Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Saturday, 24 August 2002

I didn't write any fiction today, but I did put in several hours on an article that I've been meaning to write for a long time. It's about developing expertise.

I also read and critiqued a story for Thomas.

Yesterday I read Hubbert's Peak by oil geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes. The title is a reference to the conclusions of a 1956 paper by M. King Hubbert, in which he estimated that oil production in the United States would peak in the early 1970s. The actual peak turned out to be 1970. Deffeyes's work extends the same analysis to world (rather than US domestic) production.

It's an interesting book. The first half is on oil geology--how it is formed and what circumstances make it accessible to extraction. Then, based on that information, he makes the case for why oil production quantities tend to form a peak--with greater and greater annual production as more and more oil fields are found and exploited followed by gradually dropping production once most of the very large fields have been found and the easy-to-extract oil is tapped.

It's a different kind of analysis than I'm used so. Most of the rhetoric on the topic that I've seen either comes from an environmentalist perspective (however much oil there is the quantity is finite, so obviously we'll run out sometime--therefore we should be working toward a sustainable lifestyle) or else from an economist perspective (if oil becomes scarce the price will go up, making it profitable to exploit marginal sources and use alternatives). This book cogently explains why the shape of the curve of annual production won't be significantly affected by rising prices, and takes a look at just how far most of the alternatives are from providing much of a substitute. But it also points out that the shape of the graph doesn't take us down to zero oil production any time soon. The problem isn't that we're running out of oil. The problem is that, just as oil consumption has been following the graph right along as it's been on the upward side of the graph, it's going to have to follow along as it turns over to the downward side of the graph. That's going to shock a lot of people.

Oh, and when does this happen? From page 158: "The mathematical peak falls at the year 2004.7; call it 2005. However, I'm not betting the farm that the actual year is 2005 and not 2003 or 2006. . . . There is nothing plausible that could postpone the peak until 2009. Get used to it."

Back in the early 1980s my dad and I collaborated briefly on a book we were calling The OPEC Window. It was about the brief period (we didn't know how long it would be) between the oil price shocks of the 1970s and whenever it was that oil prices would shoot up again (something we viewed as inevitable). Our book was on lifestyle strategies to take advantage of the window of low prices in a way that would let you capture some of that cheap energy in a form that would let you preserve the benefit into the future when energy would be expensive. There's no good way to store the oil itself, but if you built an energy efficient house now, you could go on living in it after energy became expensive. We didn't manage to interest a publisher in the book, so we never finished it.

It was while looking for my notes on the OPEC Window that I found my notes for the article on developing expertise. I'm thinking of sending it to Speculations, once it's done.


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