The Red-Queen: On the Energy-Technology Spiral
Peaked Oil: Why Peak Oil Arrived Yesterday
Something Fishy: A Planet Running on Fumes
It is the Thermodynamics, Stupid!
This book has a bit of a prosaic title, especially when coming from a historian (they usually come up with fantastically irresistible titles). I have suggested a few alternatives above in the guise of titles for my own summary-essay.
I cannot believe there is not a single review on Goodreads for this fantastic book (9 ratings and 0 reviews on Goodreads + 2 non-reviews on Amazon!) – can wager it is due to the strategically chosen title. But despite the seeming lack of interest in the book, it is a literal page turner. This is firmly among the top 3 environmental books that I have yet read.
What follows is more a summary than a review. I have taken a few liberties in the process. For example, fracking is not covered in the book so I have tried to bring it into the analysis – integrating it into the argumentative framework to forestall criticism on that front. Being the only review on Goodreads for such a good book, I am under a bit of pressure here. There is only so much a summary can do. I have to warn you that you might find that it is a very depressing book in many ways – the most essential sort.
Stein’s Law: “Trends that can’t continue, won’t.”
The Unexpected Oil Spill (Or Not)
In the next four months, the oil gushing from the Macondo well spread over several tens of thousands of square miles of Gulf water – An entire region was under environmental siege. Countless of birds, turtles, dolphins, and an unknown number of fish and shrimp died. Tens of thousands of people lost their livelihoods and incomes, and a whole way of life was demolished.
(A video of the tragedy was leaked to YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxCt3UsmJF0)
BP might have announced plans for compensation but for an events whose repercussions extend across the globe, how much and how many people can BP really compensate. It is a silly notion to even contemplate.
Tainter and Patzek uses the story of this Gulf oil spill as the background for a wide-ranging discussion of how we got here and where we are headed. They emphasize that such events point to a systemic problem, and suggest that the spill was in fact more than likely given sufficient opportunities and time. The disaster and GOM (Gulf Of Mexico) in general is taken as a microcosm to explore the inevitability of disaster in our society.
Nature: A Mean Fractal
Starting from the basics is the best way to understand the basics. As far as Oil is concerned, the first thing we need to know is how much recoverable oil is waiting for us down there (in GOM, in this case). How much risk is involved in obtaining it and what is the trade-off. In other words, do the benefits outweigh the risks, for whom, and for how long?
Finding new oil in the deep Gulf of Mexico has not been easy. Historically, “dry holes,” wells that never produced commercial hydrocarbons, have been numerous. To put the last number in perspective, 72% of all wells drilled in water depths greater than 5,000 feet were dry holes!
Why is this so?
The sizes of reservoirs are important for understanding ultimate oil recovery from any field. It turns out that over the entire range of reservoir sizes, hydrocarbon reservoirs follow a “parabolic-fractal” law that says there is an increasing proportion of the smaller reservoirs relative to the larger ones.
If this law of reservoir sizes holds true, most, if not all, of the largest oilfields have already been discovered, and the smaller ones will not add much new oil to the total regardless of how many new oilfields are discovered.
Oil production is increasingly difficult and requires great skill, huge capital outlays, and cutting-edge technology. The oil and gas industry is by far the largest of all human technical endeavors. Petroleum permeates almost all manufactured products and is at the core of our energy-intensive civilization. Without petroleum, modern economies would not exist. Many people do not recognize this fundamental truth about their own lives, and a currently popular delusion goes something like this: because a modern society depends less on energy in generating monetary income, getting rid of fossil fuels will have a lesser impact now than it had two decades ago.
Unfortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth. Such arguments are akin to believing that if a modern plane can fly 5,000 miles with four jet engines turned on, and 6,000 miles with just two engines, it will fly 7,000 miles with all engines turned off. This type of thinking is known as the “Jevons paradox”.
“EROEI” or WHY THERE AIN’T NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH
There is a systematic pattern that links our demand for oil to the complexity of the technology we use to find and produce petroleum, our economic and energy return on energy production, the complexity of our society, and our ability to maintain the way of life to which we are accustomed. It takes energy to get energy, to find, extract, refine, and distribute it. The difference between what we spend and what we get back is known as Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI), a term that you will be hearing a lot more of in coming years.
The Human In the Machine
Unfortunately, complexity at every level of offshore drilling, from the technology to the board room to onsite decision making, means that the scope for other potentially catastrophic errors is very great, perhaps even predictable.
Also, increasing complexity means no single person has the concentrated knowledge to effect preventions – preventions depend on complex groups again with chances of internal failure within that group too. The logic is inexorable.
Nature: Also a Mean Banker
Petroleum has accumulated over millions of years by the almost imperceptible annual deposits of marine biomass (read converted solar energy). You can think of petroleum resources as a huge global banking account of these saved solar reserves.
Up until recently our withdrawal centers (ATMs), that is, oil and gas wells, operated with few if any restrictions. A good ATM in Saudi Arabia might produce 10,000 barrels of oil per day.
But, with time, Mother Nature imposes the ever more stringent daily withdrawal limits on our ATM cards. Old and easy oil reservoirs are depleted, the new ones are less productive, and we need more wells to produce less oil per day at a higher monetary and energy cost (transaction cost or broker fee, in economic terms).
There are plenty of fossil fuels (“resources”) left everywhere on the Earth. The resource size (current balance of a global banking account) is confused with the speed of drawing it down (allowed daily ATM withdrawals). It is the total rate of withdrawal that peaks (due to restrictions imposed), not the resource size which is gigantic but mostly impossible to recover at economically feasible rates.
The Paradigm of The Low-Hanging PEAK
We employ the Principle of Least Effort when we look for the resources that we need. No one digs a mine for gold if it can be had from a stream. We would never have considered looking for oil in deep water before we had fully developed the easy oil available elsewhere. We follow the same principle in the development of human society and in other aspects of history.
If, in complexity as in other realms, we first pluck the low-hanging fruit, this means that as complexity increases, societies always becomes more expensive.