A Staid and Sensible View of Peak Oil

Impending World Energy MessReview of: The Impending World Energy Mess
By: Robert L. Hirsch, Roger H. Bezdek, Robert M. Wendling
Apogee Prime, 2010, 256 pages

Review by: Jason Hayes, Communications Director, American Coal Council

Do you ever get tired of the constant, droning end times dirge played out in the media and by the green industry?

If it’s not species extinctions, it will be raising sea levels. If it isn’t the sea, it will be glaciers. Not glaciers? How about clearcut logging, or mining, or … Well, you get the idea, but we can’t quit this list without adding “peak oil” to the mix.

Much like the sandwich board-clad “prophet” ceaselessly prowling the streets screeching about the coming apocalypse, the peak oil crowd has been infested with the ideologically and environmentally extreme from its genesis. Therefore, discussions of peaking energy have a habit of going from zero to full on Armageddon in very short order, making it difficult to take much of peak oil theorizing seriously.

The authors of the Impending World Energy Mess, Robert Hirsch, Roger Bezdek, and Robert Wendling (HBW) have managed, however, to move past the hysteria to provide readers with a staid and sensible look into the issue of peak oil, and more broadly liquid fuels shortages. For the uninitiated, HBW offer a solid primer on how dwindling oil reserves would impact our society. Essentially, we have built our societies and economies on the free and sufficient flow of low cost oil and petroleum liquids. Without oil, our society would change radically as industrial production would wane and the costs for goods and services would skyrocket out of reach for all but the super rich.

Over the past several decades, we have used ever-increasing amounts of oil. Now, with developing nations joining in that consumption, our oil reserves are predicted to soon reach a point of peak production. After this peak, new discoveries are not expected to keep pace with growing demand and future production is forecast to decline bringing on rising prices and liquid fuel shortages.

Far from taking part in the doomsaying, HBW open their book stating that they “consider themselves optimistic pragmatists, not ‘Armageddonists.’ “ While they predict the potential for shortages and a great deal of discomfort, HBW offer up what they believe are workable solutions to help stave off the difficulties associated with oil shortages. They state their belief that peak production has already arrived and that we are currently in the midst of a plateau phase that precedes the coming declines. HBW provide a refreshing view of peak oil, however, in that they don’t play the end-times games that plague so many other peak oil theorists. They recognize that the demand for energy is unlikely to diminish, so they work to provide reasonable solutions that might forestall widespread future shortages.

HBW take the time to walk the reader through the oil and energy business. They discuss oil reserves – how they are measured and where they are located around the world. They describe the make up of the oil business, covering the relative producing power of national oil companies vs. private companies. HBW also describe how and why bringing massive recent finds – like the Bakken field in North Dakota – online are unlikely to wholly arrest the predicted declines.

HBW also introduce concepts like “Energy Returns on Energy Invested” (EROEI), showing how the deep water oil fields on which we rely today provide far less overall energy return (vs. energy expended to locate and produce the oil) compared to the energy required for previous, shallow, land-based finds. In discussing another concept – “Liquid Fuels Return on Investment” (LFROI) – they critique the production of biomass-based liquid fuels, noting that they tend to provide “expensive, low energy content … fuels” that are a poor return on our energy development investments.

Once armed with a basic knowledge of the industry, readers are taken through a slate of mitigation strategies that governments are likely to use to control the world’s burgeoning energy appetites. HBW consider taxation strategies to redirect energy use, energy rationing policies, mitigation strategies (like fuel switching), improving the fuel efficiency of automobiles, and even consider the potential of car-pooling and telecommuting to help reduce energy demands.

They also look at the potential for electrical generation to replace a portion of the liquid fuels market, determining that until far better energy storage options become available, the renewables market will be wholly incapable of providing sufficient energy to help address the predicted energy shortages.

They question the ability of carbon capture and storage to adequately address climate change concerns, but note that it will aid in the development of substantial liquid fuel resources through enhanced oil and natural gas recovery. Natural gas is dismissed as a replacement transport fuel without widespread government intervention in refueling infrastructure.

Similar issues with readiness of infrastructure or technologies are discussed with biomass, nuclear, solar, fusion, and other technologies. They do, however, suggest that rapidly improving the fuel efficiency of our current fleet of vehicles could go a long way to mitigating the impacts of predicted liquid fuel shortages. They also note that although it would require massive up front investments, the imposing size of the world’s shale oil resources will almost ensure its development.

Although often tossed aside as extremist or the realm of conspiracy theories, the potential impacts of peaking oil production make it a topic that should be discussed and understood; the issue deserves a rational and reasonable debate. It is from that mindset the authors of “The Impending World Energy Mess” provide a useful resource for the reader. Their research fosters preparedness, rather than hand waving and hyperbole.

HBW provide a well-researched look at the liquid fuels resource and mitigation strategies that are likely to be employed by governments should oil production begin to wane. For those not familiar with the issue of peak oil, the book also acts as an invaluable primer. So, whether or not one agrees with the author’s predictions on the issue of peak oil, “The Impending World Energy Mess” gives readers a useful introduction and consideration of future energy options.

“The Impending World Energy Mess” is definitely a worthwhile addition to your energy library.

10. May 2011 by Jason Hayes
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