The Empty Tank: Oil, Gas, Hot Air, and the Coming Global Financial Catastrophe
Random House, 2005
[W]hat makes the depth of the current global addiction especially bewildering is that, for the entire time we have been sliding into the trap, we have known that oil is in fact in limited supply. At current rates of use, the global tank is going to run too low to fuel the growing demand sooner rather than later in this century. This is not a controversial statement. It is just a question of when....
In a society that put a man on the Moon more than three decades ago, surely there can be no doubt that we could replace oil use if we seriously wanted to. I ask again, why have we not been fast-tracking the solutions to the problem long since? (p. 6)
I've read several books on peak oil, and this one is among my favorites. Geologist Leggett provides a compelling look at the coming topping point in oil production, the global catastrophe of global warming, and possible hope for the future, and he does so in a style that reads like well-crafted fiction. Interspersed throughout the narrative are Leggett's journal entries which reveal an intimate perspective on how all this theory and Big Picture stuff plays out in daily life.
First off, an admission. Based on the author photo on the book's dust jacket, I kept envisioning Leggett as the fired forklift driver in the British TV show The Office who challenges the wisdom of keeping Anton the midget on as a forklift driver. So that guy's voice was the one with which my mental vocalizer read the book. That, along with his absurdist, understated British wit (a la Monty Python and Douglas Adams), made the book a quite often funny read, in spite of the rather grim subject matter.
This wit is clearly on display in the Prologue, which tells the story of geological and human history from the Big Bang to the "The Two Oversights" of the 20th century. This account is told as if being related to alien anthropologists who have no vested interest in seeing history through the particular lens of their ideology or belief system. So along the way from creation to the present we encounter Apocalypse One, the catastrophic end of the Carboniferous Period which left behind a lot of coal; the "Two Great Underground Cookups," during which all oil and natural gas were created; and Apocalypse Two, otherwise known as the K2 Event or the end of the age of dinosaurs, 65 mya. Humans arrive on the scene in the last few milliseconds of the year that has been geological history, and develop agriculture and religion and urban civilization and almost continuous hostility toward one another:
Conflict avoidance was not, and never has been, our strong suit. At first we organized into tribes, and periodically killed the members of other tribes. Later we organized ourselves into city-states and built amazing cathedrals. But despite our inventing athletics as a potential substitute for war, we still couldn't think our way out of regular armed conflict, and our means of waging war grew steadily worse. (p. x)
In the last three centuries we learned to support all these endeavors by exploiting the fossil fuels from the Great Underground Cookups:
Just as [coal's dirtiness] was becoming very irritating, we found we could drill below the surface of the planet, pump oil, and burn that. We didn't even have to send children down to get oil. (p. xi)
(See what I mean about the wit?) The discovery of and reliance on oil lead to two big "oversights." Big Oversight One is that all the burning of this oil, coal, and gas has created global warming which has been ignored by the Number One Nation-State. This nation, not otherwise named (to protect the innocent, of course), happens also to be Number One Petroleum Addict, and in this capacity serves deeply entrenched vested interests:
[M]ore than 100 years of unconstrained burning of oil, and 200 years of coal, have created quite a set of vested interests....These vested interests have created a web of power that transcends the throw-weight of the nation states. This web has become, in effect, a kind of Empire. The Empire of Oil is loosely bound, and even capable of civil war, but is without the most powerful interest group on the planet.
These vested interests have prevented research into alternative and meaningful political action. Big Oversight Two is that, because all the oil we have was created during the Two Big Cookups, and so therefore is limited in quantity by definition, discovery and production of oil is peaking. What this means is simple, if unpleasant to contemplate:
Humans will no longer be able to run their lives and their industries on growing amounts of cheap oil. All we can expect thereafter is shrinking supplies of expensive oil....We will look for the alternatives to come to the rescue, but the alternatives won't be able to, or at least not in enough volume to make a big difference, because the Empire of Oil and its Culture of Suppression has held them back all the years of the Great Addiction. (p. xiv)
One or the other "oversight" alone would be bad enough to face, but the possible threat posed by the synergy of both is chilling. Luckily, Leggett recognizes the role that each of us play in shaping our collective destiny, and so does not completely relinquish hope:
As the impact of the oil topping point joins with the first wave of assaults by a climate going awry, is there any hope that we can avoid an unpleasant outcome? I fear not. The chapters to come will show why. But what we can do, collectively, is to stop the rot and have a second crack at getting things right beyond the unpleasantness....Because changes of course need hands on the tiller, involvement matters. This book is a call to arms. Let us take our stupidities with oil, which will be put under such a necessary microscope when the topping point hits, and turn them into a new beginning before it is too late. (pp. xiv-xv)
With this book, Leggett seeks to address three related questions: (1) how close is the peak? (2) why haven't we done something earlier? and (3) what can we do about it?
So how close is the peak in oil production? Leggett distinguishes between "late toppers" and "early toppers," i.e., those who think we've got 2 trillion more barrels of oil to exploited (oil companies, financial analysts, etc.) and those who think we've got around 1 trillion more barrels (in other words, the downside of the production curve). The difference between the two is, in Leggett's word, seismic. If the late toppers are right, then we have a few decades in which to work out plans for a smooth transition from oil and gas to alternative; if the early toppers are right, though, the peak may actually be upon us now.
Leggett discusses some key witnesses in support of the "early topper" school of thought including veteran petroleum geologist Colin Campbell, Chris Skrebowski (editor of the trade journal Petroleum Review), and Houston oil investor Matthew Simmons. If these folks are correct in their reading of the available data, then the situation we face may be summed up in this sentence from a report within the Department of Energy's Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves:
"A serious supply-demand discontinuity could lead to worldwide economic chaos" (p., 50)
Worldwide economic chaos. And even if the early toppers are wrong in their estimates regarding the peak in oil production, the discontinuity between rising demand and falling supply will still be a reality due to a lack of investment in exploration and infrastructure:
Stated simply, it seems that even if an early topping point doesn't hit us, the results of two decades of negligence in investment in infrastructure and exploration will. p. (59)
After thoroughly scaring the beejezus out of the reader by marshalling all this evidence that the age of easy, cheap oil is rapidly coming to a close, with potentially catastrophic results, he introduces a variable that no other peak oil author I've read has mentioned: global warming.
A pair of diagrams on pages 75 and 76 says it all. The first is a graph showing a jagged line fluctuating between two extremes of atmospheric CO2, a minimum of around 175 ppm and a maximum of around 300 ppm, showing that these quantities have changed within a relatively standard range over the last 500,000 years. The last fraction of a millimeter of the graph, representing the last century, shows the concentration at the beginning of the 20th century (near 300 ppm) rocketing skyward, out of the normal range and in fact off of the graph altogether. The predicted CO2 concentration for 2100, based on current emission rates, is over 700 ppm, effectively off the charts and into "seriously fucking things up" territory. The second graph plots temperature fluctuations over the last millennium and reveals that they too fly off the charts during the 21st century, leading to an average increase of over 5 degrees globally. Which is disastrous. This stuff ain't controversial folks, and it ain't a liberal plot. The temperature of the Earth is rapidly climbing, most likely due to our increase of atmospheric CO2, and all we know about the consequences is that they won't be pretty.
So how did we allow ourselves to get into this mess? Leggett provides an answer by way of an historical overview of the age of oil, divided into two chapters. The first, "Before the Knowledge," describes how we dug the initial hole, while the second, "The Complicity Years," discusses the last few decades, during which we have known better but let all our nation's policies be dictated by a consortium of vested interests. Our inability to change our approach to energy and fossil fuels is pretty clearly revealed in our national response to the first oil shock, which hit in the form of the OPEC embargo against the US, in retaliation for its uncritical support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War.
In the first three months of the [OPEC] embargo, U.S. gasoline consumption had decreased by more than 7 percent. But, after the embargo ended, consumption shot right back up again. Apathy instantly reasserted itself in Congress. Almost 800 potential bills concerning energy had been circulating on Capitol Hill during the oil crisis, many of them intent on promoting the prospects for renewable energy, renewable fuels, and energy efficiency. But by July 1974 only eight of them had become law, and two of those involved the suspension of anti-pollution laws and the opening of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. (p. 101)
Once cheap oil went back online, all alternatives were back off the table. By 1975 Exxon was the world's biggest corporation, with GM and Ford also occupying seats in the top 10. We didn't learn and so the Second Oil Shock followed the Iranian Revolution and subsequent Iran-Iraq War. Although President Carter urged us to treat the fuel crisis as "the moral equivalent of war," Americans still didn't listen and willingly voted in Reagan and the last three decades of denial.
Of course, one could say that if these earlier oil shocks were survivable, even after a mistake like electing Reagan, then perhaps we shouldn't be too concerned about future oil shocks. Anticipating this, Leggett duly notes that the circumstances surrounding these first two oil shocks do not pertain to the coming megacrisis:
[T]he Saudis cannot pump faster as they did in 1980, there is no spare capacity anywhere, little oil is stockpiled, and there is little liklihood of new discoveries on the scale able to meet fast-growing global demand. Bad as it was then, it will be much worse when the next crunch hits. (p. 104)
According to ExxonMobil's Lee Raymond:
"I think the notion in the United States of energy independence, which was first proposed in the Nixon administration, was a poor concept thirty years ago and it is a poor concept today."There it is, just as he told OPEC. It couldn't be clearer. We choose dependency, and therefore overseas adventures by our military in support of our dependency. (p. 135)
There you have it. That's how we allowed ourselves to get into this predicament. The Empire of Oil made us into a nation of junkies who elect those promising to keep the fixes coming.
So what can we do about it? In his chapter astutely entitled, "What Can We Do About It?" Leggett outlines five basic arguments:
1. We can replace fossil fuels with renewable energies and do so rather swiftly.
Renewable energies comprise a big family of options including biodiesel, a hydrogen economy (energy storage with home solar-driven electrolysis), fuel cells, solar (electric) and solar (heat), wind power, etc. There are alternative, renewable sources for plastics too, which is important since more petroleum goes to those industrial uses than into fuel production. We can improve efficiency too. And of course, we can re-envision the situation to come up with some novel solutions:
- Currently, some 200 million of the world's 700 million hydrogen cars and trucks travel and park around America. If they were all hydrogen fuel cell vehicles they would have many times the grid's total generating capacity. What need then for nuclear, and coal- and gas-fired power plants? (p. 155)
Economies will shrink, which is never a good thing for little people like me with jobs and families. Some are pushing for nuclear power to fill the gap (going so far as to discuss it in the pages of Mother Earth News), but Leggett thinks nuclear won't come to the rescue because (1) it will take even longer to get nuclear up and running to fill the gap than it would other sources of power, (2) investors don't want to back nuclear, particularly new unproven designs, (3) the threat of terrorism + nuke plants = bad idea, (4) disposal of waste is still an unsolved problem, and (5) nuke power's track record for accidents, cover-ups, etc. make it understandably unattractive. In short, nuclear is simply too risky in all ways to take seriously. (Although, sadly, that won't prevent our government from funding it, alas.)
Just think what renewable energy and energy-efficient markets could be doing by 2020, given even a fraction of the governmental and institutional support nuclear has been given for the last half-century. Come to think of it, just imagine what they could be doing tomorrow. (p. 159)
3. Renewable energy and fuel and energy efficiency will grow explosively.
Come whatever in other societal and economic sectors, people working in renewable energy, energy storage, and energy efficiency will be in the front row of those who can help once widespread acceptance of the oil topping point and its implications had descended on the world. (p. 165)
Leggett makes the important point that looking at solar energy costs means comparing them to retail prices rather than generator costs, because PV solar power generation gathers the power right where it is needed rather than producing and shipping it over extensive power grids. The decentralized quality of solar means that it is incredibly competitive in terms of price when generating costs are factored in, something that nuclear and coal advocates never do.
4. Many will try to turn to coal to support the status quo --- this will basically be a life-or-death decision for the future of the planet --- renewables or polluting coal.
The coal industry is strangely hard-line. Here is a technology that is so clearly mortgaging the future--at best, torpedoing it at worst--and yet it continues to grow largely unapologetically around the world. Besides the future death toll from unmitigated global warming and dire air quality, there is also the actual death toll to date from getting the stuff out of the ground....In the face of all this, even if they genuinely reject scientists' arguments about global warming, you would think there would be a little humility, a little reluctance about the product, a little willingness to search hard for alternatives. No, not that I have seen. In all my years as an environmental campaigner, I have observed a clear distinction between the oil industry and the coal industry....The oilmen and women were capable of politeness, reasoned debate, and even changing their position. The coal men and women weren't; not that I ever saw, once. (p. 168)
So instead of looking at renewables, we get nonsense about "clean coal," coal gasification, carbon sequestration, etc. And for the effects of coal on the world, all you need to do is Google "Beijing" and "air quality." And yet coal looks easy and cheap when the energy panic hits, and it has lots of technoscience supporting the rush to "clean coal," usually from the same folks who want to put parasols between the Earth and the Sun to cut down on solar radiation. Very little systems thinking and a technoscientific culture that valorizes individual achievement (just think about genetic engineering and the lack of consideration of ecology) mean that the coal hoax may be perpetrated on an unsuspecting Earth at precisely the worst possible time.
[G]iven the research programs underway aiming to bolster the acceptability of coal in a warming world, the depth of denial in the coal and coal-related theocracies, and the scope for iconoclastic scientists to fan the flames of confusion--belief in the feasibility of burning a thousand billion metric tons of coal or more and getting away with it might be much greater too. (p. 173)
5. We can influence the outcome of the struggle over coal vs. renewables
Don't look to leadership from governments or corporations. According to Leggett it must come from individuals. (I must note that these options are not mutually exclusive, and that following merely the role of individual effort may be playing into the corporate trap of devaluing collective efforts.) One should follow Stephen Leeb's lead by encouraging enlightened self-interest when investing money--invest in a green future and lead the marketplace where you want it to be. We must act locally and in every way possible to reach the tipping point from which a new future is visible.
Legget concludes with another presentation for aliens, this time looking at the present and at a possible hopeful futures. Consumer Empire gets hit by warriors in commandeered civilian jetliners and retaliates, pitting its own Christian Fundamentalists against the Middle Eastern Muslim Fundamentalists in a Cycle of Hate.
In both the Consumer Empire and the Middle Eastern nation-states, Fundamentalism has thrived amid all this mayhem. In the Consumer Empire, many humans hold a belief that their version of God would let them trash the Earth and still join Him in His heaven. Indeed, the more quickly we trash it, the more quickly they would get to enjoy what they think of as the Rapture. Rapturist humans tend to care nothing about the fuel efficiency of their horseless carriages, tend not to give a damn about the alternatives to oil, and tend to be very keen on burning coal. They also figure that all-out war might be another way to join their version of God more quickly than letting things run their normal course, so they tend not to be averse to that either....
For humans who believe in Cosmopolitan Tolerance--simply stated, having a stab at learning from the lessons of history--things are beginning to look really very bleak as they stand today. (p. 189)
Oversights One and Two show up, the economy collapses as oil production peaks and there are no replacements, there's all sort of political repression taking place in Consumer Number One in the wake of the attacks, and then global warming kicks in and really fucks with everything. This is Leggett's prediction of what will happen. Not a lot of wiggle room in there, and as he has noted, it is definitely unpleasant. He doesn't end there, though. Rather he provides an optimistic vision of the sort of world we can bring about out of this wreckage, a new Renaissance in which the tipping point is reached and humanity chooses a future of alternative energy and power, which in turn leads to a general renewed interest in the local, in community, in place, and eventually leads to a stabilization of human population through the education and empowerment of women. Not a bad future at all, but one that will definitely take a lot of dedication and hardwork with no hope to see the results. Like building a cathedral or journeying toward the Promised Land.