March 15, 2004
Volume 82, Number 11
CENEAR 82 11 p. 3
ISSN 0009-2347

A Challenge We Must Meet


Energy is a recurrent topic of coverage in the pages of C&EN. That's not surprising. Energy issues intersect with the chemical enterprise in myriad ways. The chemical industry is the largest industrial user of electrical energy in the U.S. The compounds we burn for energy are also the feedstocks that drive the petrochemical industry. Energy and global climate change are inextricably linked.

C&EN's focus on energy was on my mind as I read a remarkable new book, "Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil," by David Goodstein, vice provost and Frank J. Gilloon Distinguished Teaching & Service Professor at California Institute of Technology. "Out of Gas" is simultaneously a brilliant polemic and a clear examination of the chemistry and physics of global energy issues.

Goodstein, who is no radical, opens "Out of Gas" with an apocalyptic vision: "The world will soon start to run out of conventionally produced, cheap oil. If we manage somehow to overcome that shock by shifting the burden to coal and natural gas, the two other primary fossil fuels, life may go on more or less as it has been--until we start to run out of all fossil fuels by the end of the century. And by the time we have burned up all that fuel, we may well have rendered the planet unfit for human life. Even if human life does go on, civilization as we know it will not survive, unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels."

The idea of living without fossil fuels is incomprehensible. Yet Goodstein argues persuasively that we have no choice but to construct just such a technological society within the next few decades.

Goodstein bases his dire projection on the work of Marion King Hubbert, a Shell Oil geophysicist who, in 1956, projected that the rate at which oil could be extracted from the Lower 48 would peak around 1970 and decline rapidly after that. Nobody took Hubbert very seriously, but his projection was right on the mark. Goodstein observes that, if Hubbert's analysis is applied to the world's oil supply, it projects that global production will peak sometime in this decade. "Given that worldwide demand will continue to increase," Goodstein writes, "Hubbert's followers expect the crisis to occur when the peak is reached, not when the last drop is pumped."

Goodstein is by no means the first person to draw attention to Hubbert's projections or to the looming oil and energy crises. Princeton University professor emeritus Kenneth S. Deffeyes published "Hubbert's Peak" in 2001, which contains much the same message. There are dozens of websites devoted to Hubbert's work. Rice University chemistry and physics professor and Nobel Laureate Richard E. Smalley has been lecturing on the looming energy crisis for the past two years, and he, too, discusses Hubbert's projections. (A video of Smalley's talk, "Our Energy Challenge," is available on his website,

That does not detract from the relevance of "Out of Gas" or the passionate message it delivers. Like Smalley, Goodstein believes that ending our dependence on fossil fuels should be the highest science and technology priority of our nation and the world. "The real challenge--the challenge we would set for ourselves if we had courageous, visionary leadership--would be to kick the fossil fuel habit altogether as soon as possible," Goodstein writes, and he likens the challenge to John F. Kennedy's 1960 promise to land a man on the moon by the end of that decade. "That was possible because we already knew the basic principles of how it could be done. There were formidable technological problems to overcome, but we are very, very good at overcoming that kind of obstacle when we put our minds to it. The energy problem is of exactly that nature."

Meeting the energy challenge--and that challenge is, as Goodstein writes, how to maintain civilization itself without burning fossil fuels--should be at the top of our national dialogue. It is a challenge that should motivate much of our scientific effort for the next several decades. It is a challenge that should inspire a new generation of scientists and science educators. It is a challenge that we have no choice but to meet.

Thanks for reading.


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