The End of Oil


The End of Oil

by Paul Roberts

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (20014)

Book Review

Although fourteen years old, The End of Oil offers an invaluable historical analysis about the absolute link between cheap fossil fuels and the development of industrial capitalism. Roberts starts his analysis with the first century Persians who first distilled surface petroleum for use as lamp fuel. According to Roberts, widespread use of oil as a fuel was impossible until drill technology became available in the 19th century to drill for it at deep levels.

Roberts identifies coal mining as the first really capital intensive industry requiring extensive external funding. Building the infrastructure to mine and process all three fossil fuels is always extremely capital intensive. The fact that a coal or gas-fired power plant takes three or four decades to pay off is one of the main reasons fossil fuel companies, and the banks and governments that subsidize them, are so reluctant to replace them with renewable energy infrastructure. The End of Oil also emphasizes the absolute importance of cheap fossil fuel to the economic health of industrialized countries, Between1945 and 2004 (when the book was published), there were six big spikes in the price of oil – each was accompanies by a major economic recession.

Roberts maintains the cheap, easily accessible oil is all used up, explaining its steady price increase since the late 70s. Russian oil, which is fairly costly to mine, only became economically viable when the price of oil hit $35 a barrel in 1980.

Prior to the final chapters, which review the economics of various forms of renewal energy, the book also discusses the geopolitics of oil. Roberts leaves absolutely no doubt that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was an effort by neoconservatives Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz et al to control the volatile price of oil and the devastating effects of this lability on the US economy. Although the US wars in Libya, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen occurred after the book’s publication, Roberts’s analysis left me with no doubt whatsoever they were driven by similar geopolitical objectives.

Roberts also discusses the geopolitical threats posed by China, India and Southeast Asian countries as their growing middle classes put pressure on a finite supply of oil. He also explores the threat the growing political/military alliance between Russian and Iran creates. Between them, the two countries control half the world supply of natural gas. He leaves no doubt, in other words, that the current US military threats against China, Russia and Iran are also about fossil fuel security, just like the war on Iraq.