Dr. Michio Kaku, host of KPFA-radio broadcast Exploration, speaks with Dr. David Goodstein, Vice Provost and professor of physics at Caltech, about Dr. Goodstein’s new book “Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil.”
Dr. Kaku: The first question for you Dr. Goodstein is how did a professor of physics like you get interested in the question of oil and whether or not we are going to run out of oil at some point in the future?
Dr. Goodstein: That’s a very good point. I became aware of this problem, started to become worried about it, and realized that it is probably the most important single problem that we face in this age. And I am a physicist, and I don’t know of anything particularly useful that can be used to help solve this problem, and I thought a bit about what I could do to contribute, and I realized the only thing I am capable of doing that could help is to write a book and call people’s attention to it. So I wrote the book.
Dr. Kaku: Ok. Well, remind us what happened in 1973. Some of our listeners may have been quite young then, but tell us a little bit about the chaos that can erupt when the price of oil starts to rise.
Dr. Goodstein: Well, yes, some Middle Eastern OPEC companies took advantage of the diminishing supplies available in the United States___ in order to cause the price of oil to increase. And we immediately had panic, despair for the future of our way of life, and mile-long lines at gas stations. Anybody who was alive at that time will never forget it.
Dr.Kaku: And I understand people took out shotguns and that people were killed trying to get access to gasoline?
Dr. Goodstein: There were all kinds of incidents, but for most of us it was just the experience of waiting for hours on a line, and then finding out there was no gasoline left.
Dr.Kaku: Ok. Well, now let’s get into the heart of your book. You use a methodology that is not commonly known by most people, and that’s Hubbert’s Peak. So could you slowly walk through the methodology by which you arrive at some rather stunning conclusions?
Dr. Goodstein: Let me tell you a little bit about the history of it first. In the 1950s the United States was the world’s leading producer of oil. Much of our military and industrial might depended on our giant-oil industry, and most people, most people, but also most people in the business, expected that to go on forever. But there was one very clever geophysicist who worked for Shell Oil in Houston. His name was Marion King Hubbert, and he predicted at the time that U.S. oil production, that rate at which we could extract oil from the ground in the lower-48 United States, would peak around 1970 and decline forever after that. He was virtually hooted out of his profession at the time, but when 1970 came along he turned out to be quite precisely right. And that’s what’s called Hubbert’s Peak; that was Hubbert’s Peak for the lower-48 United States. We peaked in 1970, and we have been declining rapidly ever since in output of oil from below the soil of the United States.
Dr. Kaku: And I understand from your book that Hubbert’s Peak not only works for oil but for other valuable minerals as well?
Dr. Goodstein: Yes. The basic idea is a very simple one. For any mineral resource, the rate at which the supply of it, the rate at which you can extract it from the ground, starts out at zero, rises up to some maximum after which you’re depleting your resource faster than you can find new sources of it, and the supply starts to decline. So the history of the supply of any natural resource is a bell-shaped curve, which is a maximum, and that maximum is never attained again; it just falls forever after that. And that’s what Hubbert’s Peak is all about.
Dr.Kaku: And I understand that you can apply it to other minerals and other resources as well?
Dr. Goodstein: The same thing happened to copper in northern Michigan; to coal in Pennsylvania; to coal in England, and any mineral resource. Now it doesn’t have to be a perfect bell-shaped curve, of course, these things are always very noisy, but crudely speaking, it rises from zero to a maximum and then declines again, and of course exactly that happened to oil in the lower 48. By now we know that that is precisely what has happened.
Dr. Kaku: And also tell us what happens when you reach 50% of the normal reserves.
Dr. Goodstein: Right. The maximum occurs roughly when you’ve used up half that nature supplied for you, because roughly it’s a symmetrical, bell-shaped curve. On the way up you use up half of it, you reach the maximum and then half is left, but the rate at which you can pull it out of the ground is declining, even though the need for it in the case of oil will be increasing.
Dr. Kaku: Ok, now let’s assume that he’s correct with regards to the world resources; when might we begin to see the disruptions?
Dr. Goodstein: Well nobody can really answer that question, although many people have tried. Because the evidence on which the answer has to be based, the numbers, are very soft numbers. They’re not very well understood; they’re not very well known. They depend on so-called proved’ reserves of oil and other things like that that are not proved at all, that are largely inventions, and really can’t be depended on. There are some reasons to believe that it may already have begun, there are others who think it wont happen until sometime later in this decade; it may not happen till sometime in the next decade. The difference between those predictions are very important to us who are living now and would like to enjoy life for a few more years, but really have no importance at all in the scale of human history. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen relatively soon by human historical standards; we or our children or maybe even our grandchildren are in for some very bad times.
Dr. Kaku: And by that you mean on the scale of 1, 2, 3 decades, or 4, 5, 6, 7 decades?
Dr. Goodstein: No, I don’t mean 4, 5, 6, 7 decades; I mean on the scale of 1 to 2 decades.
Dr. Kaku: One to two decades! So many of the people listening to this program could see their life disrupted as we see the fulfilling of Hubbert’s Peak.
Dr. Goodstein: Hubbert's Peak - that’s precisely the point, yes.
Dr. Kaku: Ok. Well, now let me play devil’s advocate, because of course, if you talk to the oil industry and the United States Geological Survey [USGS], they say something different. Well, first of all, they say, we’re never going to really run out of oil, because we’ll simply find more oil, so what are your thoughts about whether or not we can simply find new oil?
Dr. Goodstein: Well, the USGS did an exhaustive survey of world-oil supplies. The survey went from 1995 to about 2000, and it’s been published; you can get it over the web, and they came to a conclusion, this was done by a combination of geologists, who know something about geology, and statisticians, who know something about statistics, but know nothing about geology, and it was the statisticians apparently who came up with the final conclusion, and the final conclusion says that with 90% ( I’ ve forgotten whether it’s 90% or 95%) certainty there were at least 2-trillion barrels of oil when we started drilling (just for reference, we’ve used up about 1-trillion barrels of oil, so if there were 2-trillion barrels of oil, we’re now at the half-way point ). But they say with 50% probability, there may have been as much as 2.7 trillion [barrels of oil], and with lower probability, correspondingly, there may have been even more. Now many experts are more than a little skeptical of those assumptions, which are based not on how much oil we know to be, but on predictions of how much will be discovered in the future. You must understand that the Hubbert’s Peak for world-wide oil discovery, not production, but discovery - those are two different bell-shaped curves. You have a bell-shaped curve for discovery, which reaches a maximum and declines forever, and then later, decades later, you have a bell-shaped curve for production, which reaches a maximum and then declines forever. The peak for discovery occurred around 1960, more than 40 years ago. Oil discovery has been declining ever since. Nevertheless, for reasons that are unclear to the outside world, the USGS predicted a high rate of discovery for another 30 years, and on that basis that there’s a 50% chance that there will be at least 2.7-trillion barrels of oil in the ground. The difference between the 2-trillion number, which is what most people that expect the peak very soon are using and the 2.7 trillion that the USGS estimated - that’s all the oil in the Middle East. In other words, they’re predicting that we’ll discover the Middle East all over again. The fact is that oil geologists have gone to the ends of the earth looking for oil. There are only a few places on earth that have not been fully explored. One of them is the South China Sea, where there are overlapping claims of 7 different countries, and so nobody wants to drill there; it’s considered a promising, but not spectacular geological region by geologists. The second is central Siberia, which has enormous access problems, and the third is the deep oceans, which are extremely problematic for a variety of reasons. And some say Antarctica as well. Otherwise, there are no possibilities, and so the probability, the likelihood that we’re going to discover another 700-billion barrels of oil somewhere seems extremely remote.
Dr. Kaku: Well, I’m afraid that’s it for the first part of Exploration. Once again our special guest is Dr. David Goodstein, Vice Provost of the California Institute of Technology, and the title of his latest book is called “Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil,” and if you want a copy of today’s program, call the Pacifica Program Service at 1-800-735-0230 for a copy of today’s program, and be sure to dial into my website at www.mkaku.org, and so far we’ve logged over 40-million hits on that web site, so stay tuned now for the second half of Exploration.
Welcome, this is Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, and this is the second half of Exploration. In the first half of Exploration, we began an interview with Dr. David Goodstein, Vice Provost of Caltech - that’s the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, and he’s the author of a new book, hitting the stands right now, and it’s called “Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil.”
Now the book in some sense is a very disturbing book, because it talks about the time a few decades into the future, when we will literally run out of gas. Now for those of us who remember the 1973 oil crisis, we remember the havoc at the gas pump. People were taking out shotguns. People were killed at the gas pump. People’s livelihood depended on cheap gas, and as a consequence, there was havoc back then. However, what’s going to happen several decades from now when real social chaos erupts that begins to tear at the social fabric of the United States and Europe. You know in the United States, we’ve been kind of spoiled by cheap gasoline. If you go to Europe, for example, you’re surprised to find that gasoline costs at least twice the amount that it costs in the Unites States, so here in the United States we’ve been blessed with cheap gasoline. However some people think it’s our birthright, our birthright to take our hotrods, take out our Chevies, and hit the road, because we’ve always been blessed with cheap gasoline and a great outdoors. Well, those times may be ending, and what’s going to happen when it ends? Just realize that the current spike in gas prices is already creating a lot of grumbling among a lot of people; however, it’s probably due to a local fluctuation in gas demand, especially coming from Asia. But what happens, what happens a few decades from now when the nations of the world are caught with their pants down, because nobody, no government on the planet earth is preparing for the post-petroleum era, which according to David Goodstein is inevitable, and coming sooner than we realize.
And again I’d like to thank those individuals that have pledged in order to keep public- and community-based radio alive and well. We successfully used “Einstein’s Cosmos” as part of our fundraising drive, and are very proud to announce that the book has been out for only a month and already it’s in its second printing. And remember next year marks the one-hundredth-year anniversary of the founding of relativity. And there’s going to be an enormous number of TV specials and celebrations to honor that fact. So you may want to get ahead of the curve by getting a copy of a new biography of Albert Einstein, my book, called “Einstein’s Cosmos.”
So once again our special guest is Professor David Goodstein, professor of physics, Vice Provost of Caltech, and the book is “Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil.” Ok, to play devil’s advocate again, some people bring out a certain ratio, where they claim that if you take a look at how long it will take to exhaust certain reserves, we’re talking about many, many, many decades before we exhaust, fully exhaust, certain reserves of oil. What are your thoughts?
Dr. Goodstein: Well this is called the R/P ratio in the industry. The reserves production ratio, which means you take what are called the proved reserves, you divide it by the amount that we used last year, and you get a number of years that we can go on using the oil at the same rate without any problem. The R/P ratio today, depending on whose numbers you believe, whether you believe let’s say BP [British Petroleum], which does its own estimates (a large oil company that does its own estimates) or the USGS, is somewhere between 40 and 100 years. But that number is absolutely meaningless. The proved reserves are fictitious numbers. For example, the proved reserves of the OPEC countries took a sudden jump of between 300- and 400-billion barrels (about 40% of all the oil we know to exist on earth) sometime in the 1980s, and there were no significant discoveries during that period, that is to say, politicians discovered 400-billion barrels of oil without drilling a hole in the ground. And the reason is because this is just a game that the oil people play; the so-called ‘proved’ reserves have really little to do with what’s going on in the real oil fields. They’re numbers that are manipulated for economic and political reasons by oil companies or oil-producing countries. We recently saw that Royal Dutch Shell had to reduce its proved reserves, and correspondingly, the price of its stock shares, because an outside auditor said, “No, you’ve been lying.” Of course, nobody applies that kind of logic and scrutiny to the Middle Eastern countries, for example - I mean most of the world’s oil. So those numbers are pretty meaningless, and besides we just don’t go on using oil at a constant rate. The rate at which we use oil, historically, has risen for more than a century, and will continue to rise as long as the oil is available, particularly since more than a billion Chinese people are just beginning to learn to drive and the world population is increasing, and so on. No, the R/P ratio is not very useful.
Dr. Kaku: And the United States consumes about 25% of the world’s resources in energy.
Dr. Goodstein: Yes, and we’ve got 5% of the worlds population.
Dr. Kaku: That’s right, and what happens when the Chinese and other developing countries want the American life style?
Dr. Goodstein: Well, I think that’s virtually a rhetorical question. It’s obvious what will happen. What will happen is that the demand for oil will just zoom way, way up.
Dr. Kaku: Ok, now let me again play devil’s advocate. Other people say that capitalism will correct all the problems. As the price of oil rises, there’s more incentive to A), explore for oil, and B), look for alternatives.
Dr. Goodstein: Well we’ve already discussed exploring for oil. I think that exploring for oil will not produce very interesting results. We have pretty much discovered most of the oil that there is to discover. The other point of view, the extreme example of the other point of view is that all fossil fuels are fungible. In other words, you can turn coal into oil, which chemically is true. One can turn coal into oil, and there’s an enormous amount of chemical energy stored in the ground in the form of coal, so you run out of oil, you just use something else, and that’s where the laws of economics come in. Once the light-crude oil, the kind of conventional oil that we’ve been using up until now, is supposed to become expensive enough, then other sources of hydrocarbons become economically competitive, and that’s already happening. For example, oil sands in Alberta are being mined now at a profit. Of course, these are solid deposits. They don’t flush out of the ground. You have to strip mine them and extract the oil from the ore, and so they’re not going to flood the market anytime soon. They’ll come on very slowly. But still, they’re being mined at a profit, and there are a long list of other hydrocarbons that can be turned into fuels, at a price. So what we’re talking about is not the end of the availability of fuels; we’re talking about the end of the availability of cheap fuel. You have to understand that our civilization has evolved into the form that it has because of the availability of cheap fuel - not just the availability of fuel. Another point that’s extremely important to understand is that if we go on burning fossil fuels with complete abandon, we risk doing irreversible damage to the climate of our planet - it just happens to be the only planet we have.
Dr. Kaku: Now some people say that we have enough coal to last several-hundred years in the United States.
Dr. Goodstein: Or thousands of years, even.
Dr. Kaku: Right.
Dr. Goodstein: That’s a foolish estimate. The estimates of how much coal we have range from hundreds to thousands of years, and the very fact that they range over a factor of ten tells you that nobody has any idea. These are just wild guesses, but even these wild guesses are [inaudible] to at the present rate of use, which is the [inaudible] line of why we have that many years to go. If you try to substitute coal for oil, the first thing you have to know is that we use twice-as-much energy now from oil as we do from coal. So just in order to mine enough coal to replace the oil, you’d have to mine much more coal. But the conversion process is extremely inefficient. So you have to mine not 3 times as much coal, but maybe 6 or 7 or 8 times as much coal. Then the world population is increasing, the Chinese want to learn how to drive, or to put it more cogently, the poor nations of the world would like to live more like us, which means to use more energy, and so on. And so the rate at which fuels are going to be used is going to increase extremely rapidly. The alternative to that is war and famine and almost unimaginable chaos. So the numbers that say that there’s enough coal to last for hundreds of thousands of years at the present rate of use have to be divided by at least a factor of ten or maybe even more to reflect the fact that the current rate of use is not going to last very long if we try to substitute coal for oil.
[Now to Philip Maldari at KPFA]
Philip Maldari: You’re listening to Exploration here on KPFA. I’m Philip Maldari. Michio Kaku joins us on the phone from New York. Michio, this interview is both very scary and very fascinating all at the same time. I mean, I don’t know how many people even imagine that within at least in most of our lifetimes that oil will largely disappear from the planet. This seems impossible.
Dr. Kaku: That’s right. This book, “Out of Gas,” was written by a member of the establishment. He’s a Vice Provost of Caltech for god’s sake. He’s not a scheming environmentalist, he’s not a housewife, and he’s not a priest. He’s a professor of physics at Caltech, a member of the establishment, Vice Provost of Caltech, and here he is signaling the alarm that within a few decades we’ll probably see in our lifetimes massive chaos, massive social disruption, unless now, unless now, we begin the process of looking at the post-petroleum era. And that’s why people should get a copy of this very exciting new book “Out of Gas,” because it gives you the definitive words. He goes through all the statistics and shows that the establishment is way optimistic in terms of using their analysis of oil reserves, and that we would have to have many Middle East discoveries. We would have to discover many Saudi Arabias in the next few decades just to keep up with current demand, and that’s not going to happen. And that’s why people should call the number 510-848-5732, and get a copy of this very important book, because this provides ammunition for those people who believe that we should plan now for the post-petroleum era, not in the future.
Philip Madari: Well, we are offering this book for a $90 pledge to KPFA. We’re very thrilled. It’s a hardback book just out in the bookstores. Again, it's entitled, “Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil,” and our phone number is 510-848-5732. That’s 848-KPFA in the 510-area code; there’s the first caller. I have a hunch we’re going to fill up the phone line here at KPFA, as this book provides us with the information we desperately need, because they’re saying “Don’t worry your pretty little head. You buy the SUV, no problem,” and then what happens when we run out of petroleum? I mean, think of all the things petroleum is used for beyond just the automobile; think about how we’re going to have airline traffic in this world, if we don’t have oil.
There’s another caller - 510-848-5732 or 1-800-439-KPFA - listener-sponsored radio in northern and central California. Again a $90 pledge will make it happen and demonstrate your support for Exploration with Michio Kaku, coming your way every week, every Tuesday afternoon at 2 o’clock here on KPFA. Another caller; Michio has got a lot of fans, a lot of supporters out there. We know that that this is a premiere science program here in northern California; it’s really the only one of its kind, and we’re really hoping that as many of you as possible will take advantage of this opportunity, and go to the phone. “Out of Gas: the End of the Age of Oil;” and as you were mentioning, Michio, it’s very important that people have this kind of information at their fingertips, so that when the doubting Thomases out there try to bring out the argument, “ Oh, don’t worry; it will be ok, no problem,” you’ll have the facts. You’ll be able to quote the facts, so give us a call 510-848-5732 or 1-800-439-KPFA
Dr. Kaku: And what was a real eye opener for me was, I thought I knew what the proven reserves were on the world; I thought I knew the United-States-Geological-Survey figures, but then here comes the Vice Provost of Caltech just demolishing these figures, showing that they’re wildly optimistic, that the rate of change, the rate of discovery, has been declining, declining in the last decade, and so even though we do discover more oil with time, the rate is not keeping up with demand, and you can’t look at coal, you can’t look at nuclear, you can’t look at all the other alternatives being looked at, and here’s the Vice Provost of Caltech, one by one, demolishing all the myths using numbers that, using numbers that are authoritative and definitive, and so these are shocking. I almost dropped the book when I was reading the book, thinking, “Oh my god, a lot of the myths about oil are completely wrong.”