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Book Review: Peak Oil Prep


Peak Oil Prep by Mick Winter

For some reason I especially like to read books on Peak Oil, sustainability, and energy issues while traveling. Part of the reason is that traveling always makes me reflective. Part of the reason is that these books are often an ice-breaker that allows me to talk about energy with other travelers. On previous trips I read Jared Diamond’s Collapse and John Howe’s The End of Fossil Energy (reviewed here). On my latest trip I read Mick Winter’s Peak Oil Prep and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. I started reading Peak Oil Prep during my first flight, and while the man sitting across the aisle from me reading the National Enquirer didn’t show much interest in what I was reading, the woman sitting next to me reading about Christina Aguilera’s confessions in Glamour kept glancing at the book. But unfortunately, she never asked about it and we never struck up a conversation. Opportunity missed.

First of all, I thought the title – Peak Oil Prep – as well as the subtitle – Three Things You Can Do to Prepare for Peak Oil, Climate Change, and Economic Collapse – were both misnomers. This is not a book that will merely come in handy when world oil production peaks. Much of the advice in this book will help you save money and adopt a more sustainable lifestyle while lowering your ecological footprint. The subtitle is a misnomer because there were certainly more than “Three Thing You Can Do.” That was in fact the theme throughout the book: Three Things to Do (in the kitchen, regarding your health, on education, on community gardens, etc.)

The book contained a lot of information that will be familiar toreaders of The Oil Drum. In fact, there was even a plug for TOD on Page 19. However, each section is chock full of links to additional resources. This was the strength of the book, in my opinion. There were a lot of practical tips, but then the author linked to additional information so you could research a topic to your heart’s content. Want to learn to garden using permaculture? Read the permaculture summary on Page 78, and then follow up with one or more of the ten references on permaculture.

This is not a book to convince people of Peak Oil or of climate change. There is a short section in the beginning that discusses these topics, but those are more appropriate for someone who is already familiar with those issues. This is a book for those who have at least a basic grasp, and who are wondering “What can I do?” And that is answered from “A” (acupressure) to “Z” (zoning). This book is essentially a user’s manual for sustainable living.

The book could be repetitive over certain points. While I think it is incredibly valuable advice to tell people to change out their incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents (and I have done so in the past 3 homes I lived in), I counted no fewer than 7 times this was mentioned in the book. There were also some topics that seemed to be out of place in a peak oil book (e.g. “get more sleep”). By by and large, the advice is topical, worthwhile, and could probably benefit all of us.

Taking Notes

I took 3 pages of notes as I read this book on things that were of particular interest to me. In this section I will share some of those issues.

In the early part of the book, the author makes the case that demand is likely to outstrip supply (which I also think is very likely), and that conflict with China appears possible. He also commented that China is outlawing bicycles in some areas, which came a surprise to me. This is the last thing one should do when fossil fuel resources are diminishing.

On Page 18, the author mentions something that I think we frequently forget about – plastics are made from petroleum. We often think of Peak Oil in terms of energy, but we are dependent on petroleum in many other ways.

On Page 20, he mentions a theme that I don’t think gets enough attention: Even if you don’t believe that Peak Oil is an imminent problem, implementing solutions that reduce your energy usage will lower greenhouse gas emissions. The author calls this a “two-fer”, but given that many of these solutions will also save you money it could very well be a “three-fer”.

On Page 30, the author discusses the benefits of walking, and then describes 10 keys to walkable communities. As I worked my way down the list, I was struck by how most European villages would be aptly described by these 10 keys, but the typical town in the U.S. would not.

On Page 43, Winter starts to hammer home the “localize” theme, which is a familiar one to TOD readers. This something I have put more effort into this past year, as I spent much more time at farmers’ markets.

On Page 61, one of the references caught my eye. It was Dan Chiras’ 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods. That sounded like one to add to my library.

That is probably enough to give a good flavor of the book. Some of the topics covered through the rest of the book were how to compost, solar ovens, beer making, growing your own coffee, and making your house more energy efficient. One point that really caught my attention was the author’s claim that over 50% of the vegetables consumed in Havana (population 2 million) are produced in local gardens. That gives me great hope for the future.

Addressing a Misconception

There was one oil company misconception that I want to address, because I see it frequently. On Page 17, the author states that no new oil refineries have been built in the U.S. since 1976. He then suggests that this may be because there’s no sense expanding facilities if the feedstock is starting to diminish.

I can tell you that the reason no new refineries have been built is not because oil companies are concerned about Peak Oil. When ExxonMobil tells you that there is plenty of oil, they are not just throwing out a smokescreen. This is what they honestly believe. The vast majority of oil companies, in my opinion, believe that we have adequate supplies of oil for quite some time.

The reason no new refineries have been built is that the permitting process is lengthy. A group in Arizona, Arizona Clean Fuels Yuma LLC, applied for a permit to build a new refinery in 1999. It was finally granted in 2005. So, instead of going through the lengthy permitting process, refiners simply expand their existing refineries. The permitting process for this is significantly simpler.

The EIA has written extensively on this issue. The bottom line on refinery capacity:

Much has been made of the fact that no significant grassroots refinery has been built in the United States in nearly 3 decades other than some small simple refineries. Yet, U.S. refinery capacity has increased 1.9 million barrels per day over the last 10 years, which is equivalent to the addition of 1 medium-size refinery per year on average, as refiners attempt to de-bottleneck and make their refineries more efficient, change feedstocks, and add capacity to meet market opportunities. In EIA’s latest Petroleum Supply Annual, Volume 1, although the number of refineries stayed the same between January 1, 2003 and January 1, 2004, capacity increased by 137,000 barrels per day, adding, again, the equivalent of another medium-sized refinery!

So, refiners are expanding capacity. This should tell you that, while they may be wrong, they are betting against an imminent peak.

Conclusion

Overall, this was a solid book that was full of useful resources. This is a good book for anyone trying to live sustainably. For more information, the author hosts 2 Peak Oil websites: DryDipstick.com and BeyondPeak.com.

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December 21, 2006 - Posted by | book review, Peak Oil, sustainability

11 Comments

  1. Nice review, and Happy 40th Birthday, Robert! From the picture in your profile, you haven’t changed much in 20 years. Unlike me, you still have all of your hair.

    Comment by Bud | December 21, 2006

  2. …the author mentions something that I think we frequently forget about – plastics are made from petroleum. We often think of Peak Oil in terms of energy, but we are dependent on petroleum in many other ways.

    Robert,

    And of course the ethanol proponents haven’t thought at all how Peak Oil will affect their industry since ethanol isn’t really “renewable” but dependent on the consumption of fossil fuels.

    Not only will Peak Oil affect us in ways we haven’t anticipated, there are other “peaks” that will change our lives: We don’t read as much about it, but there will also be a Peak Natural Gas and a Peak Water.

    It seems pretty clear we’ve hit Peak NG in the U.S. and of course that will affect the burgeoning corn ethanol industry since virtually all their synthetic fertilizers use natural gas as a feedstock.

    Peak Water will hit the High Plains states first that are dependent on the Ogallala Aquifer. Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, and Eastern Colorado all have set their sights on corn ethanol with apparently no thought about what they’ll do as they deplete the Ogallala.

    Merry Christmas,

    Gary Dikkers

    Comment by Gary Dikkers | December 22, 2006

  3. What did you think of the Al Gore book/movie Robert?

    Comment by Anonymous | December 23, 2006

  4. Bud, e-mail me.

    Gary, the water issue is the first one that is going to present a serious problem. Then they will ask “What have we done?”

    What did you think of the Al Gore book/movie Robert?

    I wish everyone would either see the movie or read the book. I think he presented a very compelling case. There was one graphic that I think would really make an impact on people. It was an overlay of atmospheric CO2 versus temperatures for the past 600,000 years. There is no denying the correlation.

    Cheers, Robert

    Comment by Robert Rapier | December 23, 2006

  5. What did you think of the Al Gore book/movie?

    Anon,

    I know you didn’t ask me, but I’ll give you my opinion anyway:

    From a cosmological reference, Al Gore’s movie means nothing. Heating and cooling of the earth and its atmosphere moves in broad, natural cycles covering millions and billions of years that we can neither understand nor control.

    In the past the earth and its atmosphere have been both cooler and hotter than it is know. The same will be true in the future. To think we can somehow affect or control those cycles is hubris of the highest order.

    The time mankind has been (and will be) on the earth is a mere blink of the eye in cosmological time. Long after we are gone from the earth, those great natural cycles of heating and cooling will continue until the Sun becomes a red giant and expands past the earth’s orbit making the whole question irrelevant.

    Marry Christmas,

    Gary Dikkers

    Comment by Gary Dikkers | December 23, 2006

  6. Robert,

    You mentioned petroleum plastics production. My wife and I were discussing the other night the possibility of using ethanol solely for plastics production, for use in the batteries of a solar-electric transportation infrastructure (among other uses). In your opinion, could such an industry be sustainable; i.e. if we aren’t using ethanol for energy production, but for biodegradable plastics, could we produce enough to meet demand in short order?

    Just a pie-in-the-sky idea, but it’s always good to be exploring possibilities.

    Thanks,
    -PeakEngineer

    Comment by PeakEngineer | December 23, 2006

  7. Robert,

    More related to a reference in your post about Jerry Unruh. In it you referenced your work on butanol.

    Have you looked at the company whose site is http://www.butanol.com? If so, what is your assessment of the practicality and the economics of their approach to butanol?

    Thanks!

    Comment by Jerry Bogart | December 24, 2006

  8. In your opinion, could such an industry be sustainable; i.e. if we aren’t using ethanol for energy production, but for biodegradable plastics, could we produce enough to meet demand in short order?

    There is an application for this, but my guess is that we could only produce a tiny fraction of the plastics we now use, and I doubt we can produce the range of plastics we now use from corn.

    Have you looked at the company whose site is http://www.butanol.com?

    I have. In fact, I wrote an essay on it:

    Bio-Butanol

    Cheers, RR

    Comment by Robert Rapier | December 24, 2006

  9. I’m suprised you found the Inconvenient Truth case compelling, Robert. As a fellow engineer, you should have also found the correlation argument to be spurious at best, a weak attempt to convince the laymen that correlation implies causation. Other than that, the only other argument I saw was the one study related to scientific abstracts…and I heard of a counter-study that at least casts some doubt on the study (a reference can be found here http://online.wsj.com/article_print/SB115127582141890238.html).

    Also the “fear-mongering” irked me greatly. The whole drama about his son being hit by a car, Al Gore looking moody and grimly reflective and really his entire showboating attitude about “the greatest problem in the world today”, which he never actually substantiated by comparing with other issues.

    But the reasons the movie bugged me was more because to me climate destabilization is a big problem, and I don’t like to see it trivialised in much the same fashion Bush trivialises terrorism and militant Islam. It’s such an important issue (although I wouldnt say its the MOST important) and yet the best argument politicians can come up with is a correlation?

    We need better people presenting better arguments if we’re going to get the global consensus that we need to tackle this issue. Although Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is a step in the right direction, I feel we have a lot further to go.

    Comment by Anonymous | December 25, 2006

  10. PeakEngineer said, “In your opinion, could such an industry be sustainable; i.e. if we aren’t using ethanol for energy production, but for biodegradable plastics, could we produce enough to meet demand in short order?”

    Using ethanol to make plastic is another dead end.

    What that would mean is using natural gas and petroleum to make plastic through an intermediary — corn. We already use natural gas and petroleum as feedstocks for making plastics, so what would be the point of going through the steps of using natural gas to make fertilizer to grow corn; petroleum to make pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides and to cultivate and harvest the corn; and then more natural gas at an ethanol plant to convert the corn to ethanol?

    Why not skip the inefficient, intermediary steps and continue using the NG and petroleum as direct feedstocks to make plastic as we do now?

    One of the biggest impacts of Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas won’t be only the use of those resources as an energy source, but their use as a feedstock for everything from plastics and pharmaceuticals to synthetic fertilizers.

    The corn ethanol industry won’t readily admit as such, but they would be dead in the water without the many products they consume made from petroleum and natural gas. (Other than a few practioneers of sustainable farming such as the Amish.)

    Makes you wonder why they insist on calling corn ethanol renewable.

    Comment by Gary Dikkers | December 25, 2006

  11. I’m suprised you found the Inconvenient Truth case compelling, Robert. As a fellow engineer, you should have also found the correlation argument to be spurious at best, a weak attempt to convince the laymen that correlation implies causation.

    To be sure, Gore’s book is not aimed at a scientific audience. If you watch it as a scientist hoping to be convinced of Global Warming, you may be disappointed. I even said as much when we were watching the movie. However, there is a strong scientific consensus that Global Warming is happening. I understand that there is still debate as to whether humans are causing it. I don’t think there is any question that human activity has greatly increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. I also understand that the concentration in the past was much, much higher. However, it is important to remember that there were no humans alive at that time. So while the earth can survive much higher CO2 concentrations, humans might have a difficult time in a greatly changed climate. Remember, the oxygen concentrations were once much lower than they are now as well. That doesn’t mean we could now survive in an oxygen-depleted world.

    The bottom line for me on Global Warming? We can’t afford to play Russian Roulette with the planet. What if the Global Warming proponents are wrong? Well, there will be economic consequences to be sure, but overall we would be better off by implementing solutions aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions. We would be more sustainable than we are now. However, what if the proponents are right, and we don’t act? That’s not really a gamble I am willing to take. Think of the 1% doctrine. Is there a 1% chance that the proponents are right? Yeah, there’s a lot greater chance than that. Given the consequences, we need to act. That’s my opinion.

    Also the “fear-mongering” irked me greatly. The whole drama about his son being hit by a car…

    There was plenty of fear-mongering, to be sure. When someone shows a calving iceberg, and says “Global Warming”, you have to chuckle. Icebergs have been calving since the beginning of time. As far as the drama about his son, I sort of viewed the movie/book as part Global Warming story, part Al Gore story. So, the digressions (most of which were in the book) didn’t bother me so much.

    And I say all of this as someone who is not a supporter of Gore (nor, by any means, of Bush). I think he does have a tendency to exaggerate, and I think he legitimately lost Florida to Bush. I didn’t like either candidate in 2000, though, and given that I was living in Germany at the time I didn’t vote for either one.

    Cheers, RR

    Comment by Robert Rapier | December 26, 2006


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