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VINE VOICEon 24 April 2007
Paul Roberts' The End of Oil, is a thorough and comprehensive study of the petroleum economy, a book that examines the three-pronged threats to the existing energy order: oil depletion, environmental [...] and geopolitical instability.

Roberts' analysis on depletion asks the question, `what should we do before the oil runs dry?' For run dry it will. Peak Oil, as the subject has come to be known, is based on variables, some known and some unknown. Disregarding the most wildly optimistic forecasts proposed by mouthpieces within the Saudi Arabian and United States' oil businesses (as well as those with the current occupiers of the pro-oil Whitehouse), production of oil is reasonably estimated to peak around the year 2025. After that, oil reserves will be in terminal decline (some analysts say that production has already peaked). If the developed countries of this planet are to maintain their standards of life and if less developed countries want to give their citizens the same access to energy (and everything that goes with it: education, health care, material goods and so forth), how is this to be achieved? What is the solution to demand that is rapidly escalating and oil supplies that are dwindling?

After articulating in some depth the scale of the problem, without reverting to "the end is nigh" doom-mongering, Roberts examines potential solutions: from coal (massive reserves but an environmental catastrophe) and nuclear (`clean' if you don't mind burying the waste in your back garden), to so-called `alternatives' such as solar and wind, to liquefied natural gas and hydrogen fuel cell micro grids (but no mention, alas, of the ellusive zero-point technologies).

These solutions also bring in the second facet of the book, environmental [...]. Just what is the impact of oil on the environment? This is not simply analysing the automotive industry's reaction to miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency, which Roberts does but also looking at the construction of modern buildings - how construction firms win bids by offering the lowest up-front costs, which often means incredibly wasteful energy usage; more expensive construction techniques that actually reduce long-term running costs by fuel efficiencies are often seen as uncompetitive in the immediate short-term. Roberts also discusses alternative energy generating techniques and just how much of an impact this could have, given the proper government backing. The Kyoto Protocol and carbon emissions - why 550 parts per million is pretty much the threshold below which the planet can sustain life without the threat of severe and permanent damage? Discussed. Why, even if carbon emissions were cut to zero immediately, they would still keep on rising? Discussed. What we can do about this? Discussed.

As with the rest of this book, Roberts' examines so many other issues that here I can only hint at the amount of information that this book contains.

Paul Roberts also breaks down the geopolitical implications of the existing order: why the price of oil is so volatile, what the relationship betwixt the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is based around (read Craig Unger's superb book, House of Bush, House of Saud, for much more on this disturbing connection), why Big Oil has a vested interest in the status quo, in that to upgrade existing energy infrastructure would literally take trillions of dollars and oil companies are making money without spending this capital on unproven energy technologies. Again, these few sentences can only hint at the thorough research that Roberts has undertaken, in order to bring these complex and often subtle factors to light.

Roberts does also pose solutions, not simply articulate the problems. In short, there is no magic bullet but a combination of several programmes might go some way to ensuring that all citizens of this planet have a future - ultimately a combination of energy efficiency strategies (supply is running out, so make savings in the consumption side of the equation) and alternative fuel sources, coupled with governmental incentives to consumers and suppliers, alongside benefits to less developed countries, to help them to modernise their energy economies and leapfrog the worst aspects of the West's industrial revolution development.

For just one example: with the car industry, an idea might be to internalise externalities. With the tobacco industry, the cost of growing the leaf and bringing it to market is quite low. The price of cigarettes is relatively high because governments' recognise that there are costs associated with smoking that are borne by society (the externalities) - most notably, hospital care for patients suffering from self-inflicted-smoking-related cancers. Therefore, cigarettes are highly taxed in order to off-set the costs that the product causes, to place that cost back on the manufacturer. If this logical approach was applied to cars, the cost of an inefficient large car or so-called Sports Utility Vehicle would be much higher because the environmental cost of bringing that oil to the market would be placed back where it belongs; the costs of maintaining a large military presence in the Middle East, combined with the costs to the health care industry of car-related pollution and respiratory diseases, would not be paid for by society at large but by those who choose to buy those particular cars. This would encourage people to buy less of these wasteful and usually unnecessary vehicles until they became more energy efficient; it would also incentivise the auto industry to rekindle the spirit of fuel economies that was once so prevalent after the Arab oil embargo of the mid 1970s. Unfortunately, energy savings - energy capital - like this is often turned into an energy deficit, by having more people purchasing these aspirational vehicles. This leads to a paradox that the more energy we save, the more we end up consuming. This incredibly brief illustration, which probably does no justice to the original text, is but one of numerous examples that Roberts' provides.

Above all, Paul Roberts argues that a do nothing, business as usual approach to these problems is wilfully ignorant and that energy illiteracy will have severe and profound consequences for everybody. If you own a car, or consume anything made from oil - and that could be anything plastic, from a toothbrush to the mouse in your right hand - then The End of Oil should be read. The longer we as consumers and voters, the longer decision makers in the corporate and political structure wait, wait to see if climate change really is caused by human impact, to see if oil really is running out as rapidly as those wild people in the wings claim it is, the greater the problems will be when the shift from petroleum to a new energy order is forced upon us and the much more terrible that upheaval will be. Read this fascinating book, then watch the documentary, "The End of Suburbia."
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Congratualtions to the author for writing such a fascinating and even-handed account of our relationship with oil. Although he makes no attempt to hide his agenda (which is that we should put all of our efforts into developing alternative sources of energy that don't pollute the planet) he is honest about their current shortcomings.
In short, this book concludes that there are no magic answers, but action is better than denial. If we carry on deluding ourselves that we can continue to find new sources of oil, we will have a rude awakening in the not-too-distant future.
For the Jeremy Clarksons of this world, this isn't tree-hugging, it's hard science. I just hope that Mr G W Bush reads it.
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on 19 August 2004
In the league of Fast Food Nation!
It is an amazing, eye-opener book, successfully treating interconnected subjects like the oil economy, the power struggles (both economical and military) for secure access to the energy we need, our unsustainable dependance on finite amounts of oil, gas and coal, the tremendous effects on the global climate, the impact of developping nations consumming and producing more and more of this carbon-based source of energy, and what could be done to correct all this mess and shift to a cleaner, more reliable source of energy.
Far from being partisan, this book give you a logical, fact based approach.
You will see the world in a total new way after reading it. You will be shown everyday things in a way you never thought of, and their (political, economical and military) far reaching consequences.
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on 13 January 2006
I read the book for 2 reasons: to understand where oil prices will go and to see in what alternative technologies I should be investing.
The book is extremely well researched and thus provided me with a framework for asking the right questions. It ties together elegantly a mix of real politik, scientific as well as economic analysis. Difficult to put down if you want to understand the many factors that determine the geopolitics of energy
Part 1 sets the scene: we’re all happily consuming based on the belief that oil will continue to flow. Instead Roberts points out that we may have already reached a peak in oil production (if it is true it is a well kept secret!). This decrease in available supply mixed with an increase in demand coming from countries such as China and India is the recipe for an explosive cocktail in terms of the future of the oil price. As oil runs out the transition to a new and ever more demanding energy economy will not necessarily be smooth – blackouts and the war in Iraq are two examples. Hydrogen is a potential solution although its stop and go development is one of the challenges that lie ahead before it can be commercialized.
Part 2 describes the evolution of the forces of supply and demand for energy. It tackles the effects of the growth in China and the new tensions that it will create. The average person in the US today burns 7500 gallons of oil p.a. compared to 800 in China. While one could take comfort from the fact that energy efficiency is increasing, the reality is that we end up consuming more energy – another explosive cocktail? Will the new technologies come to the rescue? Evidence shows that there is still a long way to go. While energy conservation could reduce demand substantially there is not enough political will to make it be a real force in energy politics.
Part 3 brings everything and discusses energy security and the risks that we run from the way the energy economy is currently managed. Gas is seen as a potential solution but will require a staggering US$80bn in investments in the US between 2000 and 2020. Thus every solution needs to deal with a “colossal inertia” described in part 2. These factors vary from the way OPEC is run, the politics of Nigeria and Venezuela to the difficulty of instilling an attitude of energy conservation in consumers. The book though ends on an optimistic note highlighting that for every negative factor trying to protect the current set up there is an equally and opposing force – the example of Iceland investing in a hydrogen only economy leaves a positive note!
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This book is a nice read about the subject.

The most relevant negative aspect is the fact that is too extensive. All that is said could have been said in far less pages.

About the content, it covers almost all the different aspects of the main problem. Doesn't provide a solution (if there is one), but it make a very good researchable analysis.
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on 5 March 2006
After hearing George Bush's state of the union address, i couldn't help but wonder if he had recently read this book too ! Well they have been saying it since i was at school but it seems we are approaching, if not at the peak of global oil production. The 'easy' oil is fast running out, this oil is in unstable parts of the world and as yet we dont have a viable alternative. This book is a real wake up call. Right i'm off down homebase for some loft insulation (Is it ok if i go in the car?) You can't do right for doing wrong. Good book.
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on 17 February 2006
I was given this book for Christmas and have not stopped singing its praises to anyone who will listen! "The End of Oil" discusses with great even-handedness and logic how our oil based energy economy needs urgently to give way to more sustainable, cleaner, greener energy sources. Each alternative is examined with a good sceptical eye and each argument is backed up with plenty of facts. Yet this is not a "techy" book. It is easy to read and thoroughly engaging. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in our dependence on oil, in climate change or in the advance of renewable energy technologies.
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on 11 January 2006
You don't need to be a tree-hugger to buy this book - an accessible and superb summary of the current state of the worlds energy based economies. Very readable, entertaining and thought provoking. If only our alleged leaders were this honest and astute...
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Although the number of "alarmist" publications about energy and climate fill the shelves, this book doesn't fit that category. Roberts, although clearly concerned about energy consumption and the capacity to meet it, thinks demand can be met. That won't be achieved without some revision in outlook and actions. In this carefully structured and comprehensive study, readers will gain a firm grasp on the issues involved in making the transition from oil to alternative energy. It won't be cheap or painless, but it can be done, he proposes in this well-written account. You need only be prepared to take some first steps. The very first step is to read this book to overcome "energy illiteracy".

Changing the energy basis of a society isn't a novelty of the "modern" world, Roberts suggests. Humanity has shifted from wood fuel to coal, and from coal to petrochemicals. There was resistance in each case, because people cling to the known. Woodstoves might burn coal, but oil-fired systems are a major shift in technology. So, too, Roberts argues, will (be?) the replacements for oil furnaces or petrol burning autos, whether using natural gas, or hydrogen fuel cells. This approach enables the author to address both the existing patterns of energy extraction and use as well as the options facing us in making substitutions. He carefully examines the technology and economics of the various alternative energy supply methods. Hydrogen fuel cells are given a full hearing, with an account of Geoffrey Ballard's attempt to launch a successful production firm. Ballard didn't quite succeed, but the potential remains available. Roberts also examines solar panels and wind power for electricity generation. In Europe, of course, wind power is a major factor and growing rapidly. In Roberts' eyes, however, his own nation is less sympathetic over wind power. How much this is due to personal choice and how much to energy industry negative propaganda remains unclear. The energy lobbyists, as the author notes, have not been idle. Investment in coal and oil is too great to overturn readily.

Roberts squarely addresses the economic issues of new energy forms . If society is to endure a transition to wind, hydrogen or natural gas power, what will be the costs? "Consider the scale of the task", he says, noting that the conveyors and users of the primary fuels, coal and oil, have over ten trillion [US] dollars tied up in equipment. The transformation of such an immense investment, particularly in unproven technologies is a "colossal" enterprise, not entered lightly. He stresses, however, that such cost isn't sufficient excuse to delay or attempt to refute the need for it. The energy transformation must be made, partly because the world is running out of oil, and cannot afford to replace it with more severe polluters such as coal. The changeover must be undertaken, but it must be done with known technologies until the riskier ones are considered proven.

The cost of transition must also factor in the true cost of the fuels in use. The external costs of petroleum for example, are rarely calculated. Referring to a study by Joan Ogden, Roberts explains how real costs of using petrol actually make the hydrogen fuel cell a price competitive technology. Such calculations should lead to greater investment in alternative technologies. Roberts argues further that it will be the United States that will inevitably take the lead in the process, both in technology and investment. Citing changes in attitudes and policy resulting from the "Oil Embargo" of the 1970s, he suggests that these be reviewed and expanded to achieve the first steps in the transition to new energy forms. It is the US, as the greatest polluter and the greatest innovator, which must take the lead in the change. The energy purchasing power and world marketing skills of the US makes it the most likely promoter of the change. US-based technology is best suited to bringing higher energy levels to developing nations, while not condemning them to high pollution generation.

Roberts has challenged a large segment of his own population with this book. He notes that consumers are being confronted with need for change now, and they must ready themselves for it. A new age requires innovative thinking and changing some long-held views. The author wants that process to be as painless as possible.
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on 23 July 2008
Easily readable book covering the problems of further oil exploration, discovery and extraction, and then talks briefly about the problems of global warming. He then goes on to talk about alternatives to oil. Here he gets a little confused between two separate things, one, the source of energy, and two, the delivery of that energy to where it's needed. Oil does both of these. Roberts talks about a possible future "hydrogen economy" as the most viable alternative, while dismissing nuclear and renewables and other sources of energy, but hydrogen is not an energy source: it is an energy delivery method. Some energy source has to make the hydrogen in the first place. Therefore his dismissal of solar and nuclear is not as easy as he makes out. Also, he dismisses geothermal energy in less than a sentence, which is far less than it deserves. In doing this, he confuses the physically possible with the economically viable. Solar, nuclear and geothermal are at least physically viable as alternatives, as they can probably produce the required energy: the only question is their economics. His discussion of their economics is perhaps valid, but economics is all relative. The question is at what point other energy sources become economic and what the consequences of using them are.

All that is less of a review, and more of a critique. While the book is highly topical, and very readable without dumbing down, it confuses a number of points that need to be distinguished.
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