Reviewed by Tom Whipple

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.

17 thoughts on “A review of The Impending World Energy Mess, By Robert Hirsch, Roger Bezdek, and Robert Wendling”

  1. Anything to keep Business As Usual chugging along, eh? The authors are certainly dedicated Maintainers. Too bad reality isn’t going to maintain due to Pricing Pain. Econocollapse is the future and chaos is staring thru the mirror.

  2. Compressed natural gas vehicles, combined with gasoline rationing, are the only hope to avoid complete societal collapse now. It is too late to build gas to liquid, or coal to liquid plants on a scale large enough to make a meaningful dent in the coming liquid fuel shortfall. That may be the real reason for the invasion of Iraq. To get as much oil flowing out of there, as quickly as possible. Folks couldn’t do that with Saddam and sanctions in place. Iraq has the production potential to flatten the top of the peak oil curve for nearly a decade.

  3. Hirsch should be commended for his groundbreaking 2005 report. It still represents one of the finest peak oil studies to date.

    This book, however, isn’t what the doctor ordered. It suffers from many problems:

    1) It doesn’t say anything new. Maybe if they had written it in 2005 it would have been valuable. But it doesn’t say anything Heinberg or Deffeyes or Kunstler or Simmons or the many others who have written about peak oil and its aftermath haven’t already said.
    2) It’s poorly written. They can be forgiven for this – it’s not like they have much experience writing books. But again, other authors have treated the subject in a better organized fashion.
    3) It’s badly edited / formatted. This is likely the fault of the publisher, but they did an unprofessional job.
    4) It’s expensive. Again, this is likely the fault of the publisher.

  4. One way of reducing Americas oil consumption is for all auto owners to switch to diesels such as the Volkswagon clean diesel technology which permits Golf and Jettas to exceed 50 mpg. Surprisingly, none of the other manufacturers produce diesel passenger cars. Does this mean big auto and big oil are back in bed again?

  5. The problem of making existing natural resources last a lot longer than currently predicted falls into two areas. Firstly, there are about 7 billion souls on this planet with an average life expectancy of probably less than 60 years. Thus if none were to be replaced as they die off, the resource problem would completely dissapear in about 60 years. Hopefully that will not happen. However it is a solution and could be used in part to “mitigate” the problem. Most of the 1st worlds population is in free fall due to a very low birth rate. The problem lies in the third world. There the life expectancy is quite low, but the birth rate is off scale. BOOOOM! Controlling the birth rate in the third world could be accomplished by delaying the age at which femals can be re-productive. Raise it to 30 instead of 14 and most of the resource problems on this planet will vaporize very quickly without killing anybody. 2ndly, co-operative plans need to be made on a global scale to attain sustainable energy sources that are balenced with the population. As a species we can do this without a lot of discomfort. If we don’t do this, mother nature will do it for us and she plays very, very, very rough.

  6. Sounds like a comprehensive study. Regarding the next to last paragraph – I too have a problem accepting that we have 200 years of coal available. With regard to their “agnostic” view of global warming I have no problem. The science of global warming appears to be sound, but there is a huge disconnect between the reality of peak oil and the high economic growth scenarios assumed in the IPCC report that are required to get the high CO2 emissions. And the consequences of peak oil are near term and potentially devastating. I could easily see that by about 2030 global warming will be the last thing on peoples mind.

  7. Most petroleum is used to fuel land trsnsportation. And most
    fuel for land transportation is used to overcome friction.
    And most frictional losses occur as dynamic friction between
    the nonrotating axle bearings and the rotating axles.

    Frictional losses can be reduced simply by increasing the
    diameter of wheels. This is the physical explanation for the
    bigger wheels seen in “old-fashioned” vehicles such as oxcarts,
    horse carriages, velocipedes, racing bicyles, kiddies’ Big
    Wheel tricycles and so forth.

    A return to much, much bigger wheels on land vehicles is one way
    to cope with the dwindling of oil.

  8. I’m sorry, but this review does not cut it. I just finished the book. It is an outrage. The main assumptions are:

    1. We must at all costs maintain some semblance of the current high-energy lifestyle.

    2. We must develop all fossil energy sources possible.

    3. Human-caused climate change is “unproven.”

    4. Attempting to mitigate oil decline while cutting emissions is impossible.

    Welcome to Doomland.

  9. Complex systems always break down and specialised species always risk extinction. The end of modern civilisation is certain, only the timing is in dispute, the end of our species might be much less certain, but according to other plague specie’s histories we are surely headed toward a mass die-off. Equlibrium following collapse will be decades if not centuries away and few will see it. The saddest part of the crash will be that most people won’t even know what happened, the lights will just go out, permanently. Even if we are aware of peak-oil, and peak-everything else, the last radio broadcasts are likely to be either misleading or factually wrong.

  10. According to the latest issue of Diesel & Gas Turbine Worldwide, reporting on the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) International Energy Outlook 2010; “…world use of liquids and other petroleum products will grow from 86.1 million barrels per day in 2007 to 92.1…in 2020, 103.9…in 2030, and 110.6…in 2035.” If we are living through peak oil, then such rosy predictions will make things worse, especially as policy makers pursue business as usual in the belief that there is no need to plan for a future with declining oil. They will continuously deal with price spikes and delivery shortages as though they will pass, as soon as more oil is discovered. There won’t be “more Oil”, there will be less, and we won’t have a plan ready to deal with it. It’s depressing to contemplate.

  11. Actually someone hit the real problem on the nail. Population.

    There are too many people on this planet. And the resources necessary to sustain them are starting to collapse. Signs are everywhere. The coming decades are going to be extremely messy, nasty and horrific as the natural world forces a population correction onto us.

    PO is probably the end of the modern world as we know it. Population overshoot is probably the final nail in that coffin. Period.

  12. Wow. A lot of hardcore doomers here. Peak oil is just the peaking of the oil production rate. We will keep extracting lots of oil, it will just become more expensive. Well, gasoline is less than $3/gallon in the USA right now . . . if peak oil causes it to double, we’ll go to $7/gallon or so. Gasoline is $7/gallon in Europe right now and they are not dying off.

    I can see severe economic problems. But I just don’t see this societal collapse happening.

  13. It is my understand that we have vast coal deposits in Utah and other locations that are unfortunately contaminated with sulf. The problem being the cost of extracting the sulfur before it con be used. There aught to be some some way to solve this within an acceptable economical range. Research to help solve this should receive priority attention.

  14. It is my understand that we have vast coal deposits in Utah and other locations that are unfortunately contaminated with sulfer. The problem being the cost of extracting the sulfur before it con be used. There aught to be some some way to solve this within an acceptable economical range. Research to help solve this should receive priority attention.

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