Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Review – Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century – By Tom Bower

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

I like to keep up on the latest major books written on crude oil in order to get a sense of how the industry actually is evolving over time as we surf the bumpy plateau that was promised by so called peak oil theorists like Colin Campbell (official ASPO website). One noteworthy thing about guys like Campbell and Kenneth Deffeyes is that they are being proved disturbingly right in their longer term predictions, as is, sadly, M. King Hubbert.

The first really significant book released, right on the dawn of the current production plateau first reached in about 2005 was Matt Simmon’s Twilight in the Desert, which was essentially the first real shot across the bows of prevailing cornucopian (the belief that finite raw materials are in fact infinite) views held by both insiders and outsiders of the oil industry. While Simmons appeared to suffer a decline in the last year of his life, don’t be fooled, Twilight was a very well researched book on Saudi oil production, probably one of the best ever written, if not the best.

However, it’s also good to read some of the major works dealing with oil that don’t come from exactly the slightly outsider, critical, peak oil perspective, but which also contain a wealth of information about various aspects of the oil industry that might generally go less considered, such as speculation, refinery utilization and tuning for different oil types, and the role of public relations, as well as general styles of corporate governance among the Western majors.

Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century (OMPP) goes a long way towards explaining some of the more technical intracies of how and why oil speculation can work, how big Western oil companies work from the inside, how PR is handled, and a wealth of specifics on topics such as refinery tunings towards various oil grades and sources. These specifics can help us understand how intertwined the entire process of modern oil, extraction, finance, governments, and corporate power, truly are.

For example, we learn that it is not simply how much raw oil in barrels there is on the market any given day, but how much per refinery per type of oil there is (heavy/light, sweet/sour, and a variety of combinations of these different grades). This is why, for example, you might hear Saudi Arabia claim it is producing extra, but then also complain that there are no buyers.

Since Saudi Arabia’s new production is now almost all what is called sour crude, that’s sometimes why more per day is not purchased even when it’s been extracted and is ready for shipment, it can’t be used, since there are no contracted refineries for that specific type of crude oil. I didn’t realize the requirements of matching refinery tuning to crude type was so specific. This book made me stop thinking of oil as one thing, just what they call petroleum liquids, like butane, propane, etc are also not properly assigned to that one thing, oil (plus liquids).

Understanding Our Present re Fossil Fuels Nuclear Energy and Growth + Soros Alchemy of Finance

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Visualize a chess game. You are player X, mother nature is player Y.

You have fewer pieces than she does, and have now entered into a phase of the game where, while you are a skilled and talented player, you are also clearly able to recognize that checkmate is inevitable. She’s also got some options in the game which you don’t have, although you were given the option to inspect them before the game started, but chose to ignore that in favor of making up your own version of the rules, which isn’t actually permitted in this game. In other words, the real rules are absolute and determined by Y, the rules we generate will fail but we believe they won’t.

Building a nuclear power plant at the edge of the ocean facing a massive and extremely active earthquake fault is an example of making up these rules and ignoring the more fundamental ground rules of the game. In that case, the rules they made up were: we will build a x meter high (6, I believe) tsunami defense wall. In other words, the rule is that the tsunami that hits in potential will be less than x meters high. Mother nature doesn’t care about these made up rules, so the tsunami was as big as it was going to be, ie, larger than the rule said it would be, x+y, the quake was stronger than they designed for, so that piece of the ecosystem is now compromised and heavily damaged, and thus, the position occupied by X is now weaker than it was 5 days ago.

Making up rules like this is extremely common in I believe all large scale cultures that practice excessive non-sustainable resource extraction. Out of sight out of mind is another form of this rule invention, which is the rule we apply to most of our generated waste products.

Your pieces are parts of your ecosystem. You can use them all up before being checkmated, or you can gracefully tip the king over and admit the inevitable defeat, thus preserving the lives and future viability of your various pieces.

While some might point to the so-called marginal economic benefit of using nuclear energy as opposed to coal fired power plant energy, I am unable to actually derive any meaning from the term ‘marginal economic benefit’ since from what I understand all nuclear power is not economically viable in the first place. That is is, if all mining, construction, de-activation, and most important, permanent long term waste disposal costs are taken into account, the plant is a zero gain enterprise.

If we forget the entire ‘economic’ modeling, which I think is a good place to start, and look merely at extraction rates and long term viability of the various options, it’s clear that none of the current options have any future.

The Ascent of Humanity by Charles Eisenstein

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Online version, read it here.

More than any other species, human beings are gifted with the power to manipulate our environment, and the ability to accumulate and transmit knowledge across generations. The first of these gifts we call technology; the other we call culture. They are central to our humanity.

Accumulating over thousands of years, culture and technology have brought us into a separate human realm. We live, more than any animal, surrounded by our own artifacts. Among these are works of surpassing beauty, complexity, and power, human creations that could not have existed—could not even have been conceived—in the times of our forebears. Seldom do we pause to appreciate the audacity of our achievements: objects as mundane as a compact disc, a video cellphone, an airplane would have seemed fantastical only a few centuries ago. We have created a realm of magic and miracles.

At the same time, it is quite easy to see technology and culture not as gifts but as a curse. After millennia of development, the power to manipulate the environment has become the power to destroy it, while the ability to transmit knowledge transmits as well a legacy of hatred, injustice, and violence. Today, as both the destruction and the violence reach a feverish crescendo, few can deny that the world is in a state of crisis. Opinions vary as to its exact nature: some people say it is primarily ecological; others say it is a moral crisis, a social, economic, or political crisis, a health crisis, even a spiritual crisis. There is, however, little disagreement that the crisis is of human origin. Hence, despair: is the present ruination of the world built in to our humanity?

Is genocide and ecocide the inevitable price of civilization’s magnificence? Need the most sublime achievements of art, music, literature, science, and technology be built upon the wreckage of the natural world and the misery of its inhabitants? Can the microchip come without the oil slick, the strip mine, the toxic waste dump? Under the shadow of every Chartres Cathedral, must there be women burning at the stake? In other words, can the gift of technology and culture somehow be separated from the curse?

Table of Contents (under fold)

The Geography of Nowhere – A Review

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

The Geography of Nowhere

The Rise and Decline of America’s Manmade Landscape
James Howard Kunstler
Simon & Schuster, 1993

While I’ve read a few other of Kunstler’s books (The Long Emergency, Home From Nowhere), I hadn’t gotten around to reading his first major non-fiction work, The Geography of Nowhere until last week.

Some of you may not be familiar with Kunstler, who is fast becoming a major spokesman for the post peak, long emergency world that is already now becoming increasingly obvious. A good place to start is his blog, named, typically abrasive Kunstler, ClusterFuckNation. While his polemical style doesn’t always work, it’s usually not that far off target, and he’s proving himself to be right far too often to just dismiss his thoughts out of hand.

To get a sense of how he thinks, check out a recent (March, 2007) talk he gave at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club.

You can also read a transcript of a 2005 [Matt] Simmons-Kunstler interview. Matt Simmons is a well respected oil industry investor who wrote a seminal book on the coming decline of Saudi oil production (read it if you haven’t, it’s great) Twilight in the Desert. Simmons, like Kunstler, seems able to engage in critical thinking, and is able to look at reality without falling into fantasy, so it made some sense for them to do this interview together.


From the author’s own site:

my first non-fiction book on the tragic sprawlscape of cartoon architecture, junked cities, and ravaged countryside where we live and work. I argued that the mess we’ve made of our everyday environment was not merely the symptom of a troubled culture, but one of the primary causes of our troubles. “We created a landscape of scary places, and we became a nation of scary people.”


Energy Concerns: Today and Jimmy Carter

Friday, April 25th, 2008

Interesting times, more and more people are starting to do the unthinkable: tell the truth. Well, ok, ignore his ridiculous babble about Large Oil Companies being better at extracting oil than Large Oil Service companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger, who do most of the advanced oil field work for many of the planet’s biggest oil producing nations.

Ok, he’s also unable to say the words: peak oil, and prefers to try to blame the producing nations for not pumping enough rather than admit the far simpler reality that they simply are experiencing finite geological constraints (pdf, new by Matt Simmons) that limit their ability to create higher flow rates.

In addition, politicians throw red meat to the crowd by promising to punish the oil industry for its huge profits, overlooking the small problem that much of this profit is not even made in the United States. In fact, it is not the oil companies, but producing countries like Venezuela, Mexico, Iran and Russia that are provoking the pending production crunch through lack of investment. National oil companies now control nearly 80 percent of worldwide reserves, leaving major Western multinationals with full access to only 6 percent.
Politicians have embraced ethanol as a policy that is good for consumers, the environment and farmers. Let’s be honest: ethanol is a great farm-subsidy program, but it is a multibillion-dollar distraction as an energy solution, and a mistake for both food prices and the environment. Corn prices have more than tripled since the end of 2005 despite record harvests, and ethanol’s net environmental benefits look increasingly dubious when we examine the large amounts of energy, water and fertilizer our farmers use to produce corn. Yet Congress—like King Canute commanding the tides—now wants biofuels production increased from seven to thirty-six billion gallons per year. Regrettably, we do not have the technology, land or water to produce that volume.

The brutal fact is that we do not know how to offset oil with other fuels on the scale that is required. Let me repeat this: there is no alternative energy elixir just waiting in the wings. So, if we cannot increase the supply of oil, then we must cut demand—ideally through efficiency and conservation.

But once again we see politics trumping economics. Government policy should encourage outcomes, but not mandate specific solutions and technologies—especially not those pushed by lobbyists.
J. Robinson West: former assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior, chairman of PFC Energy, Inc.

So finally people are beginning to understand the enormity of the crisis. Too bad they didn’t listen to Jimmy Carter back in the 1970s, who understood the long term repercussions of the energy problem back when it would still have been easy to fix it!