Book Review: The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World, by Paul Roberts

 

Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes

 

The End of Oil, written by Paul Roberts, is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the global future of energy, and is concerned about current trends in energy consumption, pollution and global warming. Well-written and thoroughly researched, The End of Oil offers a balanced view of how energy is produced and consumed, with the focus being on oil, transportation (as being a huge consumer of oil), and the US economy (which is heavily dependent on low-cost fossil fuels). Author Paul Roberts succeeds in giving air time to both "oil pessimists", who foresee economic and even military strife as oil gets ever more scarce and expensive, and to "oil optimists", who have faith in the ability of oil companies, and the governments that support them, to harness whatever technology will be needed to extract more oil for generations to come. While this book is not a doomsday polemic, it does portray a potentially dire, perhaps even explosive future if we don't start playing the right cards in the energy production and consumption game very soon.

The issue of how to develop a global energy industry that is economically and ecologically sustainable is complex, and cannot tap into very many "easy answers".
Working in favour of the desired outcome are initiatives undertaken to harness wind power, largely by Germany and Denmark, solar power largely by Japan, and geothermal energy by Iceland. Even carmakers are getting gas-electric hybrid and fuel-efficient diesel vehicles to market, and biofuels such as Ethanol and Biodiesel are available today in some parts of the world.


Working against a sustainable energy future are i) a world population that continues to grow, with its concomitant energy demands, ii) a burgeoning middle class in large population centres like India and China whose thirst for "Western-style", energy-intensive cars and appliances boosts demand for energy, iii) huge, moribund infrastructures dedicated to producing "cheap" power from burning coal in dirty, inefficient and ways, iv) Western politicians fearful of losing votes if they were to go against the interests of the automotive lobby or the coal lobby, and v) vast resources of oil held by nations (Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Russia) whose regimes are unstable and|or wary of the influences of their biggest oil customer, the US.


The End of Oil is, in many ways, the written equivalent of the must-see documentary film The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream. Peak oil, the notion that we are at or near the date in history when extraction volumes of oil will stop increasing each year and instead will start to decline, is very real and very serious. Roberts writes about the "energy illiteracy" that plagues too many citizens of the developed world as it leaves them oblivious to their wanton waste of energy, and of the "energy poverty" that relegates billions of persons in the developing world to pollution-intensive, unhealthy qualities of life. Roberts describes the large and unsustainable imbalances in having some parts of the world use much more than their per capita share of energy, and, correspondingly, generate more than their share of greenhouse gas emissions.


Roberts, at the end of the book, offers a three-pronged approach that is his best effort to effect positive change but yet be mindful of the harsh realities currently facing the energy industry: 1) shift the developed world, especially the US, to use natural gas instead of oil, to the greatest extent possible; 2) have the developed world, spearheaded by the US, create a market for carbon credits, thereby introducing the all-important market signal to businesses and governments that the release of carbon, in the form of CO and CO2, is not costless, and 3) have the US and other developed countries initiate energy conservation at many levels in society, from installing CF light bulbs, to having individuals choose to drive vehicles with the best fuel economy.


I support Roberts' prescription for immediate action, especially the need for conservation efforts: it's always cheaper to conserve a unit of energy than it is to derive a net new unit of energy. Goodness knows, in the US and Canada, there is so much `low-hanging fruit' in the form of conservation opportunities, that a little political will directed toward such efforts could result in the need for fewer oil tankers to arrive at our shores each day.