Energy expert warns about peak oil

As you’re hopping into your car, gearing up for the holidays, driving every which way to pick out shiny gifts, think about this: According to Robert Hirsch, a past senior energy program advisor for world oil production with Science Application International Corporations, the one resource that provides all those things could soon be in dangerously short supply.

Hirsch delivered a lecture at the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science about the bleak prospect of "peak oil," the tipping point where the worldwide production of oil starts to fall short of world demand. From that point forward, said Hirsch, the entire world (not to mention all of its economies) is in for some serious trouble.

In the model that Hirsch presented to a roomful of UVA graduate students and professors, once oil production peaks, shortages will increase around the world. These shortages will drive prices up.

According to economists, this wouldn’t be such a huge problem. Using a purely economic model, such a shortage in supply and unusually high prices are nearly always negated by a surplus introduced into a market starved for product. One little problem, said Hirsch. Oil is a finite resource, and there won’t be any of it to put into the market to restore balance.

"Many economists," said Hirsch, "just don’t get it."

Opponents of peak oil write it off as a theory. To do so is misguided, said Hirsch.

He pointed out that while transportation gets a large share of attention when it comes to oil use, 99 percent of all lubricants depend on oil, as do 95 percent of all goods in stores and 99 percent of all food production.

"Peak oil is not a ‘theory,’" he said. "This is an actuality. We’ve been using much more than we’ve been adding in the way of reserves."

Predictions of when oil will peak vary widely. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that oil production will peak after 2030—one of the most conservative estimates. T. Boone Pickens, who at one time ran the U.S.’s largest independent oil company, has said that oil had already peaked two years ago.

Colin Campbell and Chris Skrebrowski of the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) claim that spare oil production capacity will disappear around 2010-2012, Hirsch said.

So, we’re all dead, or if not dead, then running around in a postapocalyptic world with hunting knifes in our teeth looking for rusting cans of corn, right? Well, maybe not, said Hirsch.

He is advocating "crash programs" such as those used by the country during World War II to mitigate the effects of worldwide oil shortages. These include increasing fuel efficiency, using more unconventional (or "heavy") oil, moving forward with gas-to-liquid fuel technology and using enhanced oil recovery methods such as steam.

Hirsch said he sees such mitigation as a sort of temporary bridge to a more sustainable fuel in the future. As it stands now, that future is bleak according to those looking at the peak of oil production. The IEA has said that "we are on a course for an energy system that will evolve from crisis to crisis."

As far as finding a solution, Hirsh said, "we may be too late."

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