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Published: May 30, 2006

 
 

Engines of Change

Sources for making sense of fossil fuel scarcity, the oil endgame, and the automotive future.

Illustration by Opto
Oil is on the front burner again. The political tensions of the Middle East, the economic development of China and India, the volatility of energy prices, and concerns about global climate change have brought attention back to the energy source upon which our automotive society most depends. With the supply of oil uncertain and no clear consensus about alternative energy sources, the continued viability of carbon-fueled economic development — and thus the future of our highly mobile industrial society — is being questioned. Anyone trying to make sense of developments since, say, 2001, will find that information is plentiful, but reliable perspective and judgment are harder than ever to come by. It’s as if the depth of the issues at stake makes it harder to step back dispassionately and look at the state of the petroleum industry today, and the real availability and cost of energy tomorrow.

A half dozen books and publications have appeared to help people comprehend the linked oil, automotive, and national security enigmas. All of these publications are perceptive enough to recognize the conflicting beliefs held by various opinion makers in the field. But each book, because it is limited by its own perspective, does not even attempt to reconcile the contradictions among those beliefs. Thus, to understand the future of transportation and energy, even on as simple a matter as the speed with which fossil fuels are “running out,” a reader needs to consider these sources together. A forced transition away from fossil fuel dependence is almost certain, and sooner than many people expect; but on the details and impact of that transition, there are still many uncertainties.

A good place to start making sense of them is with one of the oil industry’s (and the world’s) most enduring myths: that Saudi Arabia has only to open the tap a bit more and any oil supply crisis will end. Twilight in the Desert subjects this myth to critical analysis. Matthew R. Simmons, an investment banker specializing in the oil industry, has gone back to primary sources: more than 200 technical papers published by Saudi Aramco (the huge, Saudi Arabia–based company that conducts most of the exploration and extraction of that country’s oil) under the professional auspices of the Society of Petroleum Engineers. For the lay reader, Mr. Simmons has produced an admirable primer of petroleum geology, exploration, extraction, and processing techniques. It’s all a lot more complex, difficult, and expensive than it was in the days of Colonel Edwin Drake (who drilled the first successful petroleum well in 1859 near Titusville, Penn., and collected the oil in a bathtub).

Mr. Simmons drills down — the term is indeed appropriate — into the Saudi oil fields in which we have placed our greatest trust, particularly the mega-giant Ghawar complex near Dhahran. He explodes what George Orwell might have identified as a fine example of doublespeak: Aramco clearly acknowledging (in its arcane technical papers) the aging and depletion of its oil fields, while publicly claiming that reserves and production capacity are more than adequate.

In passing, Mr. Simmons documents the sorry “progress” of the Saudi leaders themselves, from ascetic princes of the desert to “oil welfare” dependents unable to conceive of supporting their lavish lifestyles and overpopulated cities without a stream of money from renting their lands as oil fields. His meticulous scholarship would befit any academic institution. The only criticism to be made of the book is that it is often repetitive — and even that does not detract from its inherent value. The publisher appropriately fast-tracked it and seemingly had to sacrifice thorough editing.

 
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Resources for Understanding
Energy and Automobiles
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Alfred W. Crosby, Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy (W.W. Norton, 2006)
  2. Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak (Hill & Wang, 2005)
  3. Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (Princeton University Press, 2001)
  4. European Commission, Cars 21: Competitive Automotive Regulatory System for the 21st Century. Final Report (E.U. Directorate General for Enterprise and Industry, 2005)
  5. Kelly Sims Gallagher, China Shifts Gears: Automakers, Oil, Pollution, and Development (forthcoming from MIT Press, July 2006)
  6. Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy (Basic Books, 2005)
  7. Mark Jaccard, Sustainable Fossil Fuels: The Unusual Suspect in the Quest for Clean and Enduring Energy (Cambridge University Press, 2005)
  8. Amory B. Lovins, E. Kyle Datta, Odd-Even Bustnes, and Jonathan G. Koomey, Winning the Oil Endgame: Innovation for Profits, Jobs, and Security (Rocky Mountain Institute, 2005), Click here.
  9. Matthew R. Simmons, Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy (Wiley, 2005)
  10. World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Mobility 2030: Meeting the Challenges to Sustainability — The Sustainable Mobility Project, Full Report 2004. Click here.
  11. World Health Organization, World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention, Geneva, 2004. Click here.