Dave Room speaks with Amos Nur, Professor of Geophysics at Stanford University

MediaDave Room speaks with Amos Nur, Professor of Geophysics at Stanford University

DAVID ROOM: This is David Room for Global Public Media, speaking with Stanford Professor of geophysics, Amos Nur, on May 1st, 2005. Hello, Professor?

AMOS NUR: Good morning, David.

DR: Can you tell us, in lay man's terms, what is geophysics?

AN: Geophysics is a combination of physics and geology. And the reason that this combination is needed, is that geology is limited to relatively near surface information, and not the earth. You look at the rocks on the surface and maybe build a few wells. But, if you want to know what's going on deeper and inside the earth, we need to use physical measurements that are made at the surface. From which we then infer what's going on inside. These measurements might be sending acoustic waves or seismic waves, as we call it; through the earth and picking them up again and inverting them, to tell us what kind of material is down there. All we measure is the electrical response inside the earth; to again, infer something about the materials and their behavior. And, the back of the earth, which is not accessible by direct observation.

DR: What aspects of geophysics are related to energy resources and petroleum?

AN: You know, most of the oil and gas that we have discovered in the past. And, are going to discover in the future; is buried at a depth of at least several kilometers below the surface of the earth. And, that means we need to use geophysical measurements at the surface to try to identify the location of hydrocarbon accumulations under the surface. And, even try to get at least an estimate of how much oil is down there. How much gas is down there. What pressure are these reservoirs under? And, so on. To help us decide where to drill, and how to drill. And, how to produce these reservoirs in the future.

DR: Okay. M. King Hubbert, the father of oil peak, is credited with putting the physics in geophysics. Do you care to comment?

AN: He made major contributions to geophysics, bringing in physics. For example, he told us years ago; something that has to do with scaling. Large scale phenomenon of crust like faults - earthquake faults. Like San Andreas. Suppose we want to mimic the behavior of San Andreas, in order to understand it. We want to mimic it in laboratory experiments. M. King Hubbert was able to show us how we need to think about the scaling. Not only from the upper dimensions, from a thousand kilometers; which is the length of the fault, to a couple of inches. Which is the length of the sample in the lab. But, also we need to scale the physical properties. The strength of the rock. The density. How easily it deforms. And, so on. And, that's something most of us did not understand, until M. King Hubbert pointed it out. For example, the strength of granite in the earth's crust, is scaled down to something that's weaker than honey, in the laboratory experiments. And, that poses great challenges to the way we think about the earth. Another area, where he made tremendous contribution; is to realize that the rocks in the earth, are not perfect solid, but they've got cracks and flaws. And, that means water or under volcanoes, it would be magma inside these cracks and flaws. And so, the mechanical behavior of the system is quite different than just the behavior of just a piece of solid on the surface of the earth. And, that led to a tremendous insight into how volcanoes work and how earthquake faults work. And, so on. It's remarkable, especially that even with many years ago, several decades ago; at the time, when almost no one else thought about these things. So, he was a real pioneer. And, that's always been typical attribute of M. King Hubbert. Really future vision, that was usually far ahead of everybody else.

DR: You had some interactions with him?

AN: Yeah, he used to teach at Stanford, for a while. I came to Stanford, shortly after he left. But, he came back for visits and I the opportunity to meet with him a couple of times. And, talk with him a little bit. And, also find out about how he did as teacher here.

DR: What did you find out?

AN: Well, as teacher, some of those who actually did take his course; felt that it was the toughest course and the toughest teacher he ever had, in all his years at Stanford. Extremely demanding, extremely knowledgeable and impatient with slow thinkers. And, so on. Tough guy.

DR: And, your interactions; did they bear this out, as well? Did you see a different side of him, being a professor?

AN: Well, talking to him, you realize that he was a real profound thinker. And, he was always able to identify the key issues and key challenges. And, cut through all the fluff around it . And, of course, that's something that is relevant to have him speak. And, that network he did on the future of oil and gas. He had a vision on that, that was different from anybody else's at the time. And, people said; well, it's simple, or simple-minded, or simplistic. But, that was his real intellectual quality. An outstanding scientist

DR: You said in an article that David Lazarus wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle; 'we're in the neighborhood of the peak'. Can you explain that a little bit further?

AN: Yeah. Well, basically, from a geological point of view; we know that there's only sixty months of fossil oil and gas inside the earth. And, then the question that looms, which M. King Hubbert first brought up in 1956, almost 50 years ago, is; can we guess or make some kind of rough estimate, as to when we're going to begin to see the decline of - and it's finite, when we produce it. Well, at some point, it will begin to decline and the estimate number there is. And, I would say; if you look at his work and some production data, you will have looked at over the last fifty years. We are in the neighborhood of the peak. I would say in the next fifteen years, we are going to really see the beginning of the global decline of production. You know, many of oil provinces, are already declining. So, when we talk about global - global oil future, it's really a summary, the sum total of a lot of different oil policies. Not to mention North America, Venezuela, Indonesia, the Persian Gulf, the North Sea. Any of these regions, already declining, but globally, we are in the peak region. Typically, now in 2020, or something like that.

DR: Is your sense that the oil companies are aware of this?

AN: I believe that the oil companies have been aware of this, for some time. I know Shell and Exxon have been aware of this for a decade. I suspect longer than that.

DR: What is your analysis of the Chevron-Texaco acquisition of Unical? And, whether peak played any role in that?

AN: Well, you know, this kind of consolidation among the international oil companies - this consolidation has been going on for some time now. Shell has bought Texaco, a few years ago. Exxon bought Mobil. And so, this latest acquisition is just a continuation of this pattern. Basically, the way I understand it, and I see it; it is becoming more and more difficult to replenish reserves. Most of these companies have a hard time, finding as much oil, as they are producing. So, it has become safer. And, sometimes cheaper, to just acquire another oil company. It's a bit easier, than finding alot of new oil. And, as time progresses, and if our notion about finiteness of oil is right; we're going to see more warfare. So, when Chevron acquires an oil company, they don't find new oil. They buy oil. They buy the oil, that the other company has found.

DR: You've said; that unless we have a global commitment to do something about this, the scope of the looming problems is going to be almost too vast to contemplate. Can you elaborate on that?

AN: Well, if we're correct, that it's going to be more and more difficult to find new oil. We are pretty close to capacity, at this point. That means, the rate at which we can produce oil globally; is pretty close to the maximum, on the one hand. On the other hand, it's the huge economy - that is the future economy. But, the huge population of China and India, and other countries as well. That the economies of those nations, are growing so fast. The combination of those two aspects, especially the growing demand in India and China. At the time, when resources are becoming more and more difficult to replenish. That's sort of a difficult situation. And, since oil is finite, the only way that it can be taken care of in the long run is; if we find or bring about alternative energy sources, that could gradually replace oil and gas as the source of our well being. And, for most of the world, the increase in well being, or standard of living. If we don't bring in alternative energy sources, we're going to start fighting. Either maybe militarily, certainly politically and economically. First, with China, and then maybe with India. But, who will have easier access to the regions, which still have alot of oil in them, while others is shrinking.

DR: What is driving China's explosive increase in oil consumption?

AN: You know, in the U.S., we burn one quarter of the oil that's produced on earth, every year. We are burning worldwide, something over 82 billion barrels of oil, per year. It's a huge number. I mean, it's almost incomprehensible. In the U.S., we burn about a quarter of that. Every American, burns something like 25 barrels of oil, per year. Every Chinese, on average, burns 1.2 barrels of oil, per year. And, the world average, is somewhere along 5 barrels, per person, per year. So, just imagine, if China and India, were to rise to our average. We suddenly need to increase production, by something approaching - I don't know - several billion barrels, extra, per year. And, this would happen, pretty fast. So, what's driving them, is this need to improve a sense of living. I would say, even modestly, it needs the energy that it takes in. Because, there's so many people, and the economy is growing so fast; the demand is almost explosive.

DR: How do you see this global commitment, that you mentioned in the interview with David Lazarus? How do you see that possibility, playing out?

AN: You know, I don't know if I see a possibility. Because, you know, I'm not a political scientist. And, I'm not an economist. So, I just have a feeling about it. We will have to find a way; that this resource, at some point, everybody on earth, is more equitably available. I don't know how we're going to implement it. But, from the U.S., for example; what we should have done, and every day the task gets more difficult. We should have more seriously thought about it, when we first became net oil importers on a big scale. Let's say late 70's. And, prepared ourselves for building up alternative energy sources, on a scale that could gradually replace oil. But, we haven't done it. And so, now we're going to compete with China, and maybe ultimately, India; about who is going to have better hold over the remaining oil, mostly in the Persian Gulf. I don't know, I think globally we have a challenge to invest, on a scale that would enable us to bring online alternative energy sources. Between now and say, 25 years from now.

DR: You've said before; that our options for responding to peak oil, are narrowing?

AN: Well, the main problem is, that it takes a huge amount of time. Let's say that thirty years from now, we wanted to replace one half of the oil and gas, that we're using today with something else. Thirty years, is not a long time. So, that's a big challenge. Secondly, the amount of money that needs to be invested. Let's say, it was breeder reactors. We have to build thousands of breeder reactors, to accomplish that. And, I'm talking about nuclear energy. Because, in my opinion, that's probably the most feasible, alternative we have, over a relatively short time. Because, the technology is more or less in place. And, we know how to do it. And, it has it's own set of difficulties. But, compared to other alternative, energy sources, like solar or wind. Or biomass, and so on. These things can produce some now. But, on the scale that's needed; we can't even begin to imagine - and we can use the alternative, on the scale of what would be needed. So, probably the United States, should invest something on the order of maybe 150 to 300 billion dollars a year, for the next thirty years. To bring about alternative energy sources. This is too much for us to stomach.

DR: And, when you said; nuclear can be brought on in a relatively short time frame, we're still talking six to eight years?

AN: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And, it has to be gradual. So, it's really the management of the condition. From total dependence on fossil oil and gas, mainly. And, coal, to some extent. To what it's going to be like, 30, 40, or 50 years from now. So far, no one has really - in my opinion - no one has risen to the magnitude of this challenge. In the United States, we offset some twenty years ago, to secure the free flow of oil to us, from oil producing areas. Not a partisan issue. It's not Bush or Clinton. It's by virtue of the fact, that we import sixty percent of our oil today. We did not opt thirty years ago, to seriously begin to develop alternative energy sources. It was driven by economics and the perception, that there was so much oil in the world. It's cheap. So, much easier to buy it. And, use a little bit of military and political force. You know, secure Saudi Arabia for us. And, we go to Kuwait, and make sure they're free to ship their oil. And, now in Iraq. So, today we begin to see the price we've paid for that. So, the concepts in the past, was between us and some aspect of the oil producing country. Like an internal conflict, like Bin Laden wanted in Saudi Arabia. And, Khomeni in Iran, and so on. But, this is different kind of skirmishes. The really big conflict, which I'm really worried about, is when we have to be in conflict with somebody else who needs the oil. Not as a producer, but another consumer, that is big and getting stronger. And, also wants to get access to the same oil producing provinces. And, if we don't do something, how do conflicts get managed? History tells us that they don't get managed very well.

DR: Surely, transportation is going to be more expensive in the future. Particularly, air and road. What do you think about rebuilding local economies? So, that we're starting to make things that we need, locally?

AN: Well, you know, as I said, I'm not an economist. And, I don't understand globalization, very well. But, the only thing that I'm sure about is; that if we continue on the trend that we are on, in terms of resources, I think we're on the wrong track. I don't know how you can make the right track. Or, what do we do about it. But, all I've been trying to do in the last few years, is to raise the awareness of the problem that's ahead. And, hope that I get more and more people thinking about it. And, maybe some of them will rise to the challenge. And, come up with some ways, to think about the principles of how the world should be managed in the future.

DR: Right. Is oil peak a standard class offering. Or, requirement for geology students - geophysics students at Stanford?

AN: Not really.

DR: Okay. Is that a political thing? Or, how might that come about?

AN: Well, all was treated as kind of a given. You get involved in it, only if you're interested in that. People are very uneasy, when we talk about the relationship between oil and national security, and international conflict. People really get uneasy about that. So far, I have not been able to convince alot of my colleagues, that this something that has to be studied and looked at. And, understood much better. Many political scientists that I talk to, say it's not a big deal. There's always oil, somewhere. Many economists have real infinite faith in market forces. Prices will go up. Scientists will find more oil, or produce it better. Or, it will incentify scientists or chemists, to come up with breakthrough ideas. And, about methods engineers will produce it better If you notice, not all market forces work, even if you really have an alternative. But, if you depend on something critically, and there's no real alternative; then, as far as I can tell, history shows us that we don't rely on competition of market forces. We just turn into conflict. And, this start of thinking, turned me to go on and give my talk, in the last few years in places in the world. At least, what formed the geophysical point of view; it is a finite resource. And, the implications, even though we can't tell you exactly when it's going to be, and so forth. The implications are - oil is like no other resource. First of all, we burn it. Not like gold or water, which - that recycles. You don't burn gold. You don't burn water. You contaminate it. But, if it's filtered, you can clean it. Just look at all the water on earth. The oceans are filled with water. If we have enough energy, we can desalinate, as much as we want or need But, oil we don't. And, it's gone. And, in a free market environment we live in; the oil producers and the oil owners, national governments or the oil companies, they want to find it as fast as possible and burn it as fast as possible. Because, that's the way the business is set up. The need for income. We have never had any process, that would conserve or slow down the rate of oil production. Through the sort of long term vision about what will happen sixty years from now. There's no incentive in the free market world to conserve. And, there's no incentive for the oil producing countries. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and so on. They got together in OPEC, simply to control the price. But, they would like to sell as much as they can, as fast as they can. We burn the oil. They burn the money. I say that, not cynically. But, the fact is; that most of these countries that depend almost completely on oil, selling oil, have invested as extremely poorly. Their citizens are not doing very well. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran. Even now, it's remarkable how poorly invested was this huge income, that they had from oil. So, we burn the oil, they burn the money. Yeah.

DR: Earlier, you had mentioned that Hubbert had a talent, for just focusing in on the key aspects of an issue. And, just now, you said; hey, this is how business works. This is how business is set up. And, many people aren't aware that late in his life, Hubbert was trying to raise awareness that the science of energy and matter is incompatible with what he called the exponential growth culture. And, in particular, our debt base and monetary system and growth requiring, economic system. You have any comments on that?

AN: Yeah. Exponential growth; I think of it sometimes - you know, a petrie dish in biology, when you put some egg in a little dish. And, you put some single bacterium in the middle. First, this bacterium replicates, pretty fast. Because, for a single bacterium, in the middle of the petrie dish; looks like the food supply's infinite. But, at some point, the boundaries of the petrie dish begin to play a role. There is some infinite role. So, death begins to set in. And, in fact; the equation Hubbert deals with, is the logistic equation, has been used alot by biologists. Where they have a look at earth and death, in an environment with limited food and gravity, and so on. So, exponential growth, in a finite resource; will have to lead to some exponential death, of some sort. Early on, I would say, in most of the last century; no one paid attention to it. They just looked for more and more oil producers, as fast as they could. Oil population has doubled a couple of times. But, this exponential thing, will have to turn South. Simply, because the resource is finite. It didn't have to grow exponentially. I mean; suppose we had conservation and considerations in place, from day one. You'd say, well we'll be very careful in how we produce it, and burn it. And, what we just oil for. And, so on. Then it wouldn't be as low, exponentially. It would grow in a much more gradual way, perhaps. But, that's really not possible. Because, you know; the history of oil, was basically the issue of ownership. Who owns the oil? And, it's in the United States and Canada; the oil is owned by the people who own the land, basically. But, in most places in the world, the oil is owned by the countries. So, in North America; we couldn't even control it, even if we want to. Most other countries, it's owned by the government. Most of these major producing countries, that depend almost completely on oil; have horrible governments. It's so centralized. The power is centralized. In the hands of a few. And, it's probably because of the oil, all of the income of the country flows through the hands of the government, from the guys at the top. And, I'm sure Saddam Hussein felt why should my citizens even be complaining. I'm doing them a favor, you know. I sell my oil. And, I give them some of the income. And, the royal family in Saudi Arabia; in a way, the same way. You know, they dole it out to their citizens, that benefit from what the rulers dole out. So, most countries, who have implemented democracy - for example, in my opinion; it's kind of silly. Because, democracy - it works reasonably well, when the government depends on taxpayers. If you have a nation where taxes mean nothing. The income the government charges for selling natural resources; most of them would say, why should people vote. Who cares? It doesn't matter whether they exist or not. They don't pay taxes. They don't depend on them. They depend on us. So, I don't know. The alternative may be more horrible. But, that's a different kind of path. The question is now, what are we going to do in the future.

DR: I want to ask you one more question. And, that is; you've done alot of presentations in the last several years. Who are you presenting this to? And, what are they types of responses you're getting? And, is there any follow up, that's happening?

AN: I would say; the general response, is a mix of surprise and agreement. But, I talk to people, who are not professional political scientists. Or, professional economists. Students at Stanford, or alot of audiences of general public, and so on. Most people say; well, I never thought about this. Or, I haven't heard about it. Or, they have heard only about little pieces. But, they never understood how the whole thing fits together. And, it's pretty compelling. And, unfortunately, it's kind of depressing. It's daunting. Because, it's such a huge challenge. And, it's a threat. And, it's worrisome. Some political scientists and economists that heard me talk, say; well, you know, free market forces take care of these things. And, you know, at least my university here; many political scientists say they're really no relationship between oil and our war in Iraq. I got to talk to a group of undergraduates the other day, here at Stanford. And, I started by saying; well, how many of you feel that there's some relationship between our war in Iraq and oil? And, everybody raised his hand. And, I said; I'll tell you what the problem is. It's not clear what the link is. Because, we don't want to conquer there and rule it, and so on. And yet, most people on the street. Thinking people, have a feeling that there is some strong link; between our fighting in Iraq and oil. But, it's not clear, how that link goes. So, basically, in my talk, I try to clarify that; in the context of, there is only so much oil. Iraq is one of the biggest oil resources. Saudi Arabia, is becoming uncertain for us. Because, that's what Bin Laden is representing. Instability - a growing instability in Saudi Arabia. We may not have a secure source there. So, we needed to look for an alternative. And, I think; basically, that's what we're doing. And, Iraq is a - appears to be an alternative. At least to the government - the U.S. government. Because, of the real bad guy in charge, and we could assume, most Iraqis don't like him. And so, if we do something there, we can help secure alternative oil source for the United States. Not in unfair ways. We would pay for it somehow. Have some kind of stable source. And, at the same time, do some good for the people of Iraq. Whether it's going to work, or not; that's a different question. But, I think it was basically motivated, to a large extent, by the growing anxiety over the unreliability of Saudi Arabia's government. Who's going to control this country?

DR: Okay. Well, thank you very much

MediaDave Room speaks with Amos Nur, Professor of Geophysics at Stanford University