The End of Oil


Paul Roberts


Non Fiction


Date Reviewed:

November 28, 2005

This book is explains the current global energy crisis. Yes, there is a crisis. The world is based upon an oil economy, and there simply is not enough oil to go around. Rapidly rising economies like China and India are requiring more oil at a time when current oil supplies are already having difficulty meeting existing demand because oil reservoirs are being exhausted. Of course, if you read newspapers, you already know this. What is interesting about this book is the in-depth analysis you get of the entire energy question, something that a newspaper does not have enough space to present.

Roberts asks the question - just how much oil do we have, any way? It turns out we don't really know, because everyone has incentive to lie (on the high side) about the size of their reserves. There may actually be less proven oil reserves than we currently believe, which will bring the point of "Peak Oil" sooner than expected. This could result in severe economic hardship. In the early chapters, Roberts gives a pretty good summary of how energy use = economic wealth. Human civilizations began with wood burning, graduated to coal burning during the industrial revolution, and now we are primarily an oil burning civilization. Roberts shows why an oil shortage would be so catastrophic. Energy effects everything: food, transportation, warmth, electricity that powers our modern world. If oil runs out, what would we do to replace it?

There are some good chapters here covering alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar (nuclear doesn't get too much coverage in this book, perhaps because it is such a hot issue politically that Roberts doesn't see much future in it. But if we get desperate enough, the nuke plants will come back on-line in the USA) Roberts explains how these alternative energy sources could not meet our complete energy demands, but they would certainly reduce our reliance on the petro-nations. Roberts spends a lot of discussion on "clean burning" natural gas, and explains how even natural gas transition will be difficult (natural gas has be cooled substantially until is a liquid, and thus easily transported.) Natural gas is a bridge solution - it will enable our transition from an oil economy (which Roberts refers to as a carbon based economy) to a hydrogen economy (one where we burn pure hydrogen for our energy needs.) There is some interesting stuff here about biofuels and fuel cells. The subject that I thought was most interesting was the story of the company that found a bacteria that released hydrogen as part of its natural emissions. The company altered the DNA of the bacteria, and found that they could greatly increase the amount of hydrogen emitted from these bacteria. Alas, they still haven't figured out a way to get commercial quantities of hydrogen. One subject that I don't recall seeing mentioned anywhere is fusion power. Perhaps Roberts thinks fusion is so far off in the distant future that it has no part in a discussion of our current energy demands.

Especially interesting reading are the chapters about market forces, where he explains why risk adverse industries fight so hard to against changes to the current system - these companies have too much invested in the current infrastructure. Also, the system does not currently punish the polluters - coal burning plants pour sulphur, mercury, soot, and CO2 into our atmosphere, which destroys our health and environment, but the coal plants do not pay for that damage, instead, that burden is suffered by all of us. If a carbon tax was levied on coal burning plants, so that the true cost of their activities was paid for, coal burning would suddenly seem a lot more expensive.

There is also a chapter on politics. Unfortunately, the current administration is again shown to be opposed to any positive steps. It is kind of a depressing chapter. Will we really have to wait until 2008 to hope for a rational energy policy?

This is an interesting read. Although the book is copy-right in 2004, it already dated when it talks about the price of a barrel of oil. Roberts speculates about how we could see a barrel of oil costing as much as $50 a barrel - and yet less than a year later, we already hit peaks as high as $70 a barrel. In the end, Roberts tries to close with a positive note, but there really isn't too much reason for upbeat viewpoint.