What to do as oil peaks out

A geologist as amiable guide

"Hubbert's Peak," the point on the graph that marks the apex of world oil production, has dropped below its zenith. And, for Americans dependent on their economy's lifeblood, the news goes against the grain of our optimistic belief in the eternal More. Whether you consider the shrinking of that commodity as bringing grim times for our manufacturing, driving, consuming nation, or, perversely, good times for a planet overrun with the greenhouse gases it produces, one thing is sure: There are life-altering changes ahead.

"Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak" is an attempt by Kenneth S. Deffeyes to chart and interpret the alternatives.

A geologist who "grew up in the oil patch" and worked in the "awl bidness," to quote his westernized spelling, Deffeyes is an amiable guide. With a consultant-cum-Rotarian's ease, he explores the angst from the downslide of geologist M. King Hubbert's predicted high point of production. "Oilfield trash, and proud of it," says the bumper sticker on the car of this oil man with the Princeton PhD. And the same flip and practiced approach characterizes his insider-outsider text.

This is hardly the first book on oil issues. From Daniel Yergin's "Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power" early on, to Michael T. Klare's "Blood and Oil" analysis of its geopoli- tics, to the more recent "The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies," by Richard Heinberg, the energy lifeblood that powers the world is up for exploration in literary and geological terms.

Its place in both geopolitics (think House of Saud) and global warming (observe CO2 emissions and climate change) has defined the modern world.

The power source of the American dream machine (think automobile) and extravagant life styles (think personal consumption), oil is the kingpin of capitalism and Middle East politics alike. And its replacement will not soon, or perhaps ever, be an easy alternative.

Deffeyes's mission, then, is to cover these substitute fuels.

In brisk chapters titled "Consider Coal," "Tar Sands, Heavy Oil," "Oil Shale," "Uranium," or "Hydrogen," he describes, then downplays, their long-term capability.

Taking the short view, he writes that "the primary point of this book is the disruption of our energy supplies during the next five to ten years." Then he expands to the extended view.

"Because I am a geologist," he writes, "I have an incurable curiosity about the longer time scales.

"Will we be able to enjoy the remaining 900,000-year life span of a typical mammalian species?"

Is there no middle ground?

The author of this take-no-prisoners book does boast a sense of humor:

"It is my opinion that the peak will occur in late 2005 or in the first few months," Deffeyes writes, thereafter nominating next Thanksgiving as his World Oil Peak Day wherein "we can pause and give thanks" for the good years of abundance, and face up to the coming decline of this life-force fuel.

From time to time, this breezily informed observer indicates an environmental outlook as he jovially rejects plastic grocery-store bags with a "save an oil well" motto.

More informatively, he predicts that 2019 production will be down to 90 percent of the peak level and gives a thumbs up to "renewable," "sustainable," and organic or natural alternatives along with, say, locally grown produce for fewer airplane flights, shorter trips, and low-mileage vehicles.

Perversely, his recommendations for polluting diesel and coal, and problematic nuclear energy, skip kinder fuels like solar cells, bio-fuels, or tidal energy in a rather quixotic manner for those who care about the weird and tumultuous weather that racks our planet.

For Americans dismayed that this country alone of all the industrial nations refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions, this is, in the end, a dispiriting book.

"Global warming" is listed only once in the index, "climate change" not at all.

For all the pleasantly flip writing by this knowledgeable energy man, he fails to confront the deeper problems of a planet soaked in CO2.

Jane Holtz Kay, an architecture/ planning critic and author of 'Asphalt Nation,' is currently writing 'Last Chance Landscape,' a book on climate change.

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