mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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In for a Crude Awakening

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Book Review by Mark Hertsgaard

TWILIGHT IN THE DESERT
   The Coming Saudi Oil Shock 
     and the World Economy
    By Matthew R. Simmons
    Wiley. 422 pp. $24.95
THE LONG EMERGENCY
   Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of 
     the Twenty-First Century
    By James Howard Kunstler
    Atlantic Monthly. 307 pp. $23

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It used to be that only environmentalists and paranoids warned about
the world running out of oil and the future it could bring: crashing
economies, resource wars, social breakdown, agony at the pump. Not
anymore — and certainly not this summer, with the average national
price of a gallon of gasoline somewhere around $2.60 in late August,
up 73 cents from last year, and with Hurricane Katrina’s aftereffects
bound to push prices still higher. A growing number of industry
insiders believe that the era of cheap, abundant oil is ending and
that governments, corporate elites and ordinary people are utterly
unprepared for the challenges ahead.

Matthew R. Simmons is an investment banker with 30 years of experience
advising the industry’s major players, including briefing President
Bush and Vice President Cheney. How long abundant oil will last,
Simmons has asserted, is “the world’s biggest serious question.” The
answers he provides in “Twilight in the Desert” are nothing less than
alarming — all the more so because of his pro-industry sympathies and
the prodigious research and fair-minded reasoning he brings to his
task.

Simmons and other petro-pessimists do not suggest that Earth will
surrender its last drop of oil anytime soon. Rather, they contend that
we are approaching, or beyond, “peak oil” — the point where half of a
given amount of oil has been pumped out and half still remains. That
may not sound bad, but history shows that, on a regional basis, that
second half is much costlier and less certain to extract; the United
States and other post-peak regions have all experienced steep
production declines.

In a world where oil demand sets new records every year, the arrival
of peak oil promises to bring more frequent and debilitating
shortages, higher and more volatile prices, and a host of other nasty
consequences. Think back to the oil shocks and gas lines of the 1970s;
then imagine those shocks continuing not for months but decades.
That’s life in the peak-oil future, Simmons argues, when the suburban
lifestyle millions of Americans take for granted will become
unsustainable.

Conventional wisdom, of course, says that the magic of the market will
solve the problem: Higher prices will call forth more supply. In
particular, Saudi Arabia is assumed to hold virtually inexhaustible
reserves — enough, the Saudis say, to continue the current production
rates (8 to 9 million barrels per day) for another 90 years. Simmons
demolishes these rosy assumptions.

He begins by pointing out that there are virtually no independently
verifiable data to support the Saudis’ claims; essentially, outsiders
have been taking their word for it. In a remarkable feat of
investigation, Simmons has pieced together his own portrait of the
productivity of Saudi oil fields by combing through more than 200
technical papers that engineers from Aramco, the Saudi national oil
company, have published over the last 40 years in the journal of the
Society of Petroleum Engineers. These papers, Simmons notes, were
vetted in advance by Saudi authorities, who presumably assumed that
candor was acceptable within such an obscure context.

The resulting book is a page-turner, in both the positive and negative
senses of the term. Like a Tom Clancy novel, “Twilight in the Desert”
contains vast stretches of impenetrable technical writing that many
readers will skip over. The drama that unfolds along the way, however,
will keep them reading to the end. Simmons has assembled a
devastatingly convincing case that Saudi Arabia is at or beyond peak.
As he points out, Saudi production relies on a few gigantic oil
fields; after decades of high production, these fields are exhibiting
the normal signs of advanced aging (particularly the need for
injections of enormous flows of water to force the remaining oil to
the surface); and no new major fields have been found, despite
intensive searching. It is therefore unrealistic to expect the Saudi
oil miracle to continue even “for another decade or two.”

Simmons doesn’t predict exactly when Saudi oil production will
decline. But he clearly fears that the world is heading for a crash
and implores leaders in government and elsewhere to fast-track the
development of a new energy foundation. In fact, he is so worried
that, despite being a long-standing Republican, he raises the idea of
redistributing revenues of future oil production from corporate to
public treasuries to finance the transition. (Note to Simmons: Tell
President Bush, please.)

But it’s already too late for such measures, James Howard Kunstler
argues in “The Long Emergency.” America’s dependence on oil is too
pervasive to undo quickly, he warns; besides, none of the alternatives
(except perhaps nuclear energy) can provide the concentrated amounts
of energy required to run our high-tech society, especially when
billions of Chinese and other formerly impoverished people are eager
to join the party.

We face the end not only of cheap oil but of cheap fossil fuels in
general, asserts Kunstler, a novelist and critic best known for his
lacerating attacks on the social and environmental costs of suburbia.
Even if we do decide to chart a new course, it is “a dangerous
fantasy” to believe that “a smooth, seamless transition from fossil
fuels to their putative replacements — hydrogen, solar power,
whatever — lies just a few years ahead.” At best, the shift will take
decades. What’s more, deploying new energy sources, even green ones,
still requires a platform of fossil fuel: To manufacture wind turbines
or solar panels takes lots of metal and electricity. In the meantime,
we’ll have our hands full dealing with another unwelcome consequence
of fossil-fuel dependence: the soaring temperatures, rising sea levels
and mega-droughts brought by global climate change (a complication all
but unmentioned by Simmons).

Kunstler takes a curmudgeon’s delight in ticking off the many
extravagances humanity will have to do without in the years ahead. Say
goodbye to suburbia, air travel, industrial agriculture (with its
reliance on fossil fuels, from planting to harvesting to shipping) and
globalization; after all, without fuel, “the cost of transport will no
longer be negligible.” The future won’t be all gloomy, though: “Life
will become intensely and increasingly local,” he writes, as humans
relocate to “towns and small cities surrounded by intensively
cultivated agricultural hinterlands.”

Not long ago, a Jeremiah like Kunstler would have been dismissed as a
kook. Even now, his unrelenting pessimism about the viability of
alternative energy sources and the resourcefulness of the human animal
will strike many as extreme. But his book is, alas, as brilliant as it
is baleful, and given the revelations of Simmons’s detective work, we
disregard it at our peril.

Together, these two books cast a particularly harsh light on the
current energy debate in Washington, where lawmakers fulminate against
exorbitant gasoline prices and pledge an end to U.S. dependence on
foreign oil. If the peak-oil prophets are right, $3 for a gallon of
gas will soon sound cheap, and the real imperative is to end our
dependence on oil altogether.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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