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The Last Oil Shock - book review

The Last Oil Shock
By David Strahan, John Murray ed. 2007
www.lastoilshock.com

After years of work on peak oil, it is rare for me to find a book written for the general public that can teach me something I didn’t know before. But with David Strahan’s book, “The Last Oil Shock,” it was a different matter. While I often just thumb through this kind of books, this one was worth reading carefully, line by line.

Books on peak oil, so far, have been written mostly by geologists, and in general by scientists. Their approach is normally rather impersonal and is based on the analysis of literature data. Strahan’s approach, instead, is that of the investigative journalist and it is based on interviews. The result is lively and rich in insights. For instance, Strahan manages to make a convincing case that the people in power know much more about peak oil than they care to tell to us, the poor petroleum peasants. Maybe you suspected that already, but Strahan will give you much food for thought on the matter.

When discussing the theory behind peak oil, Strahan tells us the human side of Hubbert’s story, his struggle against the USGS, and the psychological profile of his enemies, prophet of abundance of their times, who were proved famously wrong by history. It is a story that cannot be found anywhere else (as far as I know) and that would be impossible to put together from the dry text of the scientific papers of the time. Also, the story of how the oil wells of Iraq were badly damaged, perhaps permanently, by the embargo of the 1990s is something which would be impossible to piece together from the media and very difficult to understand from the scientific literature.

A chapter absolutely worth reading is the one on economics, where Strahan discusses the huge gaps in the standard economic theory, the one called “neoclassical,” and how these gaps led economists to a dangerous underestimation of the importance of energy in the world’s economy. If you think you know everything about oil, everything about renewable energy, and even everything about politics, still you should get this book just for this chapter. Unless you can spend tens of hours wading through specialized economics tests, you won’t be able to understand the matter as it is clearly explained here.

Not everything is perfect in this book and the chapter on alternatives to oil is perhaps a weak section. It is in part because of the sheer size of the field, but also because Strahan doesn’t use the concept of “energy return on energy investment” (EROEI) which is the real discriminant among the various energy technologies. For this reason, the criticism of Strahan against renewable energy turns out to be somewhat too harsh. However, he does manage to hack to death, correctly, such wild ideas as the hydrogen based economy and biofuels as replacement for fossil fuels. Another (relative) weakness of the book is its focus on the British situation; that makes some parts of the text of only modest interest for the non-British reader. However, learning from the book that the minister for energy of a major Western country was totally incompetent at his job; is not surprising for us, the non-British!

With this book, David Strahan has set on himself a huge challenge: that of a comprehensive treatment of what we call sometimes “peak oil” and that he decided to call “the last oil shock”. A daunting task that involves dealing with widely different fields such as geology, economics, politics and energy technology. But Strahan has managed to meet this challenge in full. This book can be considered a primer for people who are new to peak oil, but also old hands will find it worth reading for its useful insights.

Ugo Bardi teaches chemistry at the University of Firenze, Italy. He is the author of two books on crude oil and of many articles on the subject. He is a member of the executive committee of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) and president of the italian chapter of ASPO (ASPO-Italy) Email: (ugo.bardi@unifi.it)

Editorial Notes: The Guardian just published a favorable review too. -BA

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