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Lights Out! The End of the Oil Age

On a cold, wet night there's nothing better than coming home to a warm house, making a hot bowl of soup and then, after dinner, curling up under a reading lamp with a good book. But what if there was no gas to make the soup or run the furnace? What if there wasn't any oil to transport the dinner ingredients to you? No sweat, you may be thinking, I'm pretty hardy. If you really believe that, then I challenge you to sit in the dark for 15 minutes. It's no fun.

As that little mind game shows, trying to imagine life after fossil fuels isn't easy. Hydrocarbons are the very lifeblood of modern, industrial society. They are so fundamental to our existence that their role in creating our quality of life often goes unexamined. What our great grandparents would have considered luxuries we think of as necessities. But as even a casual look at history and a quick review of physics reveal, we are living an aberration.

A century and a half ago, we weren't dependent on fossil fuels. And by the end of this century--at the very latest--we will be so no longer. In the sweep of human history, the 20th century and the first part of the 21st are a carbon interregnum.

One doesn't have to be a shrieking Cassandra to say that the oil and gas age is coming to a close. You simply have to recognize the basic laws of science. As we all learned in elementary school, fossil fuels are not a renewable commodity. To wonder when the oil and gas we depend on will start running out misses the point: We've been running out ever since the first commercial oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. Although oil industry types like to talk about "petroleum production," the fact is that no one is making any more of it.

A pair of recent books gives a long, hard look at what will happen when the carbon age ends. David Goodstein's Out of Gas and The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg bravely explore the consequences of the inevitable--and immediate--oil and gas scarcity. The steady depletion of oil threatens to be, in Heinberg's words, a "wrenching adjustment." As both authors agree, what we're facing is not a pretty picture.

Goodstein and Heinberg each rely on the landmark work of a little-known (but perhaps soon-to-be famous?) geologist named M. King Hubbert. In the 1950s, Hubbert was working for Shell Oil in the company's research laboratory. After looking closely at the pattern of oil discoveries in the lower-forty-eight U.S. states, Hubbert reached the conclusion that U.S. oil extraction would someday peak--that is, petroleum production would reach a pinnacle and then begin a steady decline. After figuring that discoveries of new oil fields in the lower forty-eight had climaxed in the 1930s, Hubbert predicted that U.S. oil extraction would peak sometime in the early 1970s.

Many of Hubbert's geologist peers dismissed his prophesy. Then it came true. U.S. oil production peaked in 1970. Today, the United States--which had once been the world's largest oil producer and exporter--imports nearly 60 percent of all the oil it uses.

Since Hubbert's death in 1989, a slew of scientists (most of them former employees of Texaco, Chevron and other oil corporations) have applied Hubbert's methods to studying world petroleum output. These geologists examined global oil discovery--which peaked in the 1970s--and then calculated the future rate of extraction. Their prediction? We will hit global oil peak sometime between 2006 and 2015. From that point on, the inexorable laws of supply and demand will make petroleum ever more expensive until it's no longer economically feasible for society to rely on it. According to a 1999 report by the investment house Goldman Sachs, the oil companies are part of a "dying industry."

For a time, natural gas may be able to fill the gap. Natural gas is already used to heat homes and light stoves, and its role in generating electricity is growing by the year. Compressed natural gas can also be used to power automobiles. But gas, like oil, is also held hostage to the rules of science. Geologists expect natural gas production to climax within just a few decades of the petroleum peak. The magic of convenient energy is about to do a disappearing act.

What will this mean for our lives? For one thing, cheap travel will become a thing of the past--goodbye backpacking trips to Bali and cross-country road trips. Our transportation infrastructure is utterly dependent on oil. Forty percent of all the petroleum we consume goes into our personal cars and trucks, and another 20 percent is burned by our trains, 18 wheelers and airplanes. As fuel costs rise, our freeways will crawl to a stop, our airports will be shuttered. The process of economic globalization, which is so dependent on inexpensive transport, will hit a brick wall. By necessity, economies will have to retrench and become more local, more self-centered.

That is not likely to be a painless process. A spike in oil prices will almost certainly spark massive inflation--a' la the oil disruptions of 1972-73 and 1979-80--that will wreck havoc on the global economy. Recession could quite easily turn into an international depression.

Then things get really ugly. As Heinberg notes, modern agriculture has become completely reliant on carbon energy inputs. Pesticides and herbicides are synthesized from oil. Ammonia made from natural gas is key to the fertilizer that keeps crops growing. Diesel-fired trains and trucks take the food from farm to market, with the average North American meal traveling 1,300 miles before it gets to your plate. Without the help of fossil fuels, farming as we know it would collapse. According to Heinberg: "The agriculture miracle of the 20th century may become the agricultural apocalypse of the 21st." He speculates that an agriculture meltdown would lead to a nightmarish global "die-off": Somewhere between 2 billion and 4 billion people would perish.

Far-fetched? Maybe. But a recent report by none other than the Pentagon explored what would happen in the case of global food and energy shortages. The military thinkers predicted a spiral of violence and nuclear war that would lead to a Hobbesian "war of all against all." As Goodstein puts it: "Civilization as we know it will not survive unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels."

The Party's Over and Out of Gas tell basically the same story. Heinberg goes farther down the rabbit hole of doom and gloom, while Goodstein struggles a little more to find the silver lining. Goodstein's prose is a bit jazzier, but both authors have a tendency to get bogged down in the minutiae of science. It's important to note that their similar views come from different perspectives. Heinberg teaches at that radical bastion of higher learning, The New College of California; he grows his own food and drives a bio-diesel car. Goodstein is the vice provost at Cal Poly and a strong supporter of nuclear energy. Yet both agree that, when it comes to our slavishness to fossil fuels, the days of complacency are over.

That's not to say that among energy industry watchers there is unanimity on the issue of oil peak, as readers of Vijay Vaitheeswaran's Power to the People will see. Vaitheeswaran glibly dismisses the idea that oil scarcity is around the corner, suggesting that Hubbert's followers are a "conspiratorial cabal." The world is "not about to start running out of oil," Vaitheeswaran writes. What Vaitheeswaran doesn't seem to grasp is we don't have to wait until we have reached the last drop of oil for the energy crisis to arrive. Rather, we will start to be in trouble when we have used up more than half of all the oil that exists. Why is the oil peak the point of no return? Because from that point on we will confront what Goodstein calls the "rate-of-conversion problem." With the disappearance of cheap and convenient gasoline, converting to other energy sources will become ever more difficult and expensive. Sure, we can build a hydrogen infrastructure or mine more coal, but it will require oil to move the machines to do those things. Simply put, it takes energy to make energy. If we wait too long, at some point conversion to other energy sources will be beyond our means.

Given that Vaitheeswaran is a correspondent for The Economist, it's odd that he overlooks how energy peak--whenever it occurs--will reshape energy markets via the basic laws of supply and demand. In the end, Goodstein's and Heinberg's arguments are the more persuavive. For one, Heinberg spends many more pages grappling with his intellectual opponents than does the too-often supercilious Vaitheeswaran. More important, the oil peak argument rests on the immutable laws of science, whereas Vaitheeswaran relies on the dubious notion that the market's invisible hand will take care of everything. Perhaps it's best to let the oil bosses settle the argument: "We are always running up a down escalator," a petroleum executive says, in a quote that comes from Vaitheeswaran.

What makes Power to the People an important book is that Vaitheeswaran asks the question: Even if the oil isn't running out, can we afford to keep burning it? Global climate change, he points out, is real, and the sooner we tackle it the better.

Fossil fuels' contribution to global warming was first posited as long ago as 1896. Today there is a near unaninimity among climate scientists (at least those not on the oil industry's payroll) that the earth's atmosphere is heating up, and that human beings' consumption of fossil fuels is at least partly contributing. Since the beginning of the Industrial Age, we have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 30 percent; if we burn all the fossil fuels in the ground, we will end up doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Although it's clear this carbon burning is contributing to global warming, it's unclear what exactly the consequences will be. If we're lucky, only some more March heat waves. If not, we could see the destruction of island nations and the inundation of coastal cities. Or, counter-intuitively, global warming could disrupt the North Atlantic Gulf Stream, thereby ushering in another Ice Age and giving Provence a Siberian climate. It's precisely because we don't perfectly understand how the global climate works that we are best off not toying with it at all.

Relying on coal--which, although it remains abundant, is horribly dirty--is not an option. For Vaitheeswaran, the path toward a "squeaky clean, not-to-distant future" lies in hydrogen. And what a future it could be, at least in Vaitheeswaran's view. Our cars will run on hydrogen fuel cells. Our homes will be powered by micropower units that will allow us all to get off the grid. In poor nations, remote villages that never before had electricity will be able to turn on the lights and log onto the internet.

The problem lies in finding where the hydrogen will come from. Although it is a basic building block of the universe, hydrogen does not naturally occur on earth. You have to make the stuff. This means that hydrogen is not an energy source like petroleum--it's an energy carrier more like electricity. So how do you make it? One way is through trapping the hydrogen byproducts created in burning coal or natural gas, but then you're still sending some carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Nuclear plants can also produce hydrogen, but then you get into the question of where to store all the radioactive waste; plus, the world's supply of uranium may run out even before the oil does, according to Goodstein. The final option is electrolysis, in which water is essentially electrocuted and the H of H20 split off. Environmentalists like the idea of using sustainable energy from windmills and solar panels to do electrolysis.

But no matter how the hydrogen is created, it's unlikely that even a complete hydrogen energy infrastructure will provide the kind of lifestyle we enjoy today. The problem is that there is simply nothing as abundant, as easily transportable, and as energy intensive as petroleum is--or was. Renewable energies such as wind and solar, combined with hydrogen, won't allow all of our current conveniences. Heinberg writes that the "alternatives will be unable to support the kinds of transportation, food and dwelling infrastructure we now have. ... The transition ... will entail an almost complete redesign of industrial societies." Just as the arrival of fossil fuels once transformed our lives, so will their disappearance transform our lives once again.

As the axiom goes, it's best to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. For that reason, these three books make a good collection. You get the worst case scenario (Heinberg), the middle case scenario (Goodstein), and the glimpse of a rosy future (Vaitheeswaran).

For all their differences in predictions, the authors agree that it's entirely within society's power to successfully meet the twin challenges of resource depletion and climate change. The technological solutions exist. The problem is political: Our leaders are so deep in the pockets of the Carbon Barons that they are failing to respond to the impending crises. So it's up to us--ordinary concerned citizens--to lead the charge. In the absence of political leadership, we are going to have to be the ones to lead, and demand that our elected officials start looking past the next election and toward our children's future and their children's future.

If we don't? Then, as Vaitheeswaran writes, "the future for all may be needlessly grim."

Reviewed in this essay:

The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies
Richard Heinberg
Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers
275 Pages

Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil
David Goodstein
New York: W.W. Norton
140 Pages, Illustrated

Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution Will Transform an Industry, Change Our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet
Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
358 Pages

Jason Mark is the co-author, with Kevin Danaher, of Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power.

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