Friday, October 15, 2010

Dr. Hirsch's new book: The Impending World Energy Mess

Several folks have asked, "What's up with Peak Oil?".

Well, largely, the "coming energy mess" is masked by the "current economic mess".  Namely, when you reduce growth in oil demand - as the world has done over the last several years - you don't notice the fact that the oil production rate really can't grow too much, anyway. At some point, though, the decline in oil production rate and/or the growth in demand ... meet. Or collide, we should say.  When?  Maybe 6 months, maybe a couple of years.  It really depends on oil consumption, which in turn depends on the poor economic conditions that most of the world continues to experience.  However, when demand does meet falling supply - look out. Another price shock will occur, then the economy will retract again, and demand will fall - a little, perhaps. But at some point we are down to bare bones - we've cut all discretionary demand, or at least all semi-comfortable, discretionary demand.

You may recall previous posts discussing Dr. Robert L. Hirsch, or the report which bears his name - the "Hirsch Report" - which was completed in 2005. This carefully written, non-sensational, 92 page pdf was entitled "Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Managment". The Hirsch Report became semi-famous due to its quality, its content and also due to "who wrote it for whom". Namely, Dr. Hirsch, Dr. Bezdek and Mr. Wendling wrote the report for SAIC, who in turn was fulfilling a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). (SAIC is a government contractor who some call "the biggest company you've never heard of". A few years ago SAIC went public; they have around 40,000 employees.) Initially the report was kept a "secret" to some extent. That is to say, initially the Hirsch Report could only be found on the website of a California high school! I would suspect that the DOE, etc. felt like it would send out shockwaves when folks read it. What they didn't understand was that since it wasn't a reality TV show, a lot of folks would never hear of it. Namely, a lot of folks just don't read. Further, there is a substantial amount of "thought inertia" out there - people have a hard time wrapping their minds around something so transformative.  The Hirsch Report was ultimately placed on the DOE website, and it is currently linked on this blog (as is an interview with Dr. Hirsch, regarding the report).

Dr. Hirsch has been a speaker at the last several conferences held by the Association for Study of Peak Oil, or ASPO-USA. As an attendee at those conferences in 2007-2009, I listened intently to Dr. Hirsch's talks.  I also had a few chances to chat with him. Last year I was able to ask him a question from the floor regarding the potential for natural gas vehicles to serve as a partial solution to the coming liquid fuels crisis (Peak Oil).

In observing his mannerisms over the last 3 years, and from his total focus on Peak Oil, it is my belief that the Hirsch Report had a profound effect on Dr. Hirsch himself.  And realize that Dr. Hirsch has "done it all" - almost - in the energy business. He has a doctorate in engineering and physics, and has 40 years of experience, 15 patents and 50 technical publications. Dr. Hirsch was director of fusion research at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Manager of Petroleum Exploratory Research at Exxon's Production Research, Manager of Exxon's synethetic fuels lab, VP and Manager for oil and gas research at ARCO, and then a senior staff member at RAND and SAIC.

The key takeaway from the Hirsch Report was that Peak Oil should be "prepared for", not "reacted to". Namely, the Hirsch Report posited that our nation could effectively deal with Peak Oil, given 20 years of intense transition efforts; that is, if we initiated efforts 20 years in advance of the peak.  However, if only ten years of transition time are available, the Report predicted a painful transition process. And finally, according to the Report, if serious transitioning is not begun until after the Peak then "serious consequences" will result.

Dr. Hirsch, Dr. Bezdek and Mr. Wendling have now written The Impending World Energy Mess, which was released around October 1, 2010.

The book includes a forward by Dr. James R. Schlesinger, the first U. S. Secretary of Energy, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and former Secretary of Defense.

The book doesn't plow a lot of new ground for those of us that have been familiar with Peak Oil. However, the book is an important "signpost" or "threshold" - the first book regarding Peak Oil from a very sophisticated, highly respected, former government analyst. The book is well-written, side-barred and highlighted. It is easy to read, and easy to refer to. The book also goes into substantial detail on various "partial solutions", as well as those which have been "ruled out". Included are excellent discussions on fusion, biomass, ethanol, and coal and gas-to-liquids.

Some of the most valuable content is that of the discussion of possible rationing plans - for gasoline and diesel. Not voluntary rationing - mandatory rationing.  Given the circles in which the authors travel, I would imagine that what they have written is similar to what the government might invoke. Some might wonder why a Prius might be better to have than a Corolla, given that the economics never seem to catch up at say, $3 gasoline. However, in addition to being a means to contribute to conservation, an excellent piece of overall fuel efficiency engineering and a highly drivable vehicle, the Prius will go a lot further on a gallon of gas than will a Corolla. This may equalize the economics, somewhat, when it means another ten trips to the grocery store or school, or perhaps an additional 100 miles per ten gallon tankful, vis-a-vis the Corolla.

The Impending World Energy Mess should create additional awareness of Peak Oil - we will see what the reaction/consequences are.

Shown below are a two interviews with Dr. Hirsch, regarding the book, and a book review:

Steve Andrews of ASPO-USA interviews Dr. Hirsch regarding his book

Matthew Auzanneau interviews Dr. Hirsch regarding his book

Tom Whipple reviews Dr. Hirsch's book