Review: Roberts - The end of Oil

I finally got a chance to read this book in the last week - my Dad had a copy with him on his Thanksgiving visit... This is actually one of the best books on the subject, though slightly dated now. Anyway, read on for the review.  

Paul Roberts: The end of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World Copyright 2004 Houghton Mifflin; 389 pages (including index, a good bibliography, and endnotes).

In "The end of Oil", journalist Paul Roberts provides a thorough review of not only why we need to reduce our need for oil, but why we need to start weaning ourselves off every other traditional fossil energy source as well. At times, from the present perspective close to two years after publication, the dire warnings about the prospect of $50 per barrel oil and bad weather from global warming seem almost quaint. In fact Roberts' warning is about more than the prospect of high future prices - in fact he details the way in which, absent a controlling supplier that can expand or contract to quickly match demand, oil prices have a natural volatility that scarcity won't limit.

This account is highly accessible, having none of the diagrams and graphs that many recent books of this nature have sported. But Roberts has clearly read and understood those other works, and draws well-documented conclusions, with comprehensive footnotes and a good bibliography for those looking for more background on the numbers he provides. On oil, he very thoroughly describes the declining rate of discovery, particularly of the "giant" fields needed to sustain reserves, and the near-frantic effort of major oil companies and exporting nations to even just keep production level with the past years, let alone expand to meet increased demand.

Roberts provides good perspective not just on the US situation, but likely world growth in demand for energy, the "aspiration" part of demand. As developing nations start taking advantage of the things energy resources can provide, demand will soar, on the order of four-fold from 2000 to 2050, and eight-fold growth by 2100; all while we have to actually cut carbon dioxide emissions substantially to avoid major global climate change. And without some revolution in technology, finance, or politics, much of this growth will use the worst-polluting (lowest up-front capital cost) technologies, at the expense of solutions that would prove less costly, both in dollars and to the environment, in the longer run. And once capital has been invested in those obsolete technologies, Roberts describes well the reluctance to change, for instance somewhat repetitively mentioning the $10 trillion the world has invested in oil-dependent infrastructure that people are reluctant to abandon.

Unfortunately, this background demand problem does not seem to fully inform the rest of the book; the descriptions are, in a pattern perhaps typical of modern journalism, not fully fleshed out and self-consistent. The presentation often uses the rather annoying formula of good news first, bad news later, in many of the central chapters. Hopes raised at the start of each chapter by some new technology or idea are routinely dashed by the end.

But Roberts isn't a universal cynic - in fact he lavishes quite a bit of attention on natural gas as an interim solution, and the "hydrogen economy" and potential efficiency improvements, without really acknowledging that none of these is capable of meeting the energy demand scale he has set forth elsewhere. And there are serious doubts that the "hydrogen economy" is much more than hype (though Roberts, to his credit here, provides a very fair account of the current status).

So the conclusions of the book (for US policy) probably need a little helping of salt; nevertheless, they aren't a bad guide to the way forward, and something like them is urgently needed, well beyond the bandaid "energy bill" measures the US congress has considered recently. Roberts emphasizes three steps as a "bridging strategy" to the future: natural gas to replace coal and oil where possible (reducing carbon content), carbon taxes or cap-and-trade regulations for carbon dioxide emissions, and a massive campaign to cut our high oil consumption and move to new energy sources and improved efficiency. We can only hope that recent encouraging political developments will be enough to set a course of this sort for US policy in the near future; read this book and you'll see we have almost run out of time to take this wiser path ahead.

Created: 2005-11-30 03:59:50 by Arthur Smith