mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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Running on Empty

Book review by Mark Hertsgaard

The End of Oil:
     On the Edge of a Perilous New World
   By Paul Roberts. 
   Houghton Mifflin. 389 pp. $26

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After terrorists killed Western oil executives in the heart of Saudi
Arabia’s oil region over the Memorial Day weekend, the price of oil
rose to $42 a barrel, its highest level in history. Headlines warn
that Americans may soon be paying $3 a gallon for gasoline. But rising
prices at the pump only hint at our true energy dilemma. Imagine what
would happen if the world’s supply of oil were magically to vanish
overnight. Life as we know it would shudder to a halt. Without oil to
transport it, food could not get to market — nor could it be grown
and processed by our oil-dependent agricultural system. Most Americans
could not get to work, take their kids to school or do any other of
the countless tasks cars help us perform. Air travel would stop.
Hospitals would be crippled as supplies of blood, medications and
other vital materials became unattainable. There would be no more
plastics, no more videotapes. You wouldn’t be reading this newspaper,
at least in a print edition, because trucks would be unable to deliver
copies to doorsteps and vendors.

Paul Roberts predicts nothing so dramatic in this timely, important
but uneven book. By the end of oil, he means not the absolute
exhaustion of the planet’s petroleum deposits but a subtler, though
scarcely less disruptive transformation. The world’s supply of oil, he
argues, is soon destined to peak, after which our civilization will
somehow have to manage with ever-declining supplies. With long-term
global demand for oil meanwhile climbing relentlessly, sustained
shortages could unleash punishing price spikes, worldwide inflation,
recession and even armed conflict as nations use force to secure the
black gold they cannot live without.

According to Roberts, a contributor to Harper’s who visited Saudi
Arabia and Azerbaijan and interviewed a range of industry, government
and private experts for this book, there is little dispute among
insiders that an oil peak is inevitable someday; oil is, after all, a
finite resource. But there is considerable disagreement about when
that will occur. Optimists, such as those in the U.S. Geological
Survey and the Energy Information Agency, foresee no peak before 2035.
Pessimists, by contrast, Roberts writes, a group whose members
include geologists, industry analysts, and a surprising number of oil
industry and government officials, believe that a peak may come much
sooner — perhaps as soon as 2005. That 30-year difference is
crucial. To avoid the disaster scenario outlined above, the world must
put in place substitute sources of energy, and a system for delivering
them, before the peak occurs. Otherwise, shortages are certain and
chaos likely. Establishing an alternative system will be no small
challenge, however, for it must displace the 40 percent of global
energy demand that is currently met by oil. Historically, human
societies have needed about 50 years to shift from one energy
foundation to another. Wood, for example, gave way to coal during the
early 19th century and coal to oil in the mid-20th. Given how little
the United States in particular has done so far to develop successful
alternatives, one must hope the optimists are right in saying that we
have decades, not months or years, to leave oil behind.

Yet paradoxically, the looming danger of climate change argues for
quitting petroleum as soon as possible. This book had already gone to
press by the time an elite Pentagon planning unit’s report appeared in
Fortune in February, warning that climate change was a national
security threat of the greatest urgency that could cause
mega-droughts, mass starvation and even nuclear war by 2020. But
Roberts’s treatment of the subject confirms a crucial point: Even if
the Earth contained enough oil to fuel civilization for 500 years,
humans would be foolish to burn it all, for the carbon released in the
process would extinguish whatever chance we have of avoiding
catastrophic warming. In the meantime, control of the world’s
dwindling oil supply will continue to confer immense power on its
owners. Here, Roberts’s reporting offers valuable background to the
American-led war in Iraq, for he demonstrates that whoever rules the
Middle East — especially Iran, Iraq and above all Saudi Arabia — is
certain to dominate world oil decisions for the rest of the petroleum
era. True, new suppliers have entered the market over the past 20
years, but the geological fact remains that the largest and cheapest
deposits of oil on earth are located beneath the Middle East. Even
optimists, reports Roberts, concede that non-OPEC, non-Middle East oil
will peak between 2015 and 2020. After that point, the Middle East’s
control will become irresistible.

Roberts thus dismisses as patently absurd the Bush administration’s
denials that the invasion of Iraq was about oil. He even argues that
the undeclared aim of the war was not simply to capture Iraq’s oil but
to permanently break OPEC’s power over global supply. It’s a
plausible, provocative thesis. The problem is, the only sources he
cites for it are two unnamed former government officials and two
outside analysts, none of whom offers anything approaching documentary
proof.

It’s a shortcoming that unfortunately pervades this book. Too often,
Roberts provides no sourcing for statements that are either debatable
(e.g., implementing the Kyoto protocol on climate change would cost
the United States 2 percent of its gross national product per year) or
arresting (urban air pollution kills 4 million people a year in
China). Especially odd is how many sources go unnamed even when they
offer the blandest of quotes. Finally, some facts cited here are
simply wrong. Climate change did not raise sea levels 10 inches in the
20th century (though it may well do so in the 21st). And the World
Bank has, alas, by no means grown reluctant to finance large energy
projects in the Third World.

Roberts finds firmer ground in his final chapter about how to escape
this conundrum. Contrary both to the Bush-Cheney stress on boosting
fossil fuel production and environmentalists’ calls for a quick shift
to a solar-hydrogen economy, it is energy efficiency that could save
the day. Sexy? No. But improving the efficiency with which we use oil
and other forms of energy is by far the fastest, cheapest and most
far-reaching way to begin kicking the carbon habit — and to buy us
time to get real alternatives up and running. One big obstacle is that
government subsidies, especially but not only in the United States,
still favor carbon-based fuels, so the market sees them as a good buy.
But just as Washington, through taxes, has forced the price of
cigarettes to reflect the health costs that smoking imposed on
society, Roberts argues, so could government make the market reflect
the social costs of continued reliance on carbon fuels.

Such a shift is unthinkable under the Bush administration, but if the
environmentally minded John Kerry wins in November, the outlook could
brighten. In any case, the longer we wait to wean ourselves off oil,
the more costly, in all respects, our withdrawal will be.

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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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