My Turn: Oil a wild card in city's future

Posted: Thursday, November 08, 2001

The thought-provoking tourism poll now being conducted online in the community appears to be effectively assessing current local opinions about this issue. An assumption is built into it, however, that should be a great cause for concern.

A book published last month titled "Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage" by Kenneth Deffeyes presents a sobering assessment of what is almost certain to happen in the fuel business in the next 10 years. Deffeyes takes us back to the 1950s work of a world-renowned geologist, M. King Hubbert. Hubbert pioneered a method of analysis predicting that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. Controversial at the time, it nonetheless turned out to be accurate. In essence, Hubbert found a correlation between the curve of new discoveries of oil and an eventual production curve that lagged behind discovery. The key point was that as new discoveries declined, one could predict that production a few years later would also decline.

In the mid '90s, analysts began applying Hubbert's work to world discoveries and among themselves found a worrying consistency: World oil will peak between 2004 and 2008. The variances in the figures reflect mainly the differences possible in the reserves people estimate they have no one knows absolutely, but there are general boundaries that are likely.

Deffeyes disposes of the usual reasons why some people insist on being optimistic: Technology for drilling better isn't in the works, we've gone to the deepest oil already, no significant new fields are hot prospects, and a high price for oil is irrelevant to finding more of it.

The potentially devastating conclusion to be faced in the severely energy-dependent state of Alaska is that the changes in oil availability will be permanent. Europe is already paying $4.50 a gallon. If cruise lines and airplanes in a few years find their fuel bills tripling or quadrupling, what will that do to travel costs just to get here? And what costs will people encounter once they arrive?

If someone says "That's why we should drill ANWR as soon as possible," please think again. If you're going to drill it at all, why not wait a few years till the price has risen 10 times under the fierce bidding wars that are certain to come? Or why not wait a few decades and let our grandchildren dole it out gallon by gallon?

Deffeyes makes the point that in a very short time, oil will be too precious a commodity just to burn and will undoubtedly be saved for its other irreplaceable uses like the plastics we've long used up and thrown away as though they would stream at us forever. We've used up in a hundred years what it took the earth hundreds of millions of years to accumulate. Juneau's future will be impacted more than most when the jug is finally down to its last few drops.

In light of these factors, it seems highly unrealistic to assume that the current shape of the travel trade will continue unabated and to ask Juneauites questions that presume it will.


John Jensen is a psychologist and former city/borough assemblyman.

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