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Review: Prelude by Kurt Cobb

Prelude
By Kurt Cobb
259 pp. Public Interest Communications – Nov. 2010. $14.95.

In today's world of corporate media ownership, Internet blogs and indie news sites have emerged as an increasingly important source of information on world affairs. And one of the best indie journalists out there where energy and the environment are concerned is Kurt Cobb. He’s creator of the influential blog Resource Insights and a prolific contributor to Web sites such as Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum and 321energy.

He’s also just released a page-turner of a first novel titled Prelude, which uses a Grisham-esque tale of suspense and intrigue to educate the public about peak oil. Prelude’s main character is a young energy analyst who discovers a top-secret report shedding light on the true, precarious state of the world’s oil reserves. She must decide whether to warn the world, and in so doing risk her career and even her life, or to take the safe course by idly watching as society collapses. Allegorically named Cassie, she stands for all of the real-life Cassandras within the peak oil movement, who, like the Cassandra of Greek myth, are able to foresee disaster but so far seem cursed never to be believed.

Cobb felt that Prelude would be more effective if set in a familiar present or recent past, rather than some bizarre dystopian future with burned-out office parks for battlegrounds.* Thus, the novel’s setting of summer 2008 is the very summer ‘08 that we all lived through, with only minor changes. (The made-up country of Ammar and its national oil company Royal Sovoco are stand-ins for Saudi Arabia and Saudi Aramco, respectively; but oil still hits that historic $147 per barrel that has stuck in the public memory.) In short, Prelude is the most down-to-earth novel written about peak oil to date, and that is its chief virtue.

Cassie’s employer is the prestigious Washington, D.C.-based energy consulting firm Energy Advisors International (EAI). She’s the youngest analyst there and is obsessed with climbing the professional ladder. By coming along on her business travels, we’re given a sweeping overview of the oil industry. In the novel’s opening scene we’re in a helicopter looking down, in both amazement and horror, at a colossal tar sands operation in Alberta, Canada. Then we tour the bustling energy capital of Houston, Texas. Finally, we board an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, where Cassie is gathering information for a report on the newly discovered Mooney-3 deepwater oilfield.

Cassie is what peak oil people would call a cornucopian optimist. To her the very notion of resource constraints is just silly. Though she worries about the environmental consequences of turning to dirty fuels like the tar sands, she has no doubt that they can and will fill the gap as conventional oil depletes.

So she’s quite annoyed by the views of a man she meets named Victor Chernov. Victor is a Russian émigré who once made a small fortune trading oil futures and now divides his time between playing piano for peanuts and preparing for the end of oil. He and Cassie are hitting it off really well after a couple of chance encounters, but then Victor utters the words that set Cassie’s blood to boiling: peak oil. The two of them get into a bitter argument (with Victor accusing Cassie of regarding technology as “fairy dust”), and Cassie decides that this outing will be their last.

But Cassie soon has cause to wonder whether she might have been too quick to dismiss Victor. As she continues her work on Mooney-3, two insiders approach her independently to confide their suspicions that the oilfield may actually be an utter disappointment, flowing a high-sulfur sour crude that many refineries aren’t going to be able to handle.

And that gets her to thinking about the reserves of the world’s largest oil exporter, Ammar, and whether they, too, may fall short of the hype. With help from Victor and her company’s IT guru, she hacks into the chairman’s encrypted directory and comes upon that top-secret file, which consists of field-by-field Ammari reserves estimates that differ grossly from official estimates. If they’re correct, then Ammar has only half as much oil as it’s been proclaiming to the world. For his part, Victor makes another disturbing discovery: evidence of close ties between EAI’s chairman and the Ammari oil ministry.

Cassie and Victor are soon in it up to their necks. Their homes are bugged and they’re being followed. Out of nowhere Cassie receives an overly generous job offer from Ammar’s ambassador, and she later learns that many of her EAI coworkers have been approached with similar offers. Even after Cassie and Victor have destroyed the report their troubles continue, eventually culminating in an attempted abduction and murder.

While this chase unfolds, Cassie also undergoes a personal transformation as she gradually turns into a peak oil believer. She attends a meeting of the local peak oil group and strolls through a farmers market. Her report on Mooney-3 is too pessimistic for her superiors. Every day she’s talking more and more like Victor on matters related to energy. She also begins to develop feelings for Victor and to grow increasingly detached from her boyfriend Paul, to whom she has confided nothing of her ordeal.

The novel benefits hugely from the presence of Victor, whose foreign accent and spying savvy are crucial to its espionage feel. Victor also embodies some core peak oil ideals. He owns no car, he grows tomatoes in his front yard and his home is a drop-off point for a local community supported agriculture (CSA) program. With weary resignation, he’s preparing for the time when America finally finds itself mired in an economic and currency collapse such as wracked his home country nearly 20 years ago.

Besides an entertaining and emotionally satisfying story, Prelude also supplies some useful and informative appendices. Geared mostly toward peak oil newbies, these include a glossary, an explanation of peak oil in Q&A form and a list of sources for further information.

One appendix will be equally valuable to newbies and seasoned peak oilers alike. Titled “Oil in Perspective,” it’s a numbered list of salient points regarding our oil addiction—for example, “Number of days that 1 billion barrels of oil will supply the needs of the world: 12" and “Recent ‘large’ discoveries of oil expressed in days of world supply.” This list will make fine ammunition for those who have despaired of convincing skeptics.

I highly recommend Prelude for its engaging story and richly developed portrait of the peak oil issue. Some readers may be disappointed that it takes place in contemporary society rather than in some bold new post-oil world. But I think that Cobb calculated correctly when he determined that this present-day setting would hook readers who are a little less disposed to suspend their disbelief.

* Kurt Cobb, “Why I wrote Prelude, a peak oil novel,” Energy Bulletin, Nov. 15, 2010, http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-11-15/why-i-wrote-ipreludei-p... (accessed Dec. 29, 2010).

Editorial Notes: Frank Kaminski is an ardent Seattle peak oiler, a connoisseur of post-oil novels and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. Email him at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com; visit his site here.

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