(Reviews)

OIL, TOIL, and TROUBLE

Political chaos and war will go hand in hand with global warming unless the world takes aggressive steps to end our dependence on fossil fuels.

By Keith Kloor

 

The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World
By Paul Roberts
Houghton Mifflin, 400 pages, $26

In the next decade, catastrophic storms, droughts, and heat waves could trigger widespread political unrest and war across the planet, according to a recent Pentagon report on global warming. Its 22 pages dwell on international conflicts over energy and food shortages as nations cope with extreme environmental disasters.

When news of the report became public a few months ago, it received scant media attention, owing perhaps to the disclaimer that it was merely "imagining the unthinkable." Nonetheless, its authors did conclude that the "potentially dire consequences" of sudden climatic changes were "plausible" and thus "would challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately."

If you want to know why Pentagon planners are preparing for a global meltdown, read Paul Roberts's The End of Oil. His lively, penetrating investigation of the world's energy economy will leave you feeling as if someone splashed cold water on your face. "While climatologists and environmentalists fret about the quality of the energy we produce, a great many other experts worry far more about the quantity of energy we can make and, more specifically, whether we can produce enough energy of any kind or quality to satisfy the world's present and future needs," he writes at the outset. Now go back to that Pentagon report for a minute and consider this little tidbit, which is no idle speculation: "According to the International Energy Agency, global demand for oil will grow by 66 percent in the next 30 years, but it's unclear where the supply will come from." Translation: The planet's oil wells are running dry.

And that's not even the half of it. "By 2020, the world will need more than twice as much energy as it uses today," Roberts says. Besides the increased need for oil, the use of natural gas "will climb by 75 percent, coal use by nearly 40 percent." The demand will be especially acute, he says, in emerging economies, like those in China and India, "whose leaders see voracious energy consumption as the key to industrial success."

Can you blame them? Especially when, as Roberts points out, more than 2.5 billion people—nearly half the world's population—"lack access to electricity or fossil fuels and thus have virtually no chance to move from a brutally poor, pre-industrial existence to the kind of modern, energy-intensive life many of us in the West take for granted." So if Americans can have gas-guzzling SUVs and a TV in every room, surely the less fortunate are entitled to their share of the energy pie.

The End of Oil covers everything from the geopolitics of energy and the world's "fatally flawed" dependence on fossil fuels to the promises and pitfalls of alternative energy sources, like wind and solar power. Roberts, a veteran magazine journalist who specializes in the confluence of business, environmental, and technological issues, is a deft synthesizer. He impressively lays out the various scenarios that will likely ensue in the next few decades when, as many experts predict, oil becomes a high-priced, unreliable commodity—because it is fast dissipating and because the largest reserves are concentrated in countries with unstable governments.

The trouble is that few U.S. policy makers seem to be preparing for this situation. Roberts finds that the very thought of eventual oil depletion isn't even acknowledged in government circles, much less considered. Why? Joe Romm, a former U.S. assistant energy secretary, offers this: "If the U.S. government even brought up the possibility that global oil production might peak in, say, 2020, not only would that have an enormous and very negative impact on the markets, but it would essentially force the United States to abruptly change its energy policy to one that emphasized energy efficiency and alternative energy."

That prospect seems unlikely at the moment, given President Bush's we-can-drill-our-way-to-energy-security domestic policy. Yet a great strength of The End of Oil is Roberts's evenhanded probing of all sides of the energy equation. "Of the 750 million cars, trucks, and other vehicles now roaming the planet (and the number grows by 50 million a year), some 90 percent use oil," Roberts reports, "not because of some vast oil conspiracy" but because by every conventional measure, "oil fuels generate more power, more efficiency, more bang for the energy dollar" than any other fuel technology. Then there is the massive infrastructure of the world's energy economy to consider, with its pipelines, tankers, refineries, power plants, and transmission lines—estimated to be worth $10 trillion. "No company or country," he says, "can afford to walk away" from that asset.

True, there are vested political and business interests that want to keep us hooked on fossil fuels. Since 1990 the oil and gas industry has funneled more than $159 million to American politicians (73 percent of it to Republicans). The oil-rich countries, for their part, have an obvious incentive in keeping the spigots flowing, especially to the United States, which is still the biggest and fastest growing oil market in the world. Today, Roberts says, "Saudi Arabia is so desperate to maintain its share of the U.S. market that it sells oil to Americans at a discount."

I guess if you own a Hummer, that's a good thing. But in the long term, is there any hope of us kicking the oil habit before the planet succumbs to an overdose of carbon dioxide? Alas, after surveying the promising crop of renewable energies, Roberts concludes there will be no quick "green" fix. Even the biggest boosters of much-hyped hydrogen fuel cells concede the technology is decades away from practical use. And though solar and wind power—especially wind—are becoming increasingly competitive with fossil fuels, by themselves they are not expected to meet the future demand for electricity.

To this end, Roberts says that "a good many energy experts believe that our best bet isn't displacing hydrocarbons" but figuring out how to use them more cleanly. Indeed, there is much research well under way to help "decarbonize" natural gas and coal, which would prevent greenhouse gases from being released into the atmosphere. This breakthrough would be most welcome for coal, a highly polluting but preferred source of energy in the developing world, because it is abundant, cheap, and easy to access.

 

A more immediate, largely forgotten measure is one that has already proven highly successful: energy conservation. Remember the 1970s, when Middle Eastern wars and revolutions triggered sky-high oil prices, sending the U.S. economy into a tailspin? In response, the government imposed higher efficiency standards for air conditioners, refrigerators, cars, and windows. Energy use took a big drop. By the 1990s, though, cheap oil had made its triumphant return, reducing the incentives for energy conservation. Fuel efficiency standards have declined since the 1980s—today the average car gets 20.8 miles to the gallon—and all attempts to raise them have been repeatedly beaten back in Congress. Efforts to upgrade the efficiency of everything from home furnaces to power plants have also stalled. But by making additional improvements to cars and buildings, Roberts says, "America could save the energy equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil a day"—more than half of the country's total demand.

In the end, Roberts himself settles on a middle path to energy stability. He sees natural gas serving as a "bridge fuel" between the current coal- and oil-based economy and the newer, alternative energy systems of the future. Natural gas is cleaner-burning, more efficient and, unlike oil, less prone to volatile price swings. At the same time, Roberts is in favor of a carbon penalty, or carbon tax, which would "internalize" the costs of pollution, climate change, and respiratory illnesses as part of the price of energy. This, in turn, would presumably spur the development of "decarbonizing" technology.

Whether such a tax, much less a movement away from fossil fuels, could happen is anyone's guess, given the economic and political hurdles. Lawmakers might be prodded into action, Roberts says, if consumers showed more interest in where their energy came from and how much they used. But some of the experts he spoke with believe that nothing short of environmental calamity from global warming, or deep recession from 1970s-like oil-price spikes, will prompt necessary energy reform. Maybe it would be smart to take a hint from the Pentagon and start considering what such a world would look like.

 

Editors' Choice

Chicken Soup for the Nature Lover's Soul
Health Communications, 360 pages, $12.95

Anyone who hasn't heard of the Chicken Soup series is likely living in a cave. Since the first book, Chicken Soup for the Soul, topped the New York Times best-seller list, there are now more than 70 Chicken Soup titles and 80 million copies in print in more than 37 languages. The latest, Chicken Soup for the Nature Lover's Soul, lives up to its cover's promise of providing "Inspiring Stories of Joy, Insight and Adventure in the Great Outdoors." Following a foreword by Audubon president John Flicker are 85 different stories, running the gamut from the thrills of birding to the joys of camping. One of my personal favorites is by Jim Whittaker, a world-class mountaineer. In 1965 he led Robert Kennedy on a hike up Canada's highest unclimbed mountain, which the nation had named in honor of his brother John F. Kennedy, a year after the president's assassination. "[Kennedy] walked to the highest point of Mount Kennedy, becoming the first human being to stand on the summit of the mountain," Whittaker writes. "He stood alone, head bowed, and made the sign of a cross. Tears rolled down my cheeks and froze on my parka." Many moving passages like these explain why this book’s power stays with you long after you put it down.

—David Seideman


The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession
By Mark Obmascik
Free Press, 268 pages, $25

Quirky birders make great book subjects, especially when they're on a mission. Denver-based journalist Mark Obmascik takes advantage of the all-consuming drive of three birders to record in minute and sometimes hilarious detail their attempts in 1998 to set a new record for the number of species seen in North America in a single year. Having devoted 12 intense months of their lives to this exotic pursuit, the three men agreed to relive for the author all aspects of their frantic cross-continental travels. In his lively book, Obmascik probes their personal travails and headiest moments. The outcome hinged on such blips as foul weather and canceled boat trips. One key species find resulted from a dash in January to Alaska to list a Siberian accentor that had been subsisting on freeze-dried insect fragments left from the previous summer around a backyard bug zapper. By the book's end, the swashbuckling winner spotted 745 species, a total no one may ever reach again.

—Frank Graham Jr.


© 2004 National Audubon Society

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