Plenty of opinions about energy
By Bill Virgin
For those hoping to make a lot of money quickly by writing a best-selling book and who figured that the market for "Harry Potter" and "Da Vinci Code" knockoffs was already tapped, here is some disappointing news:
You can also cross energy off your list of possible topics.
In a self-assigned reading project, your friendly neighborhood business columnist has spent the past few months sampling recent books about energy -- some read cover to cover, others perused or skimmed.
And after reviewing the assembled literature on one subject, one conclusion can be reached about books on energy:
There sure are a lot of them.
Given the volume of volumes, it's not surprising that they cover just about every angle and permutation of energy.
You can, for example, find a wealth of books that not only predict that we're all basically doomed, but also seem almost upbeat about the prospect, if it means a collapse of Western civilization and the loss of most vestiges of modern life. James Howard Kunstler's "The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century" is replete with such cheery predictions as "the United States may not survive as a nation in any meaningful sense but rather will devolve into a set of autonomous regions" and "many of the suburban subdivisions will become the slums of the future."
In a similar vein, you could try "High Noon for Natural Gas: The New Energy Crisis" or "The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies" (cover illustration of a man holding a gas nozzle to the side of his head) by Richard Heinberg.
And if you think there's money to be made in everyone's misfortune, try Stephen Leeb's "The Coming Economic Collapse: How You Can Thrive When Oil Costs $200 a Barrel," which offers readers "your personal choice: insane wealth or pitiful poverty."
For a completely different perspective, you might prefer "The Deep Hot Biosphere" by Thomas Gold, which posits that the hydrocarbons that power our world are not products of "buried biological debris" but in fact are "part of the primordial 'soup' from which our planet was created, and to this day they exist in abundance deep within our planet and continue to upwell toward the surface."
Or you could try "The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy" by Peter Huber and Mark Mills.
You can find books about individual fuels, such as Jeff Goodell's "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future," or "Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy" by George Olah, Alain Goeppert and G.K. Surya Prakash. Or if you want the Cliff's Notes version, try "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Politics of Oil" by Lita Epstein, C.D. Jaco and Julianne Iwersen-Neimann.
After a while, a certain sameness of theme tends to creep in -- it's later than we think, the era of cheap oil is over, things will really get nasty when China and India start consuming oil at our rates, there's no magic-bullet technology to save us. Says Paul Roberts, author of "The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World," "For all its great successes, our energy economy is fatally flawed, in nearly every respect."
In fact, it's not just the themes that start to sound familiar. After a while, even the casual reader catches on that the books are quoting the same reference materials and research papers -- and often one another (right down to the dust-jacket blurbs). The favored text of the moment is Matthew Simmons' "Twilight in the Desert," which questions whether "Saudi Arabia will be able to deliver over the next several decades the oil supplies that the world's consuming nations have come to depend on."
Not that everyone agrees. In "The Age of Oil: The Mythology, History and Future of the World's Most Controversial Resource," Leonardo Maugeri, an executive at Italian oil company Eni, writes, "Nothing we are experiencing today is a major departure from the historical cycles of the oil market. ... The wolf is not at the door. And even though the dramatization is an unavoidable byproduct of everything that concerns oil, there is nothing that dooms us to a vicious struggle for securing our future oil needs in the face of strangling shortages and geopolitical turmoil."
Even though the theme of "it may be messy and uncomfortable, but we'll muddle through" lacks the drama of predicting economic collapse, there are plenty of books that subscribe to this notion. Kenneth Deffeyes, author of both "Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage" and "Beyond Oil: The View From Hubbert's Peak," writes that "there are plenty of energy sources other than fossil fuels. Running out of energy in the long run is not the problem. The bind comes during the next 10 years: getting over our dependence on crude oil."
One of the best books on this now-groaning shelf is Peter Tertzakian's "A Thousand Barrels a Second" (the title referring to the world's current consumption rate of oil).
"We shouldn't forget that the turmoil and uncertainty surrounding energy throughout history has always led to a brighter future," he writes. "We're not running out of oil. There is plenty of oil left in the ground to last us many decades, if not longer. We are, however, running short of cheap oil, especially the desirable grade that flows easily and is devoid of sulfur."
Although Simmons gets cited by everyone, especially the doom-and-gloomers, he writes: "I happen to think the world can make the transition into what we might call the post-Saudi oil era in some very rational way that will limit economic disruption. As a perpetual optimist, I believe the world still works beyond Peak Oil. While oil prices in this new world will obviously rise, this rise can be a blessing, not a curse. Far higher oil prices make all other forms of energy more competitive and spur on energy research programs that might discover some real long-term fixes."
Which is a somewhat comforting perspective as we slog through these years of higher energy prices and massive questions about fuels and technology to succeed oil, and what they'll cost. None of the books, though, discusses one as-yet untapped but potentially huge energy source. Although the practice of book burning has a justifiably ugly legacy, surely there must be some way to convert all those books about energy into some useful fuel with which to heat our homes and power our cars.