book review of HUBBERT'S PEAK by Ron Patterson

I received my copy of "Hubbert's Peak" by Kenneth S. Deffeyes in the mail Saturday, and finished it in three days. It was great. So many of the questions that have been asked on this list were answered in this book. Where does the oil come from? How is the oil stored in the ground? Why can't we just drill deeper? What about the deep ocean? Deffeyes answers these questions and a hundred others you never even thought to ask, in just 190 pages of text.

Where does oil come from? All oil beds are aquatic in origin. Oil starts out as organic material, any kind of organic material, from algae to dead fish to organic material found in fish fecal pellets. This material must sink to an oxygen-free bottom where the absence of oxygen allows it to decay. Then it must be covered with other sediment and pushed into the "oil window" which starts at a depth of 7,500 feet deep and ends at 15,000 feet in depth. Above 7,500 feet, the temperature is not hot enough to "crack" the organic material into oil molecules and below 15,000 feet, everything is cracked all the way into natural gas. Inside that window, the temperature is at "coffee pot" levels and after a few million years, the organic material is cracked into oil.

The book answers a hundred other questions. In the old days, you turned the drill bit by turning the drill pipe. But how do you drill a well that goes down, turns and goes sideways? You use a "mud turbine" at the bottom of a slightly flexible pipe to turn the drill bit. Drilling mud is pumped down the center of the drill pipe and carried back out on the outside of the pipe. This keeps the drill bit cool, carries out the tailings and keeps pressure inside the hole above any groundwater pressure. In the old days, it took 30 horsepower to turn the drill pipe and 2,000 horsepower to run the mud pumps. Today, the mud pumps have to be even bigger.

Other answers. The oil is cracked in the "source rock", migrates to the "reservoir rock" and, unless it is stopped by a non-permeable "cap rock", it migrates all the way to the surface and is attacked by bacteria and lost. (That is what happened to the Orinoco bitumen. So-called oil shale, however, is source rock that never entered the oil window and was therefore never cracked into oil.) Reservoir rock is either sandstone or carbonate rock like limestone or dolomite, and must have both porosity and permeability, (little bubbles to hold the oil and leaky connections to allow the oil to escape). Only about 10 percent of ancient limestone has both. The best reservoir rock is reef limestone and dolomite. A quote about the source rock of the world's largest oil field, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia:

"Examining the reservoir rock of the world's biggest oil field was for me a thrill bigger than climbing Mount Everest. A small part of the reservoir was dolomite, but the most of it turned out to be a fecal-pellet limestone. I had to go home that evening and explain to my family that the reservoir rock in the world's biggest oil field was made of shit."

Although only about the last one third of the book is dedicated to Hubbert's Peak, by the time you get there, you thoroughly understood the oil industry. And, it is absolutely necessary to understand the entire oil business to understand what is happening in the oil business, that is, the declining oil business.

Only one place on earth, large enough to have much oil, is yet to be explored. That place is the South China Sea. Because all the nations controlling the area are in political turmoil, it has not yet been explored. It may hold a couple of very large fields or it may hold absolutely nothing.

What about the recent heavily criticized United States Geological Survey (USGS) resource estimates? "Sometimes the USGS was a little slow, but its work was of the highest quality. However, when the USGS workers tried to estimate resources, they acted, well, like bureaucrats. Repeatedly, they used statistically dubious estimation methods. For instance, at one point they divided the United States into little areas and asked geologists to guess how much oil was under each area. The USGS then added up the guesses as IF THE AREAS WERE INDEPENDENT and got overly optimistic answers. Unfortunately, small adjacent areas are not independent; if no source rock was present or if the rocks had been buried deeper than the oil window, then a whole bunch of little areas are eliminated at once. Hubbert's presence at the USGS from 1964 to 1976 did not cure the tendency; in 2000 the USGS again released implausibly large estimates of world oil." [p. 134]

(Describing a graph of U.S. cumulative production.) "Extending this line to the horizontal axis gives a final ultimate production, when the last dog is dead, of 220 billion barrels. This is not far from the 200 billion estimated by Campbell in 1997. The best-fitting Gaussian curve for the U.S. production and reserves in chapter 7 give an expected ultimate production of 220 billion barrels. Unfortunately, the 262-billion-barrel estimate issued by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2000 is way out in right field. To make the USGS estimate come true, there would have to be new U.S. oil discoveries that add up to the reserves of Kuwait." [pp. 154-155]

(Describing a graph of world qualitative production) "For world oil, the production history lurches around before it settles down in 1983 to a straight line. The left-hand part of the production history lies above the line because the curve is closer to Gaussian than to a logistic distribution. In addition, there is a local valley in 1942 and a local peak in 1970, which I will leave for economic historians to explain.

"The straight line for world oil begins with annual production at 5 percent of cumulative production and ends at 2 trillion barrels. Lots of us, Hubbert included, have used 2 trillion for years because it was a nice even number. The discover circles certainly encourage extending the line exactly to 2 trillion. The USGS estimate is again implausibly high. Its number, 3.012 trillion, requires discovering an additional amount of oil equivalent to the entire Middle East.

(Skipping a paragraph.) "So when does world oil production peak and start downward? That's the big enchilada. You can use the spacing between the recent production dots and see that four or five more dots will carry us to the midpoint. Once we draw that straight line through the year 2000 dot, the logistic curve is fully defined. The mathematical peak falls at the year 2004; call it 2005. However, I'm not betting the farm that the actual year is 2005 and not 2003 or 2006. The top of the mathematical distribution is smoothly curved, and there is a fair amount of jitter in the year-to-year production. Remember, the center of the best-fit U.S. curve was 1975 and the actual single peak year was 1970. There is nothing plausible that could postpone the peak until 2009. Get used to it. [pp. 154-156]

Deffeyes sees the peak possibly as early as 2003, but no later than 2009. The disappointing part of the book is that Deffeyes is an oilman and knows absolutely nothing about alternative energy. He seems to think we will come up with something to replace oil. He starts chapter 10 with these words:

"There are plenty of energy sources other than fossil fuels. Running out of energy in the long run is not the problem. The bind comes during the next 10 years: getting over our dependence on crude oil. This chapter begins by discussing two nonrenewable energy sources, followed by renewable resources."

But in that very short chapter, he gives only a few very vague descriptions of geothermal, solar, and wind power. He also discusses nuclear power in that chapter. It is obvious that he does not have the nuclear phobia that infects most Americans. And it becomes very obvious that oil, not alternative forms of energy, is his forte.

The last chapter is little more than a four-page pep talk to encourage everyone to get off their ass, and get to work preparing for the end of oil. The chapter, and the book, ends with advice to his two-year-old granddaughter:

"Learn something that you can use about thermodynamics. By the time you reach retirement age, Emma, world production of oil (the kind that's fun to drill for) will be down to a fifth of its present size.

"Get into renewable energy. Look at a cornstalk the way a Chicago meatpacker used to look at a hog: sell everything but the squeal. If you need some oil-based lubricants in your bio-energy-pharmaceutical plant, ask whether Justin, Jakob, and Mollie are interested in scratching for the last few strat traps in Iraq." -- "Love Grandpapa"

But, by all means, BUY THIS BOOK. Buy it for the first nine chapters, not the last two. "Hubbert's Peak" only costs $17.46 from Amazon, plus $3.99 shipping. That is a very cheap price to pay for a fantastic education about how oil was formed, how it is discovered and produced, and most of all, why it is about to get very scarce. Chapters 7 and 8 go into great detail of what is happening, and has happened, in the discovery and production of oil since it was first discovered over one hundred years ago. No matter what your position on oil is today, I guarantee you that by the time you finish this book, you will believe that the peak of oil production is upon us. And it will be here in this decade.

Ron Patterson

"This much is certain, no initiative put in place starting today can have a substantial effect on the peak production year. No Caspian Sea exploration, no drilling in the South China Sea, no SUV replacements, no renewable energy projects can be brought on at a sufficient rate to avoid a bidding war for the remaining oil." -- Kenneth S. Deffeyes, "Hubbert's Peak".