The Impending World Energy Mess: What It Is and What It Means to You
By Robert L. Hirsch, Roger H. Bezdek and Robert M. Wendling
256 pp. Apogee Prime – Oct. 2010. $29.95.
In The Maltese Falcon a character tells detective Sam Spade, "By Gad, sir, you're a character, that you are! Yes, sir, there's never any telling what you'll do or say next, except that it's bound to be something astonishing.”* I'm telling Bob Hirsch the same thing. There’s no denying the man's considerable credentials within the energy industry, nor his contribution to peak oil scholarship as principal author of the first major U.S. government report to take the issue seriously. But neither is there any predicting what outlandish thing he’ll propose next in his efforts to spread the message.
First it was his insistence that we must frantically develop liquid fuels from every feasible alternative source—including from environmentally ruinous coal, bitumen and tar sands—if we are to have any hope of effectively dealing with conventional oil depletion. Peak oil activist Rob Hopkins rightly called this stand “profoundly repugnant.” And then, during the recent recession, he pleaded for peak oilers to temporarily keep quiet because if public awareness of oil depletion were added to existing woes, “the added trauma could be unthinkable.” Grist columnist Joe Romm aptly described this as “an incredibly dumb ‘You can't handle the truth!’ memo.” Hirsch’s latest stunt takes the form of a book titled The Impending World Energy Mess, which includes a shoddily and lazily put together case for being skeptical about climate change—one that’s already been thoroughly discredited.** Astonishing indeed have been Hirsch’s antics.
Hirsch is a physicist and engineer with 40 plus years of experience in energy and technology R&D, consulting and management. He has managed Exxon’s synthetic fuels research laboratory; been appointed to the position of Assistant Administrator, U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (under President Gerald Ford); and acquired 15 patents, including one for commercially producing hydrogen. Currently a senior energy advisor at the economic research and management consulting firm Management Information Services, Inc. (MISI), he has long been among the most prominent advocates for peak oil awareness and preparation.†
In 2005 he was the lead author of a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report titled “Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management,” now widely known as “the Hirsch report.” The report’s sobering conclusion was that we would have needed to anticipate peak oil by at least 20 years in order to be able to navigate it painlessly. As Hirsch is always pointing out during his talks, the world energy infrastructure is slow to change because it’s vast and requires decades-long capital investments. Personal electronics, on the other hand, have been able to advance with incredible speed because they’re small and have swift inventory turnovers. This unfortunately has given many people a blind faith in energy’s ability to do the same, given the right incentives. The Hirsch report blew this reasoning out of the water by strongly suggesting that it was probably already too late to smoothly transition away from oil, since only by the most wildly improbable estimates did we appear to have two decades left before it peaked.
In the time since the Hirsch report first came out, Hirsch and coauthors Roger Bezdek and Robert Wendling have continued to collaborate on peak oil-related research, and The Impending World Energy Mess represents their first book together. Targeted at lay readers, it begins by covering the basics of the oil business, the technical challenges involved in finding and producing oil, the link between oil availability and GDP and why a given nation’s stated reserves must be taken with a healthy grain of salt. Then comes the meat of the book: the authors' assessment of the challenge facing us as oil begins its irreversible decline, as well as how best to respond to this challenge.
For the past six years, world oil production has been flat, in spite of massive price increases that in theory should have brought more supply online. Output from the world’s largest fields is slipping deeper and deeper into decline, and producers have been going at a dead run simply to stay in place—they’re just barely offsetting declines in conventional production through new discoveries and output from unconventional sources. Soon they’ll fall off this arduous production treadmill, and Hirsch and colleagues believe that when that happens we’ll see an oil shock similar to those of the 1970s, except that this time it won’t be temporary. We can expect many years of chronic shortages (worsened by panic buying at the pumps), soaring unemployment, plummeting stocks, inflation and woeful unpreparedness on the part of governments.
The Hirsch team identifies two main types of mitigation that they believe could help us deal with this oil-starved future. The first one, administrative mitigation, includes things like carpooling, telecommuting and government-mandated fuel rationing. The second type, which they call physical mitigation, encompasses measures such as using more fuel-efficient transportation; ramping up enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in existing fields that are past their primes; and generating more liquid fuels from tar sands, heavy oil and coal-to-liquid/gas-to-liquid operations.
The authors see administrative mitigation as enabling us to dramatically stretch out existing supplies, and physical mitigation as generating and/or freeing up as much as 30 million barrels per day of additional supply. That comes out to roughly one-third of total present-day global consumption, and it’s what the authors expect will be lost to depletion over the next one to two decades. Because depletion will have a long head start over our mitigation efforts, it will take us a while to pull ourselves out of the red energy-wise. But once we do, with luck we’ll be able to gracefully ride down the final stretch of the depletion curve.
Excluded from the list of mitigation options are nuclear, wind, shale oil, photovoltaics and biomass-to-liquids. The authors explain that shale oil isn’t yet commercial; biomass-to-liquids fuels aren’t viable without government mandates; and wind, nuclear and photovoltaics produce electricity, not liquid fuels. The authors also don't see much promise in electrifying railways or converting homes and commercial buildings to natural gas/electric heating. Electrifying railways would free up only a trivial amount of additional fuel—in the United States, it would come to 0.3 million barrels per day, or less than one and a half percent of current daily consumption. And the problem with switching buildings to natural gas/electric heating is that the substantial costs of doing this would have to be born by property owners, who will want to do everything in their power to tighten their belts as economic recession deepens.
The part of the book that has many people aghast is a chapter toward the end titled "Global Warming — What a Mess!," which expresses skepticism about the reality of human-caused climate change. In making their case, the authors cite the past decade of flat or decreasing global temperatures, as well as evidence of a possible link between solar activity and observed temperatures on Earth. They also mention a petition objecting to the anthropogenic-climate-change theory that ultimately garnered the signatures of 31,000 scientists and engineers. And lastly, they bemoan the “data manipulation and outright dishonesty” on the part of some major climate scientists who were embroiled in the unfortunate ClimateGate scandal of last year. Hirsch and his coauthors claim to be taking a noncommittal stand on climate change—“We do not know whether global warming has been or will be caused by man-made carbon dioxide emissions,” they write—but their tone is indicative of a much harder line.
The crux of the matter is that they feel that alleviating the severe hardship brought about by oil shortages should take priority over protecting the planet against what they assert is a still-far-from-certain threat to our climate. They thus insist that we need to pursue every alternative liquid fuel capable of making a significant difference in world oil supply, with a view toward keeping things “environmentally reasonable but not necessarily ultraclean.” That isn’t exactly a model of taking the precautionary principle to heart in planning one's energy future. The Hirsch team's fatuous take on climate change was admirably deflated by Energy Bulletin contributor Mike Bendzela in a post dated Oct. 12; and in the article's editorial notes section, editor Bart Anderson added, "[Hirsch and Co.'s] arguments have been rebutted elsewhere in detail."‡
In spite of his eccentricities, Hirsch remains one of the seminal authors in the peak oil canon and an important thinker on practical responses to oil depletion. We can only hope that this new book will help recruit a critical mass of everyday citizens. Will many readers be offended by the remarks about climate science? Does a methane molecule have four hydrogen atoms? But suffice it to say that the book contains a good deal of other, non-climate-change-related material that is worth a read by both general readers and peak oilers.
* Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1930).
** Rob Hopkins, “ASPO 5. Robert Hirsch scares me out of my wits…,” Energy Bulletin, Aug. 18, 2006, http://www.energybulletin.net/node/19477 (accessed Oct. 26, 2010); Jeffrey Ball, “Peak Oil: Prominent Peaker Tells Allies to (Temporarily) Pipe Down/ The Journal’s Neil King Jr. reports: Mum’s the Word, Peakniks!,” Environmental Capital (Wall Street Journal blog), Nov. 14, 2008, http://blogs.wsj.com/environmentalcapital/2008/11/14/peak-oil-prominent-... (accessed Oct. 26, 2010); Joseph Romm, “Peak-a-boo, I don't see you?: Robert Hirsch suggests ‘keeping relatively quiet’ in near-term about peak oil,” Grist, Nov. 17, 2008, http://www.grist.org/article/peak-a-boo-i-dont-see-you/ (accessed Oct. 27, 2010); Michael Bendzela, “A critique of Chapter XVII of the new book by Hirsch, Bezdek, and Wendling,” Energy Bulletin, Oct. 12, 2010, http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-10-12/critique-chapter-xvii-n... (accessed Oct. 27, 2010).
† His appointment to this position is described in: Frank N. Laird, Solar Energy, Technology Policy, and Institutional Values (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 163.
‡ Bendzela, “A critique of Chapter XVII,” EB.