Albert Marrin is a history professor who has written dozens books for young readers. In Black Gold, he discussed the geology of fossil energy, emergence of the oil industry, geopolitics, oil wars, environmental impacts, and future challenges. I was intrigued by his perspective on geopolitics.
Before World War One, the British navy scrapped many coal-burning warships and began building modern boats that ran on oil. This gave them a big advantage over the German navy. The era of industrial warfare had arrived. Nations with tanks, trucks, and planes could easily smash horse-powered enemies.
America joined the war in 1917, and brought lots of oil. German ports were blockaded, their war machine ran out of fuel, and they were defeated. In this new era, for the first time, oil became essential for military success. Young Hitler grasped this, and so did the British. A primary objective of the Brits was to seize control of Middle Eastern oil, a yet-to-be developed treasure that made greedy gits giddy. They succeeded, invented new nations, and found obedient puppets to rule them (and loot them).
Of course, wealth and power frequently turns decent people into obnoxious monsters. Troublesome puppets were replaced with new ones, Britain got very rich, and the Arabs and Persians developed an intense hatred of Brits. In World War Two, Hitler launched his oil-powered blitzkrieg, made a beeline for oily Baku, and planned to grab the Persian Gulf. In this war, American oil once again came to the rescue.
Germany and Japan learned the hard way that running out of oil is for losers. Everyone knows this today. U.S. presidents have poured trillions of dollars into maintaining control of oil, whilst jabbering about freedom, democracy, and weapons of mass destruction. For some mysterious reason, millions of Middle Eastern folks now loath and detest the U.S.
In Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis are a sect that perceives most of modernity as pure evil. They don’t look fondly on the lavish lifestyles of the ruling Saud family. Marrin asserts that the government agreed to subsidize the spread of Wahhabi schools into other regions. In exchange for this funding, the Wahhabis agreed not to make trouble in Arabia — but trouble anywhere else was OK. “In short, Saudi oil profits fueled terrorism.”
Russia now controls much of the natural gas that powers Europe, and Western powers are eager for an alternative, a pipeline from the Middle East that bypasses Russian control. It would be reasonable to conclude that the coming decades are not going to be a sweet celebration of love, peace, and happiness. Expect big drama as the age of hydrocarbons swirls the drain, climate change pounds the luckless, and Big Mama Nature hurls overshoot overboard.
The rear end of Marrin’s book was annoying. The book is intended for use in schools. He recommends that the U.S. should become energy independent as soon as possible. The best solution, he says, is a combination of fossil fuels and alternative energy — solar, wind, biomass, hydro, geothermal, nuclear (no mention of sharply reducing consumption). The assumption is that independence is possible, and that the consumer way of life will be free to continue down the path of mindless self-destruction.
Teachers, librarians, and parents should have an above average understanding of energy issues before selecting books on the subject. These issues are going to have a staggering impact on the lives of the target audience, young readers. It’s long past time to sit down with youngsters and have a highly embarrassing birds-and-bees discussion about the fact that the abundant energy bubble is going to turn into a pumpkin during their lifetimes. Preserving their ignorance seems cruel.
In the book, readers learn that nuclear reactors can generate lots of electricity, but they occasionally barf large amounts of radiation all over the place. Therefore, it’s very important to properly dispose of spent fuel because it’s extremely toxic. Great idea! How? William and Rosemary Alley discussed this issue in Too Hot to Touch. They note that today “there are some 440 nuclear power plants in 31 countries. More are on the way. Yet, no country on Earth has an operating high-level waste disposal facility.”
Obama cancelled plans for the Yucca Mountain site, which was as close to perfect as is possible — after 25 years of research at a cost of $10 billion. Because it was cancelled, spent fuel rods continue building up, many of them temporarily stored in cooling ponds. If the circulating pumps for the cooling ponds stop, the water boils, the pool evaporates, and the rods are exposed to air, melt, and release radioactive gasses. The meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were triggered by overheated fuel rods.
Readers also learn that the U.S. has huge coal reserves, enough for 250 years at the current rate of consumption. To understand why this is a meaningless statement, watch one of the many versions of Albert Bartlett’s famous lecture, Arithmetic, Population, and Energy on YouTube. Every student and teacher should watch it.
Read Jeff Rubin’s book, The Big Flatline. You’ll learn that the production of top quality anthracite coal peaked in 1950, and grade B bituminous coal peaked in 1990. There is abundant grade C coal, lignite, which is especially filthy to burn. Since lignite is so low in energy, it cannot be shipped long distances profitably. It is absurd to use 100 calories of diesel to haul 100 calories of low quality coal.
This is an extremely important issue — energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). The book doesn’t mention this. EROEI is also highly relevant to oil. Rubin and others note that in the good old days of high-profit gushers, it was common to invest one calorie of energy to produce 100 calories of oil (100:1). By 2010, typical EROEI was about 17:1, and some are predicting 5:1 by 2020.
Rising prices enable the extraction of difficult and expensive non-conventional oil and gas. At some point, declining EROEI makes extraction pointless, regardless of market prices. Consequently, most of the oil in Canadian tar sands will be left where it is. The EROEI of tar sands now in production is about 3:1, and 5:1 for shale deposits.
Readers learn about renewable energy, like wind, solar, and hydro. See Ted Trainer’s book, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society. Learn about the significant shortcomings of the various types of alternative energy. Discover why no combination of them will ever come anywhere close to replacing the energy now provided by fossil fuel. Discover why we will not enjoy a smooth and painless transition to a sustainable, renewable energy future.
The education system, from grade schools to universities, seems to be largely committed to a “don’t scare the children” strategy. We don’t want to fill kids with despair about their grisly inheritance. Also, publishers want to avoid discussions that piss off poorly informed parents, or the politically powerful titans of industry. The publisher did allow Marrin to drop hints that there might be some trouble in the future. It’s a touchy game. Sales can be harmed by too little reality, or too much. The book’s takeaway message is that we have the solutions for our energy challenges, but we don’t have a lot of time to fool around. Things will be OK, probably, maybe. Is that likely?
Marrin, Albert, Black Gold: The Story of Oil in Our Lives, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2012.