We should’ve started yesterday

The Impending World Energy MessBOOK REVIEW

The Impending World Energy Mess
By Robert L. Hirsch, Roger H. Bezdek and Robert M. Wendling
Apogee Prime

I was never able to figure out why my greenie friends don’t like to talk about peak oil. I first learned about it through eco-friendly writers like Bill McKibben, Richard Heinberg and Transition founder Rob Hopkins, who all share the same solution both to prepare for peak oil and to fight global warming: use fewer fossil fuels. Where was the conflict?

Then, along came Robert Hirsch and his co-authors. Of course, they were already well respected from the report they wrote for the Department of Energy in 2005 that called for peak oil mitigation efforts to begin 10 or 20 years in advance of the peak to have any real chance of success. The “Hirsch Report” became synonymous in the peak oil community with the failure of the US government to take the threat seriously.

Now Hirsch etal. have come out with a book on the same topic. Five years later, it expresses even more urgency than their now-famous report did.

Unfortunately, the authors waste a full chapter in a clumsy attempt to debunk climate science (curiously, they also promote geo-engineering as a way to reduce the greenhouse effect). This might make them some friends in the oil and coal industry and at free-market think tanks, but it will not ease any of the fears of my friends in the Sierra Club and Greenpeace who think that peak oil is just a plot to use up all the oil and coal before they run out.

But don’t let this keep you from reading this book, which, despite often difficult prose, offers powerful insights on the problems with today’s energy sources to provide the energy that society will demand in the future. Hirsch and the others spare no energy idea that appears to provide little net energy for its cost, from solar and wind, to shale gas and nuclear power.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is its mitigation strategies, graphically illustrated as a series of wedges from making vehicles more efficient to replacing today’s easy oil with such sources as gas-to-liquids, coal-to-liquids and enhanced oil recovery.

Since Hirsch and the others are skeptical of both renewables and conservation, their solutions generally involve becoming more creative about how we pump and mine fossil fuels. And if they don’t believe in climate science, then it’s understandable that these authors are not too worried about all the greenhouse gases that would come from such a final fossil fuel binge.

I also have to wonder how long-term the authors are thinking. Climate aside, they’ve got solutions to deal with energy supply in the coming decades, including a detailed plan for the federal government to start gasoline rationing. But what about after all the shale gas and enhanced oil production is depleted — then what will people do for energy? If society hasn’t developed conservation and renewables by then, the economy will be even worse off than it is now.

All that aside, the reason you should read this book is that the authors might just be right about the near term:

No matter what the science of climate change tells us, we believe that the decline of world oil production will overshadow climate concerns and will become humankind’s most urgent priority, because of the immediate human pain and misery that will ensue.

It might turn out in a few years that government may decide that fighting global climate disruption is just too expensive, and that what America really needs to do is produce as much oil, gas, and coal as cheaply as possible for as long as we can to stave off depression and political chaos.

But that would be wrong. It would be tragic. And it would be unnecessary.

We should try to achieve a much bigger change in our economy than just replacing easy oil with difficult oil so we can continue to drive all our cars. A much better future lies in getting more of our food from local organic producers, building more rail and transit, manufacturing more of our stuff domestically, and generally re-localizing our whole way of life.

If we can all agree that our future energy needs to come more and more from clean sources, wise  guides like Robert Hirsch, Roger Bezdek, and Robert Wendling can help us avoid energy dead-ends and non-starters and move realistically towards a future beyond peak oil on a planet that will remain hospitable to our species.

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