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Review of "The Impending World Energy Mess" by Robert Hirsch, Roger Bezdek and Robert Wendling

Five years ago Robert Hirsch headed the team that produced the first US government-sponsored report discussing the consequences of declining world oil production. The team which wrote the original report, Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management, is now out with a book that discusses the current state of the world energy situation and what we can expect in the decades ahead. Developments during the last five years have sharpened the team’s appreciation of the imminence of the coming decline in world oil production. The first report, written five years ago, discussed what could be done to mitigate the situation if steps were taken 20 and 10 years before the decline in oil production started.

The current book, however, starts from the proposition that world oil production has been on a plateau for the last six years, is unlikely to ever increase significantly, and that the final decline in global production will begin in the next few years. It is too late for mitigation strategies that start well in advance of the decline. As neither governments nor media are as yet willing to admit there is a major problem from global oil depletion just ahead, the authors hold that it is likely that we are going to have to wait for the decline to set in before any meaningful action is taken.

Five years ago and today, the Hirsch team sees peak oil as a scarcity of liquid fuels problem rather than all energy. Much of the analysis focuses on either saving or replacing liquid fuels in the decade or two ahead. While solar and wind power will have a slowly growing place someday, many years and trillions of dollars will be required to effect a transition from liquid-fueled machines to those using electricity or some other fuel. The writers seem pessimistic that capital required to make such a transition smoothly will be available during the times of trouble ahead.

The first parts of the book read like a mini-encyclopedia of what we in the peak oil community have been discussing for the last 10 years. From the importance of oil, to how oil fields work, to the structure of the oil business, to who is producing what, to the numbers on production, to recent studies, to forecasts of future production - it is all there. Even for those familiar with developments in the peak oil story over the last five years - production changes, prices spikes, government reports, actions, and attitudes - the book is helpful as it recounts what has happened, the current situation, and what could happen.

The authors then take on the more daunting challenge of what we are going to do to survive when depletion sets in. This is known in the business as “mitigation.” They start with “administrative mitigation,” a category which includes possible government actions such as taxes, various forms of rationing, mandatory carpooling and even telecommuting. After plowing through much discussion one comes away with the notion that the various tax, rebate, or rationing schemes that will be implemented to assure the optimal utilization of declining oil supplies have the potential to become administrative nightmares.

The effectiveness of physical mitigation is seen as having a lot to do with just how fast oil production declines after the peak. The historical record says this could be anywhere from 2 to 6 percent each year with the decline becoming faster with time. To this must be added the possibility that some oil exporting nations, who will be accumulating vast riches from very high prices, may start withholding production from the market in order to make the good times last and last. Out of the dozens of things that could be done to improve matters, the authors chose improving transportation efficiency, increased use of heavy oil/oil sands, more coal to liquids, enhanced oil recovery techniques and gas to liquids conversion to explore in depth.

Interestingly, they pass up shale oil, biomass, nuclear, wind, photovoltaics, electrified railroads and building heating as either not yet ready for wide scale deployment or would save little in a liquid fuels crisis.

Markedly increased vehicle mileage offers the most potential for saving oil, but this is likely to be slow and very expensive. The authors estimate that it would cost some $2 trillion to replace the 250 million vehicles in the US fleet. Given that the US is now about a quarter of the global vehicle fleet, worldwide vehicle replacement is looking like a $5-10 trillion project and decades to accomplish.

In any future plans, consideration must be given to how much energy and in particular liquid fuels it will take to produce a unit of liquid fuels. The authors are down on corn ethanol as absurdly inefficient showing a calculation that if all the land area in 12 states were devoted to growing biomass, the effort would only produce 800,000 b/d or 4 percent of current US liquid fuel consumption. We could likely get the same results by enforcing a 50 mph speed limit with governors.

Other options including using shale gas, methane hydrates, algae derived liquids and hydrogen are discussed as substitutes for liquid fuels. In general, with the exception of natural gas, these are not seen as ready for wide scale utilization.

There are one or two jarring notes in the book. The authors are agnostic as to whether global warming is taking place and, if so, whether or not CO2 emissions have anything with it. This of course is not the sort of position held by most people writing on peak oil. Another surprise was the uncritical acceptance of the EIA’s assertion that the US has more than 200 years of coal left in the ground given all the recent discussion of “peak coal” and the various studies concluding that there is a lot less recoverable coal around than the industry and government has been claiming. Most now understand that the coal situation is just like that of oil, the easy to mine stuff is gone and new coal seams are becoming progressively deeper and thinner, and more expensive to exploit.

In sum, however, we have a fine book which does a first class job in laying out the latest thinking about peak oil. The authors are to be commended for attempting to grapple with the intractable problems of what we do after the peak. Some of this grappling provides valuable insights and some raises more questions than it answers. But it should set readers thinking.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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