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The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World Paperback – Bargain Price, April 5, 2005
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Roberts synthesizes the information he gathers superbly. The viewpoint he conveys is more optimistic than Heinberg's excellent The Party's Over (see my review) but more urgent and pessimistic than Economist reporter Vaitheeswaran's Power to the People (see my review). Roberts has no utopian libertarian illusions about business, but realizes that business is inevitably going to be part of the solutions that emerge, and so he gives careful thought to the role of corporations and industries.
Roberts does not explain how oil geologists use Hubbert's Curve to estimate oil reserves, and this is a weakness compared to Heinberg, Goodstein (Out of Gas -- see my review), or the oil geologists themselves, Deffeyes (Hubbert's Peak) or Campbell (The Coming Oil Crisis). But he doesn't base his analysis on the over-optimistic estimates of the U.S.G.S. or Exxon Mobil, so this is not a major shortcoming. A bigger problem is that he doesn't mention or apply EROEI analysis (energy return on energy invested). If he did, he might be more pessimistic, and for this crucial physics application, Heinberg and Goodstein are quite valuable.
Based on everything he learned in his reporting, Roberts concludes THE END OF OIL with recommendations for U.S. energy policy. Here are his three major proposals:
1) The government should move immediately and aggressively to boost natural gas supplies. Gas will only serve as a bridging fuel, and might last two or three decades.
2) The government should implement a "carbon penalty," not in the form of a carbon tax, but rather a carbon trading system, a cap-and-trade regime. He suggests a delayed start and low starting costs that would rise over time, giving industry a clear timeline so it can plan to make the needed transition to non-carbon energy sources. Along with the carbon penalty, a well-funded R&D program would be needed to develop coal gasification and carbon sequestration. Roberts sees this as politically necessary in order to coopt the powerful coal industry, which could otherwise block the needed changes.
3) Finally, the government needs to launch an all-out drive to reduce Americans' high consumption of oil and energy. Raising auto fuel efficiency is the obvious place to start, and does not have to be based on radical new designs, at least not at first. The details of Roberts's proposal takes into account the fierce resistance of the automobile industry, and is based on incentives, just as with the coal industry.
All of these steps are just part of a bridging strategy to a renewable energy economy. Roberts doesn't do justice to all of these possibilities, but presents fascinating glimpses into research on hydrogen, fuel cells, and solar energy, particularly the advances in solar that have been made in Germany.
Fossil fuels are on the way out, whether we like it or not -- they are not renewable, and so once extracted in a frighteningly short few years, that's it. For more on renewable energy, including solar, wind and biomass fuels, see Hermann Scheer's The Solar Economy: Renewable Energy for a Sustainable Global Future (see my review).
A deliberate, proactive clean/renewable energy revolution is not taking place on schedule, and the likelihood grows greater with every passing year that social collapse will take place first, with the energy transition following of necessity. The best book on this is The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization by the Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon.
However, I came at it from the perspective of a physicist who has spent 25 years involved in various sustainable energy issues, and for me the book was quite disappointing. Roberts' in-depth understanding of all the issues about which he writes is limited. As a result, there are a huge number of minor technical errors throughout the book that are at best distracting and at worst seriously misleading. For a much more detailed and accurate discussion of most major aspects of energy, see 'Energy at the Crossroads' by Smil, though Smil too has serious limitations on the subject of renewables and advanced technology. Roberts' treatment of oil resources is decidedly inferior to the definitive work on petroleum resources by Campbell, 'The Coming Oil Crisis'. (And you don't even have to buy Campbell's book. Just go to the ASPO web site and download his last 20 newsletters.)
Roberts also does poorly when he tries to evaluate future energy options -- wind, biofuels, solar, and hydrogen. Of course, it's hard to be too critical, as there has been a lot of junk science published on these subjects (much of it even coming from government sources) and Roberts is not qualified to separate the wheat from the chaff. The worst chapter by far is Chapter 3, which essentially is an advertisement for Ballard's hydrogen fuel cells. This chapter is full of garbage from start to finish, though it probably contains enough real science to fool the general reader. For a scientifically sound, expert perspective here, see 'The Hype About Hydrogen' by Dr. Joe Romm or my 'Fuels for Tomorrow's Vehicles'. On this subject, Romm, Smil, and Roberts each have very different views, and here it seems clear that Romm is on the right track. (The recent study by the National Academy of Sciences is on his side, and that should mean something.)
Roberts' review of wind and solar in Chapter 13 also leaves a lot to be desired, though most of the information presented on these subjects (except when it comes to hydrogen energy storage to address intermittency) is sound. However, he gives the distinct impression in several places he's already decided to be negative toward wind energy simply because the wind turbines must be produced by big industry to be competitive. He apparently fails to appreciate that the same applies to solar and especially to fuel cells. But the biggest shortcoming in this chapter is his non-treatment of advanced biofuels -- such as cellulosic ethanol, algal biodiesel, and methanol and biodiesel from waste and switchgrass.
So, I have to commend Roberts for doing a good job (for an outsider and non-expert) of presenting a lot of useful information on energy issues; but for those interested in real substance devoid of slanted hype, I'd recommend turning to the real experts, like Campbell, Romm, and Smil, who also are excellent writers. Of course, you may not want to read three long books, two of which (those by Campbell and Smil) are rather heavy. In that case, you might want to read the first third and the last quarter of 'Out of Gas', by Goodstein (the central portion of his book is off topic and boring) to get a brief and scientifically sound introduction to the subject of Peak Oil. For a sound summary of future automotive fuels, I recommend 'Fuels for Tomorrow's Vehicles'. -- F. David Doty, PhD, engineering physicist.