Not If, but When

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), September 27, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Not If, but When


Byline: The Register-Guard

By a happy coincidence, the day after The Wall Street Journal featured Colin Campbell on its front page with a headline characterizing him as a "doomsayer," one of Campbell's closest collaborators visited Eugene.

Jean Laherrere, like Campbell, is a petroleum geologist, and together they wrote an influential article in the March 1998 Scientific American magazine titled "The End of Cheap Oil." They believe world oil production will soon peak, ending an era of economic expansion fueled by ever-increasing supplies.

Laherrere was in Eugene last week to visit his friend and colleague Walter Youngquist. Youngquist, a former University of Oregon professor of geology, has warned for years - in his 1997 book "GeoDestinies" and other works - that consumption of petroleum and other resources can't continue to grow indefinitely. Laherrere and Youngquist are members of the Association for Study of the Peak Oil, founded by Campbell.

These men are not saying anything revolutionary. In 1956, a geologist named M. King Hubbert predicted that oil production in the continental United States would follow a bell-shaped curve, peaking in about 1969. Production peaked in 1970 and has been declining ever since. In their Scientific American article, Campbell and Laherrere argued that world oil production could be expected to follow the Hubbert curve.

In the continental United States, most oil fields had been found by 1930; discoveries peaked that year, and the peak in production came 40 years later. Worldwide, the peak in discoveries came in the early 1960s.

The last massive oil field to be found, one big enough to supply world demand for two years, was in the North Sea in 1968. The average barrel of oil pumped today was found before 1973. Campbell expects the peak of world oil production to arrive as early as next year.

Laherrere hesitates to predict a date, partly because he doesn't trust oil-producing nations' public statements about their reserves. In the near term, he expects to see not a peak, but a "bumpy plateau" in world oil production, followed by a gradual decline.

World demand for oil currently totals 82 million barrels per day, and is growing at a rate of just over 2 percent a year. The Paris-based International Energy Agency predicts that demand will reach 120 million barrels per day by 2030 - an increase that would fuel economic growth in the United States and the rest of the world for the next quarter of a century.

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