Book Review: A Thousand Barrels a Second

A Thousand Barrels a Second
I am way behind on reading books that have been sent to me for review by various publishers. The pile on my desk is growing, because I have a bad habit of starting new books before I finish the one I am reading. Currently I am nearly finished with Oil’s Endless Bid, am halfway through Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century, and had started Amory Lovins’ Reinventing Fire until someone borrowed it from my office.

However, I did manage to recently finish Peter Tertzakian’s A Thousand Barrels a Second : The Coming Oil Break Point and the Challenges Facing an Energy Dependent World. This one had been on my bookshelf for a while (as opposed to the growing stack of books I have been sent to review), but it has been pretty high on my list of books to read.

The book was written in 2006, and the author made what turned out to be some very accurate predictions about the volatility and higher prices ahead in the oil markets. (Here is an interview with Jon Stewart shortly after the book was published). His writing style is different from mine, but many of the themes he wrote about are the same themes I write about: Growth in developing countries, loss of spare production capacity — we even both talked about the transition from whale oil to crude oil in our respective books. However, he went into much greater detail on that topic, and I found that to be one of the most enjoyable sections in the book. The author shows that even in the days of whale oil, producers were trying to establish cartels to control prices.

One very interesting issue he writes about is the rate at which energy substitutions have taken place throughout history. Moving from wood to coal took 75 years, which was the fastest substitution in history. Coal to oil took 100 years (but of course coal never went away; it just lost market share to oil). The point is that a transition away from oil is likely going to take far longer than many people believe. There is no historical precedent that shows that these transitions can occur quickly.

The author also says that over the past 100 years, there has only been one new large-scale energy platform introduced: Nuclear power. He says that there have been eight large-scale platforms (although he does not define “large-scale”) in the history of energy: Wood, whale oil and animal fat, coal, oil, natural gas, water (hydropower), and uranium. He acknowledges that several renewable technologies could be added to the list, but argues that their lack of scalability will make it difficult for them to make a fast, large-scale contribution to the global energy mix.

He describes four phases that a society goes through as they undergo energy transitions: 1). Complain and pay up; 2). Conserve and increase efficiency; 3). Adopt alternative energy sources; and 4). Make societal, business, and lifestyle changes. When the book was written in 2006, he argued that the world was still solidly in the “complain and pay” stage. During this stage politicians will tend toward gridlock and finger-pointing, as pursuit of real solutions and a movement away from the status quo is politically risky. We are still very much in this phase, as evidenced by the political posturing over energy issues, but we have made some progress in Phases 2 and 3. Some might argue that we are making progress in Phase 4, but I think the sort of changes he is talking about are far greater than what we have seen to date. I expect the sort of change he is talking about might involve (as an example) an end to affordable commercial airline flights.

The core message of the book is one that is very close to my heart, and that is that we need a good dose of pragmatism. Yes, we always have to make trade-offs in our energy options, but these trade-offs need to be carefully considered. We can all name many negatives from our oil dependence, but then we generally take for granted the many positive impacts that oil has on our lives. Because of this, we may pursue impractical solutions that will be quickly tossed aside if they can’t fill the role that petroleum currently fills. The image of an oil-covered bird is very powerful, but it may push us into trade-offs that endanger far more that just birds.

Generally when I read a book about energy, I find myself making little notes on points of disagreement. I was about 90% finished with this book before I finally started to find some significant points of disagreement, and those were about some of the specific details of how the author feels like the future is going to play out. On this particular point, he envisioned himself in the year 2017, after we had gone through some very painful readjustments with respect to our oil consumption, and that he was purchasing one of the first commercially available hydrogen cell vehicles. I just don’t think that’s going to happen, and certainly not by 2017. But that’s a minor point, and one that does not detract from the strength of this book.

In summary, this was a really great book that doesn’t take political sides, and a book that has thus far stood the test of time. Many of the author’s predictions from 2006 have taken place or are in the process of taking place. If you want to have a better view of how the future is likely to unfold with respect to energy, I think this book does an excellent job of laying that out.