Review of Paul Roberts: The End of Oil

Paul Roberts: The end of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World – Copyright 2004 Houghton Mifflin; 389 pages.

In “The end of Oil”, journalist Paul Roberts provides a thorough
review of not only why we need to reduce our need for oil, but why
we need to start weaning ourselves off every other traditional
fossil energy source as well. At times, from the present
perspective close to two years after publication, the dire
warnings about the prospect of $50 per barrel oil and the bad weather global warming might bring seem almost quaint. In fact Roberts’ warning is about
more than the prospect of high future prices – in fact he details the
way in which, absent a controlling supplier that can expand or
contract to quickly match demand, oil prices have a natural volatility
that scarcity won’t limit.

This account is highly accessible, having none of the diagrams and
graphs that many recent books of this nature have sported. But
Roberts has clearly read and understood those other works,
and draws well-documented conclusions, with comprehensive footnotes
and a good bibliography for those looking for more background
on the numbers he provides. On oil, he very thoroughly describes
the declining rate of discovery, particularly of the “giant” fields
needed to sustain reserves, and the near-frantic effort
of major oil companies and exporting nations to even just keep production
level with the past years, let alone expand to meet increased demand.

Roberts provides good perspective not just on the US situation,
but likely world growth in demand for energy, the “aspiration” part of
demand. As developing nations start taking advantage of the things
energy resources can provide, demand will soar, on the order
of four-fold from 2000 to 2050, and eight-fold growth by 2100;
all while we have to actually cut carbon dioxide emissions substantially
to avoid major global climate change. And without some revolution in
technology, finance, or politics, much of this growth will use the
worst-polluting (lowest up-front capital cost) technologies, at the
expense of solutions that would prove less costly, both in dollars
and to the environment, in the longer run. And once capital has been
invested in those obsolete technologies, Roberts describes well
the reluctance to change, for instance somewhat repetitively
mentioning the $10 trillion the world has invested in oil-dependent
infrastructure that people are reluctant to abandon.

Unfortunately, this background demand problem does not seem to fully
inform the rest of the book; the descriptions are, in a pattern
perhaps typical of modern journalism, not fully fleshed out and
self-consistent. The presentation often uses the rather annoying
formula of good news first, bad news later, in many of the
central chapters. Hopes raised at the start of each chapter by
some new technology or idea are routinely dashed by the end.

But Roberts isn’t a universal cynic – in fact he lavishes quite
a bit of attention on natural gas as an interim solution,
and the “hydrogen economy” and potential efficiency improvements,
without really acknowledging that none of these is capable of meeting
the energy demand scale he has set forth elsewhere. And there are
serious doubts that the “hydrogen economy” is much more than hype
(though Roberts, to his credit here, provides a very fair account
of the current status).

So the conclusions of the book (for US policy) probably need a
little helping of salt; nevertheless, they aren’t a bad guide to
the way forward, and something like them is urgently needed,
well beyond the bandaid “energy bill” measures the US congress has
considered recently. Roberts emphasizes three steps as a “bridging
strategy” to the future: natural gas to replace coal and oil
where possible (reducing carbon content), carbon taxes or
cap-and-trade regulations for carbon dioxide emissions, and
a massive campaign to cut our high oil consumption and move to
new energy sources and improved efficiency. We can only hope
that recent encouraging political developments will be enough
to set a course of this sort for US policy in the near future;
read this book and you’ll see we have almost run out of time to
take this wiser path ahead.

7 thoughts on “Review of Paul Roberts: The End of Oil”

  1. It always bothers me how many people fall for the line that all oil and natural gas comes from rotting dinosaurs, what not, i.e. that they are fossil fuels.  True, some is, but much of the natural gas in production today, and anywhere you find natural gas with helium in it, that gas is galatic aged, as in formation of planet time.

    The rest of the solar system is about 98% hydrocarbons.  That is a huge supply.  There is no shortage.  

    And you wouldn’t need to ship the gas, just the energy, and that could be done in a variety of ways.

    Besides, we have lots of oil and gas left on the planet in abundance; the problem is political, not scientific or geological.  There are many multiples of Saudi and Qatar in northern Russia completely unplayed.

    One day Exxo-Chevrono-BP will go beyond, beyond NASA, because they have the money, they have the technology(ever been offshore – I have and it was awesome!), and they have the longrun perspective to really do Big Space right.

  2. And do you have any sources?

    If you use the normal definition, then your claim is patently false. The sun is predominantly hydrogen and is a rather significant part of our solar system.

    If, on the other hand, you’re referring to the rest of the solar system, your 98% claim still seems quite dubious. Jupiter, for example, is about 90% hydrogen and 10% helium (
    Perhaps your claim has merit and I’m missing something. I know this might come off as flippant, but I’m really interested in understanding what you’re trying to say.

  3. Plenty of energy to be had sans oil and gas- tar sands, if you’re still desperate to add to the CO2 levels, coal, etc. But with energy prices high more countries are exploring wind and wave power, thinking of expanding nuclear (BIG mistake, IMHO, unless somewhere we manage to figure out fusion). And as for space- it would make a heck of a lot more sense to pursue solar. No gases involved, thank you very much. Earth gets a tiny fraction of the Sun’s total output. You want Star Trek style energy use? Start collecting some of the rest of that output and mirror it back home to us. The moon would be perfect for solar collecting if you don’t want orbital. Concentrate it up for beaming (and don’t let it fall into the hands of terrorists or aggressor nations…)


  4. which it most certainly is not, there would be little useable energy due to the lack of an oxidizer. It is absurd to suggest that helium is a marker of “galatic aged” natural gas for two reasons. One, helium is being produced even now by the decay of thorium and uranium. Two, natural gas and helium are quite mobile and so can mix together even when they come from separate sources.

  5. It is interesting that both parties on the “fossil” fuel front have a vested interest in promoting its scarcity.  The environmentalists use petroleum shortages to push for alternative energy source development.  The petroleum industry uses shortages to drive up prices.  With so many agendas at stake, do you really believe that there is a shortage?

    The only person who clearly had no agenda when he spoke of “fossil” fuels, was the late Thomas Gold.  His theories (reflecting Russian research) that oil is not necessarily “fossil” derived are reflected in the first post here.

    Consider: do you believe groups who have a manifest self-interest in promoting the belief of “fossil” fuel shortages, or a noteworthy scientist who’s only agenda was scientific rigor in the pursuit of knowledge?

    The basic premise of the book seems questionable.  There is nothing wrong with that unless it is used to motivate political action with the commensurate impact on societies and lives.

  6. It doesn’t matter where the oil came from, what matters is how fast we can get it out of the ground. Even with an infinite quantity, if the maximum withdrawal rate (without using more energy in digging it up than you gain from the resource) is finite, that’s the limit on how much we can use up.

    And since Gold’s theories of abiotic sources would operate on geologic timescales, either the world has somehow lost vast oceans of hydrocarbons in some way, or the rate at which they become available is necessarily very small, to have built up to what we see now over hundreds of millions of years.

    But the geology of oil is also pretty clear in implicating biological, not abiotic, sources.

  7. Hi barakn – I was going to make the same comment.

    The universe may be awash in hydrogen, but it does no good for chemical energy generation without an oxidizing chemical, oxygen or equivalent – and those seem to be rather rare. Oxygen is very common as an element, but it’s found essentially everywhere in the universe either in a plasma where it’s no use for chemistry, or already combined with silicon or metals or hydrogen itself in the form of water, also no use for energy release from oxidation. In fact, it’s believed that one of the most significant indicators that a planet holds life is the presence of an oxidizing atmosphere.

    Of course, Earth’s atmosphere has plenty of oxygen right now and we’re not consuming hydrocarbons at anywhere near the rate necessary to make a dent in it soon (but on the time scale of a thousand years or so it could be a big deal).

    More of a problem for the idea of space (or remote Earth locations) as a source of resources for chemical energy production is the energy payback issue: if it takes more energy to produce a fuel than you gain from it, it does you no good to dig it up; you’re ahead of the game if you just leave it in the ground (or in Jupiter, the Sun, etc.) The energy required to gather hydrogen from space is orders of magnitude more than what you would gain from it, so that’s really a non-starter.

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