minutes:
The END of SUBURBIA: Oil Depletion and the Collapse
of the American Dream
Followed by a short discussion
Political and Environmental
Poetry Organized by
food will be provided
Peace and Justice Center
2210 Lincoln Blvd.
Venice, CA MAP
Space is limited, so please RSVP to insure a seat:
Eric Einem, 714-926-1916, email@example.com.
Suggested Donation: (or for the 7:00 panel)
Consider Walking, Biking, Carpooling or
To find a carpool click here or visit www.rideshare.us and enter the
event code postcarbon410. For public transportation visit:
Share this flyer with others: www.LAPostCarbon.org/options.pdf
For more information visit www.lapostcarbon.org/options.htm