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A Thousand Barrels a Second: The Coming Oil Break Point and the Challenges Facing an Energy Dependent World Hardcover – February 9, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Though written by an energy industry investment analyst and intended primarily for investors, this book makes a convincing, layreader-friendly case that the end of oil is nigh and it's time to get serious about energy alternatives now that the world is at "the dawn of a new energy age" that will pit the U.S. against China in the struggle for oil. Tertzakian provides an excellent primer on oil's history, uses, supply chains and politics, including dozens of charts and graphs to illustrate the bleak outlook for oil's future. The future of energy, Tertzakian advises, is an amalgamation of increasing dependence on alternative fuels (biofuel, nuclear and green sources) and conservation. He admits conservation is a tough sell for big earners who will be able to afford the $4 per gallon gasoline will inevitably cost, but he notes in the same breath that low- and moderate-income earners and energy inefficient industries will suffer the most. His analyses of energy consumption cycles and their breakpoints and rebalancing periods (when a fossil fuel becomes too expensive or difficult to obtain and society must change sources to maintain its economy) lend factual heft to his outlook. Though the author neglects significant facts-such as the influence of the CIA in the fall of Mossadegh in Iran and the threat of global warming-the book should be required reading for policymakers.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The coming "break point" Tertzakian describes--more a period than a moment, really--is the next 5 to 10 years, during which rising oil prices and market volatility will force structural changes in how we extract and expend energy. Both a chronicle of previous break points and their consequences--including the shifts from whale oil to kerosene lighting, coal- to oil-fueled navies, and steam to electric engines--and a carefully considered economic analysis of our present conundrum, this book offers no magic-bullet solution to the increasingly uncomfortable primacy of petroleum as the world's fuel of choice. Nor is it as alarmist as its title suggests, although Tertzakian harbors no illusions about the discomfort the next decades will bring. Rather, his cost-benefit analysis points toward pursuing a plurality of minor incremental solutions (mostly familiar, like smaller cars and biodiesel) as the next major fuel source (sorry, probably not hydrogen) emerges. Refreshingly measured and pragmatic, this account also is illuminating as a quick historical primer of the oil industry. Brendan Driscoll
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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In the book's title, "A Thousand Barrels a Second" refers to the point at which world oil demand exceeds 86 million barrels per day. (86.4 to be exact--there are 86,400 seconds in one day). The International Energy Agency (IEA) believes the 86 million threshold could be crossed this year.
The "Coming Oil Break Point" refers to the aftermath of crisis and inevitable forced change. Tertzakian explains:
"...the history of energy shows that a time of crisis is always followed by a defining break point, after which government policies, and social and technological forces, begin to rebalance the structure of the world's vast energy complex. Break points are crucial junctures marked by dramatic changes in the way energy is used."
During the break point and the rebalancing phase that follows (which can last for 10 to 20 years), nations struggle for answers, consumers suffer and complain, the economy adapts, and science surges with innovation and discovery. In the era that emerges, lifestyles change, businesses are born, and fortunes are made.
I read the entire book on one leg of a coast-to-coast plane trip, a feat made possible by the clarity and lucidity of Tertzakian's writing. He excels at laying out detailed concepts in ways that are easy for the reader to grasp and understand, and paints a convincing picture of the significant challenges we face.
Tertzakian firmly grounds his argument in history, explaining what he calls the "evolutionary energy cycle" through the lens of past transitions. At one point we journeyed to the ends of the earth for whale oil, just as we do for "rock oil" (the literal meaning of petroleum) today. In the switch from wood to coal, tallow to whale oil, whale oil to kerosene, and so on, predictable aspects of the evolutionary energy cycle begin to emerge.
In addition to outlining the situation we're in, Tertzakian gives a fascinating, though brief, history of the oil industry. He covers the rise of Rockefeller's Standard Oil, its eventual breakup, the curious origins of Saudi Aramco, the British Navy's fateful switch from coal to oil, energy's role in respect to railroads and WWII, and more.
In my opinion, Tertzakian can be classified as an Urgent Simonist.* The word "Urgent" is meant to distinguish from the "Pollyanna" Simonists--those who believe technology will magically solve our energy problems with no real pain or discomfort.
On the emotional subject of peak oil, there are two extremes of debate. At one end you have those who think civilization is doomed no matter what (the viewpoint of cheery websites like dieoff.org). At the other end, you have those who think peak oil will be shaken off like a mild head cold.
Tertzakian helps bridge the gap between these extremes by explaining that yes, the challenge is serious, and gut-wrenching times are ahead... but we will ultimately see our way through. He is "urgent" in pointing out that the sooner we act the better, and pulls no punches in terms of what's at stake.
Perhaps the real power of "A Thousand Barrels A Second" is in showing readers how to think about the big picture, orienting them to the mind-boggling mechanics of energy supply chains.
There are so many steps and processes involved in the discovery, extraction, and distribution of energy that supply chains generally evolve at a glacial pace. Major energy transitions are measured in decades, not years; the scale and scope of the task is breathtaking to behold. Without taking a closer look behind the scenes, it's hard to get an intuitive sense of the time frames and logistical complexities involved. Tertzakian helps readers do that.
In sum, if you truly want to understand the energy issues we face--or at least get a handle on the key elements--I strongly recommend this book. It could also make an excellent gift for those friends and colleagues locked in one of the "extreme" camps, i.e. "what me worry" vs. "we're all going to die." (The book might not change their mind, but it will certainly make them think.)
I too consider myself an Urgent Simonist--we'll make it through, but only with serious pain--and believe that Tertzakian succeeds in his goal of providing "a highly researched and balanced assessment of our energy situation."
*Julian Simon, an influential economist, wrote a book in 1981 called The Ultimate Resource, in which he argued that technology and human ingenuity would always ensure an abundance of raw materials. In 1980, he also made a famous wager that a basket of base metals would fall in price, rather than rise, over a significant period of time. He won the bet. Ever since, those who believe in the power of innovation to overcome doomsday scarcity predictions have been dubbed "Simonists."
Tertzakian goes on the review the principle of growth, pressure buildup, and then a "break point" as an energy source becomes disadvantaged.
I especially appreciated the concept of the "oil dependency factor" of a given economy. The "oil dependency factor" can be considered as the measure of how much new oil is required to fuel economic growth. Countries like Japan, Britain, and France have taken very conscious efforts to mitigate their oil dependency, and thus have very low oil dependency factors. Countries in the early stages of industrialization, like China and India, exhibit high "oil dependency factors." This concept becomes very useful as you consider diversifying the energy mix in an economy while still allowing economic growth.
Tertzakian continues to make very interesting points as he goes on to discuss the very low probability of our being saved from our horrific energy policy by waiting for a technological "magic bullet."
The author does give some very practical advice for postponing the collapse. He mentions three actions we can do right now do decrease our use of fossil fuels. These require no new technology and could made a big difference in giving society some "breathing room" while we ponder the next steps. These very practical suggestions are:
- lower national speed limits
- raising fuel taxes
- progressive tax of vehicles based on fuel inefficiency
Tertzakian starts to ramble and dream a bit at the end, but on the whole, I found this to be a very readable and informative book with a novel view of the our current energy quagmire.
This book is lightweight compared to the Peak Oil books by Deffeyes, Simmons and Campbell. But the simple analogy of the whale oil era is a strong argument for me that the Peak Oil crowd is correct and oil discovery is drawing to a close and soon depletion of aging oil fields will bring a peak in world oil production. The transition to alternatives for the world's transportation system will be long and painful and will require much, much higher oil prices.