23 May 2008

Out of Gas: Good intro to peak oil science, but look elsewhere for solutions

Out of Gas
David Goodstein
W.W. Norton & Company, 2004

We can hope, if we are wise, to alter the laws of peoples. But we cannot change the laws of nature. The intent of this small book is to explain the relevant laws of nature. The idea is to sketch out, for those who are not specialists, both the opportunities and the limitations that nature has provided for us. Only if we understand both can we hope to proceed with wisdom. (p. 19)

To this end Dr. David Goodstein, professor of physics at Caltech, has written a very readable introduction to the imminent peak in oil production and subsequent "end of the age of oil." Alas the book's greatest strength, its relatively narrow focus on the science surrounding fuel and energy, is also its biggest weakness when it comes to proposing solutions. After all, the problem of peak oil has as much to do with "the laws of peoples," or at least their habits and expectations, as it does with the laws of nature and raw technoscientific know-how.

He begins by describing something which is now a standard phrase in our household, "peak oil." M. King Hubbert was a petroleum geologist who predicted that the rate of oil extraction for the lower-48 states would hit a maximum value in the early 1970s (i.e., it would peak) and that it would rapidly decline afterward. Although his ideas were roundly dismissed in the shiny-happy 1950s, he found a more receptive audience during the fuel-challenged '70s. His prediction was based on three basic methods: (1) noting that increasing rates of resource use equal increasing rates of resource depletion, (2) assuming that rates of oil production will follow a bell-shaped curve, and (3) recognizing that the curve in production paralleled the curve in discovery, which has already peaked.

Goodstein notes that not all geologists heed Hubbert's warning, discussing oil in terms of the ratio of reserves to production (the R/P ratio) and concluding that we have oil aplenty for at least 40 to 100 years. As well, there is little agreement about the total amount of oil reserves left in the earth, and so all calculations based upon this uncertain amount must also necessarily be uncertain. His response is to note that Hubbert's warning is not about running out of oil per se, but about reaching a critical point at which the demand for oil will outstrip production:
Given that worldwide demand will continue to increase, as it has for well over a century, Hubbert's followers expect the crisis to occur when the peak is reached, rather than when the last drop is pumped. In other words, we will be in trouble when we've used up half the oil that existed, not all of it.

He then gives a cursory overview of the other energy sources available to us at this point in time. There are the much-discussed heavy oils, tar sands, shale oils, etc. whose exploitation will be expensive, slow, energy-intensive, and even more environmentally disastrous than conventional oil has been, and those cons are relevant only if we grant that these substances will ever be feasible to produce in quantity to begin with. Natural gas is a possible substitute for the oil on which we depend, but that would require an enormous overhaul of our entire energy infrastructure for a substance whose production will peak in a few decades, based on current demand levels. In other words natural gas is not a long-term solution. Although we have centuries worth of coal in the ground, it is highly polluting, dangerous to mine, and contains only half the energy of an equivalent amount of oil; additionally, to extract the same amount of energy from coal that we currently get from oil, we'd need to mine ten times as much coal as we do today. (To those who think this is reasonable, all I can say is here's your lamp and your pick, start digging.) Barring some crazy advances in technology (oil-based technology, I should add) nuclear fusion is a nonstarter, and nuclear fission, with good reason, is politically unpopular. So what options are available to us? What are the limitations reality imposes on how we can respond to this looming crisis?

Before Goodstein answers these essential questions (and because he is, after all, a life-long teacher) he provides crash courses in several areas, beginning with basic terms used in the discussion around energy. Global warming and the greenhouse effect aren't all bad, he says, because if it weren't for those gases and their warming effects, the Earth would be a pretty cold ball of rock floating in space. On the other hand global warming understood as "human-induced catastrophic climate change" is a very bad thing. Nuclear energy isn't all bad either, especially since all the energy we use ultimately comes from nuclear reactions in the sun. He also notes that while around 100,000 men and boys died in English coal mines in the latter half of the 19th century, the total number of deaths attributable to Chernobyl is around 2,500. (It isn't the most compelling argument for nuclear power, but it certainly makes visible the normally unseen human cost of fossil fuels.) We cannot conserve energy, which conserves itself as a fundamental law of nature; rather, we can learn to conserve our fuel. As Goodstein himself notes on p. 48, to say that there can never be an energy crisis "doesn't mean we don't have a problem; it just means we haven't been describing the problem in the correct terms." Because many of the books critical of peak oil use terminological sleight of hand to mislead readers into thinking everything is A-OK, this information helps provide intellectual self-defense against these status quo apologists.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to chapters on the history of energy, which describes the various forms of energy (e.g., kinetic, potential, thermal, etc.), the history and characteristics of electricity (a form of energy that is central to contemporary life), and the absolute importance of the idea of entropy, in which a fraction of energy used to do any kind of work will instead become disorganized heat energy. He describes a very vivid demonstration that he uses in his introductory physics lecture courses to underscore the implications of entropy: suspended from a long cord directly in front of his face is a 16-lb. bowling ball. After he releases it, he explains to his class that his confidence in the laws of thermodynamics, and particularly in the inevitability of entropy, allows him to stand in place as the returning bowling ball hurtles toward him. Of course, as should be obvious to anyone whose watched a pendulum, each swing is a little shorter than the last as the energy of the swing is dissipated due to the resistance of the air (i.e., friction, i.e., heat, i.e., entropy). This material was all absolutely fascinating, particularly when explained by such an obviously gifted science teacher, but I still find myself scratching my head about how it all connects to the theme of the book, which is the end of the age of oil.

Finally, Goodstein looks at some of our options for fueling the future in his chapter called "Technological Fixes." We could place a giant umbrella in space between ourselves and the sun, which he describes as a foolish idea. Limiting the damage done by our consumption of fossil fuels and the resultant production of greenhouse gas through carbon sequestration is feasible, although it has a variety of serious drawbacks, including the sad fact that there is little economic incentive to do so. (Sad how maintaining human life on Earth does not count as an economic incentive.) Goodstein feels that we might need to reconsider nuclear fission as a primary fuel source, in spite of all the dangers and difficulties with which it is fraught. Yet, even if the world were forced to use nuclear fission in this fashion, it is estimated that there is only enough uranium fuel (U-235) to last five to twenty-five years. And even if we could find more nuclear fuel, the world would have to build one Gigawatt nuclear plant every day for 30 years to supply the amount of energy we currently consume in fossil fuels. The only other option, he argues, is solar power--whether as photoelectricity, solar heat power, or indirectly as wind-generated electricity--and in order to harvest the most solar power, we'd need to do so with solar collectors in geosynchronous orbit, another sizable task. His conclusion, though, does not seem to follow from these premises, which would seem to suggest that we don't have a replacement for the fossil fuels to which we are addicted. Instead he falls back on faith in the "future technological fix" to keep from succumbing to the hopelessness of our present situation:

As this brief survey suggest, there is no single magic bullet that will solve all our energy problems.There is no existing technology capable of replacing the oil we will soon be without, nor is there any on the horizon that we can depend on to replace the remaining fossil fuels when they are exhausted. And if we permit them to become exhausted before replacing them, we may place the climate of our planet in grave danger. The best hopes for our civilization lies in technologies that have not yet arisen--possibly based on scientific discoveries that have not yet been made. Most likely, progress will lie in incremental advances on many simultaneous fronts, based on principles we already understand: controlled nuclear fusion, safe breeder reactors, better materials for manipulating electricity, more efficient fuel cells, better means of generating hydrogen, and so on.

While I don't disagree with his assertion that we need to fund research into these various research programs, I'm hesitant to suggest that we can avert disaster through mere supply-side solutions. In other words, we are going to have to learn to be a lot less individualistic and more communal in orientation, exchange single driver vehicles for mass transit, eat less meat, have fewer children, and in general learn to replace our consumer culture with one that values relationships instead of retail.

Earlier in the book, Goodstein provides a best and worst case scenario based on Hubbert's prediction, and I feel this is an appropriate place to end my review of his book. In his best case scenario, we collectively wake up to the dilemma, develop a methane-based economy to bridge the gap to future fuels, and then use a combination of nuclear and solar power while we build an alternative energy infrastructure. In his worse case scenario, which really is worse case, we don't heed the warning, run out of oil, and end up burning lots of coal for energy, increasing the green house gases in the atmosphere, crossing a tipping point, and basically making the Earth unlivable.
No matter what else happens, this is the century in which we must learn to live without fossil fuels. Either we will be wise enough to do so before we have to, or we will be forced to do so when the stuff starts to run out. One way to accomplish that would be to return to life as it was lived in the eighteenth century, before we started to use much fossil fuel. That would require, among many other things, eliminating roughly 95 percent of the world's population. The other possibility is to devise a way of running a complex civilization approximating the one we have no which does not use fossil fuel. (pp. 37-8)

Thus Goodstein sets the stage for our near future. I don't agree with him that these two are the only possibilities, although they do seem to be good endpoints for a continuum of options. According to Jim Kunstler's The Long Emergency, our dreams of running a civilization that approximates our own, particularly our love of automobiles and the infrastructure that supports an automobile culture, are pipe dreams, and nothing more. On the other end of the continuum, while it might not be possible or even desirable to return to an 18th century existence, we can all certainly work on the demand side of the energy equation and learn to live much more simply and in a way that minimizes our energy consumption---using public transportation, eating less meat, walking through the park instead of the mall, etc.

In short, this is a great book for explaining the scientific basis for peak oil and the coming fuel/food/transportation crisis. With a lot of voices being well paid to write off "peakists" as whackos, this sort of book is invaluable for providing a solid, reasonable, scientific response. Unfortunately, the technoscientific fixes he provides aren't that compelling, as even he seems to suspect. All in all a good place to start, but not to finish, your peak oil reading.

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