'Peak oil' spells cataclysm

Think high gas prices are bad?

Get a load of what ex-oilman and ex-Princeton professor Kenneth Deffeyes believes are following closely behind:

"War, famine, pestilence and death," he said, eyes wide and voice deep. "We've got to get the warning out."

The threat? Peak oil.

The term, probably unfamiliar to most Americans, refers to the time when the worldwide production of oil peaks and begins a rapid decline. From then on, this incredibly efficient fuel source, which still costs less than most bottled water, will be scarcer and more costly.

Highly respected sources, including the U.S. government, think that day is distant, and most mainstream economists think it won't cause much of a ruckus.

But Deffeyes says peak oil is coming in November, and could bring humankind to the brink.

He is a devotee of former Shell geologist M. King Hubbert, who correctly predicted U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. Deffeyes is also the author of "Hubbert's Peak" (2001) and "Beyond Oil: The View From Hubbert's Peak," which was published last spring.

He is among a cadre of peak-oil proponents who sketch out a frightening near-term future in which the American way of life is upended as the United States, China and other great nations scramble after oil fields like desperate players in a game of musical chairs.

"He comes out of oil. He was born in oil," said Julian Darley, an energy analyst, fellow predictor of an imminent oil peak and founder of the Post Carbon Institute, an Oregon think tank.

Deffeyes' point -- that the peak has either arrived or will very soon -- is serious.

In the long term, the nation will compensate with clean-coal and nuclear energy, along with renewable sources like wind and solar power, Deffeyes says.

"It's the five-year time scale that I'm really scared about." History has demonstrated that the fear of a coming oil shortage, justified or not, can be a powerful determinant of events. U.S. oil experts predicted a "gasoline famine" just after World War I, prompting Britain to combine three former provinces of the Ottoman Empire into a new, oil-rich country that was to remain friendly to England.

It was named Iraq. 2005, Newhouse News Service

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