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New edition of The End of Oil raises red flags

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While browsing in my community library yesterday, I noticed that a book that I had reviewed a year ago, The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New Future by Paul Roberts, had come out in paperback with a new afterword.

As the book’s title and subtitle imply, experts now recognize that demand for oil may soon exceed the production capacity of even the largest suppliers. The world’s economy is heading for a painful transition, and Roberts makes the case that we are unprepared for it.

The new afterword is hardly comforting. The evidence is mounting that we are approaching or have already reached “Hubbert’s Peak,” when world oil production will be at its maximum, yet the growth in demand continues unabated. The good news is that this seems to be accelerating the development of alternative sources of energy, but there is still no clear technological solution. The “perilous new future” includes not only problems with energy supply but also the possibility of geopolitical turmoil.

Last year, with gasoline prices approaching the then incredible $2.00 per gallon level in the U.S., the Dallas Morning News ran my review comparing The End of Oil with Out of Gas by David Goodstein, which was then picked up by a number of nonprofit websites dealing with energy, the environment, and politics.

Now as the price of gasoline is flirting with $3.00 per gallon, I recommend reading or re-reading Roberts’ paperback and its new afterword.

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About Fred Bortz

  • Hi Fred – glad to see you back!

    As I learned when I quoted one of Hubbert’s papers in a gradute geophysics class (which I was taking, on sufferance, while an underclassman, but that’s another story), not all geophysical theorists agreed (then or now) with Hubbert’s projections. I was using the data revision presented in 1968, just before the predicted 1970 peak.

    Contrast this with the ASPO prediction that the peak is still two years in the future. And even this model ignores Alaskan oil — it simply isn’t included in the data.

  • Hi, Dr. Pat.

    I’m back on occasion, but I’ve decided to post comments rather than full reviews. Usually the comments duplicate some of those from my new blog. (I’ve recently posted comments under politics and culture.)

    As for the issue of when we reach Hubbert’s peak, the Alaskan oil won’t mean much. Saudi Oil is the 900-pound gorrilla here, and its production peak is coming soon if it is not already here.

    Besides, two years, or even five, is dangerously close. Once we pass the peak, the demand will exceed supply by a rapidly growing amount, and the pressure for alternative sources will be intense, as will the competition for oil.

    In his new afterword, Roberts is admittedly pessimistic about the prospects for any of the alternatives, but he also notes that it’s hard to predict which will have breakthroughs and where economic pressures will drive energy use.

    Wind, solar, nuclear (various flavors: current fission technology, breeder reactors, fusion) all have their advocates and critics. Add in environmental and geopolitical considerations, and this becomes a problem that is too difficult for even our joint brilliance to solve 🙂

    Where is cold fusion when we need it!

  • I think even if it was determined that the peak was definitely within 20 or even 50 years away, it would skyrocket prices and cause a degree of turmoil that we can’t forsee.

    I agree that the solution does not lie in Alaska. I’m amazed that governments around the world are not making serious and enormous investments in alternative energy. The potential rewards are extraordinary: geopolitical stability, lower costs for energy, a cleaner environment, and on and on.

    Even conservatives in the U.S. — at least those not tied to oil interests — are beginning to see this truth.

  • Question: does anyone know anything about fuel-cell cars that run on hydrogen? I know they exist, but I imagine they’re rather expensive at present to produce. I wonder if it’s feasable to ever get them into mass production…

  • Ahhh, hydrogen. I though of that as soon as I finished my last reply.

    But here’s the issue: how do you make hydrogen? Generally by electrolyzing water, I think. There may be something also possible with natural gas, but basically it requires an extra conversion step with concomitant losses of energy — darn Second Law of Thermo — to extract hydrogen from the compounds in which it is abundant.

    So unless you can find a more efficient way of converting sunlight or wind power or hydropower or geothermal energy into making the electricity to produce the hydrogen, you’ve gotten nowhere.

  • So we can produce the fuel cell cars at present, but just not efficiently or cheaply?

    Is that about the size of it?

  • I don’t know the technology well enough to speak to that question.

    My point is that the “hydrogen economy” is being overhyped as a solution to both the coming energy crisis and environmental issues.

  • ASPO’s model assumes that, as oil prices rise, it will become economically feasible to crack oil out of oil shales, but does not take into account any other alternatives to petroleum — after all, it is an oil peak they are calculating.

    I mentioned Alaskan deposits only because they are a datum obviously left off the charts. Whenever I encounter obviously flawed data, I have to wonder what more subtle skewing is present in the conclusions…

  • Isn’t it true though, DrPat, that even if abundant reserves of oil are found in Alaska, it would take many years to get it into a pipeline and/or on tankers, etc. to meet world energy demands?

  • Eric’s point fits with this: they are computing peak rate of production. By the time the new sources come on line, the production rate of some of the most abundant older sources will be in decline.

    If you read Roberts’ book, you’ll get an excellent picture of what Hubbert’s peak means. It doesn’t say we won’t find new sources. It just says that the rate of production starts to fall, and that usually happens when about half of the resource is exhausted.

  • Fred, I mentioned that I had read Hubbert’s work in the context of a graduate-level geophysics class. Reading someone else’s interpretation of what that work means is, in my experience, less helpful than going to the source.

    Especially as I note several obvious ellisions in the theories, that could be better understood with access to the original (and updated) data.

    Why do you suppose ASPO’s predicted peak differs so much from Hubbert’s? The answer is in the data they are each using — their interpretations could be better understood with access to the original (and updated) data.

    Without that, what you’re reading is opinion. Expert it may be, but how do you assess WHOSE opinion you will value more?

    [You know the answer to that question.]

  • In this case, the original mathematics has proven itself as a viable model, so if I wanted the science in detail, I’d go to an updated textbook that gave credence to Hubbert.

    However, for the nonscientific reader, Roberts does an excellent job in explaining the key elements in the calculation, as does David Goodstein in Out of Gas.

    To me, the most important thing is that the most credible estimates of the peak in worldwide oil production are converging. In nonmathematical terms, the date is much sooner than we are ready for, plus or minus a year or two.

    I just hope it doesn’t take as long for politicians and policy-makers to respond to this emerging consensus as it took them to respond to the evidence of human contributions to global warming.

    There are still a few stragglers there, but the melting permafrost and the reworked computations of tropospheric warming (instead of the anamalous cooling they had at first) are leaving them behind.

  • A mathematical model is still only as good as the data that informs it – GIGO in and out, y’know.

    If you value the Roberts interpretation, you do, that’s all. Please give me leave to assess it differently.

    In fact, the discussion of where production will peak is a moot point, relative to the debate over what “we” should do about it.

    IMHO (i.e., not based on any closer examination of it), as oil becomes ever more expensive, people will start to consider options they abandoned as uneconomic when oil was cheaper. They will spend money and effort to develop options that went unconsidered when it was easier to use oil.

    And that’s without any special “outside force” coming to bear on it. After all, that’s what happened when wood became expensive to use as fuel, and later when whale-oil got scarce….

  • Eric Olsen

    do they have mathematical runway models?

  • Pat, it’s not the interpretation of the models (runway or otherwise, Eric) that sets the Roberts book apart.

    In fact, he considers all the currently feasible alternative sources of energy, and discusses their advantages and the obstacles to their development. At this point, all he can conclude is that the transition will be a very difficult one, whichever mix of alternatives ends up providing our energy.

    He also discusses the problems with simply trusting the market as you suggest. One reason is that the price of oil has not reflected the true costs (such as environmental and military). Furthermore the costs are often borne by people other than the ones who reap the benefits of energy use.

    I wish I was as optimistic as you are that good old economic forces will carry us safely to the post-petroleum age. Roberts is an economist, and he argues that such a view is overly simplistic. He predicts a rough ride.

    So our disagreement is not about the science but on how this complex world can readjust to the dramatic shift in energy supply and demand ahead. Roberts doesn’t claim to know what will happen, but he lays out plenty of interesting scenarios that people and governments will have to consider.

    This is where he leaves it:

    “[U]ltimately, the question facing us isn’t whether our energy systems will change — indeed, the process is already well underway — but whether we can live with the outcome.”

  • There is more oil in Alberta oil sand than in Saudia Arabia. Coal can be converted to oil also. The only reason why we weren’t doing it is because when oil cost $30/barrel it couldn’t compete. By now with the price higher it is a different story. There is also a new process called TDP that can make oil from almost anything with carbon in it. http://www.changingworldtech.com/index.asp

    We are not going to run out of energy anytime soon. Prices may increase for some sources, but as they do new ones will step in.

  • John,

    That’s the same argument that Pat was making. Roberts makes a strong case that it doesn’t apply here.

    It takes the whole book to do so, but if you’re willing to reconsider that conclusion, then it’s worth reading what he has to say.

  • Fred, you’ve veen picked by Books Editor Pat Cummings as an editor’s pick of the week. Click HERE to find out why.

    Thank you for the writing.

  • Thanks for the selection.

    Here’s a link to an interesting article with a slightly different take by energy expert Daniel Yergin.

    He doesn’t dispute that there will be a time when we have to face the decline of the Age of Oil, but he says not yet.

    I hope he’s right, but we need to act as if he’s wrong, given the consequences of not being prepared.

  • Pareto’s principle tells us that it’s important to decide how much effort, time and money to invest for maximum return — and that means not buying props for the sky just because lots of folks claim it’s falling…

    I look at human nature and a long history of “crises” that turned out to be duds, because someone found a way to work around the problem — usually AFTER the problem began to bite enough people in the pocketbook.

    An important quote from the article you link (thanks!): “This is not the first time that the world has ‘run out of oil.’ It’s more like the fifth. Cycles of shortage and surplus characterize the entire history of the oil industry.”

    Worth reading.

  • “This is not the first time that the world has ‘run out of oil.’ It’s more like the fifth. Cycles of shortage and surplus characterize the entire history of the oil industry.”

    Yep, I picked up on that, too.

    One of these cycles is bound to be the last. As Yergin notes, every time people say that this one is different.

    Having lived through a few of the others, this one feels different to me. Of course, the whole world feels different when you’re 60 than when you’re 30 or 45. Still, there’s something about having seen the WWII ration books that my parents had for me as an infant that influences my outlook on today’s plentiful but moderately expensive gasoline supply.