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Peak Oil - and what happens next
on 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."