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Sheila Newman (Ed.) The Final Energy Crisis, 2nd Edition - A Review

The The Final Energy Crisis (2nd edition), Pluto Press, UK, 2008 is a book like no other on the topic of energy and peak oil of which I am aware.

It went well beyond the usual formulaic basics and it satisfied my appetite for stimulation rather than repetition and reinforcement. It is designed to be read in parts and in no particular order. However, nearly all of the articles are a subject in their own right, to be absorbed and considered slowly. The sections and chapters are:

1. Introduction by Sheila Newman

Part I: Measuring Our Predicament

2. 101 Views from Hubbert's Peak by Sheila Newman
3. Prediction of World Peak Oil Production by Seppo Korpela
4. The Assessment and Importance of Oil Depletion by Colin Campbell
5. Coal Resources of the World by Seppo Korpela

Part II: Geopolitics

6. The Caspian Chimera by Colin Campbell
7. Update to the Caspian Chimera by Sheila Newman
8. The Battle of the Titans by Mark Jones
9. Dark Continent, Black Gold by Andrew McKillop
10. The Chinese Car Bomb by Andrew McKillop
11. Venezuela, Chavez and Latin american Oil on the World Stage by Sheila Newman

Part III: The Big Picture - False Solutions, Hopes and Fears

12. No Choice but International Energy Transition by Andrew McKillop
13. Population, Energy and Economic Growth: The Moral Dilemma by
14. by Ross McCluney
15. Peak Soil by Alice Friedemann
16. Notes on Terra Preta by Sheila Newman
17. Nuclear Fission Power Options by Sheila Newman
18. Fusion Ilusions by Michael Dittmar
19. Geothermal by Sheila Newman

Part IV: After Oil

20. France and Australia After Oil by Sheila Newman
21. North Korea: The Limits of Fossil-Energy Based Agricultural Systems by Antony Boys
22. How will Japan Feed itself without Fossil Energy? by Antony Boys
23. The Simpler Way by Ted Trainer
24. In the End: Thermodynamics and the Necessity of Protecting the Natural World by Sheila Newman

Like other books on the subject of 'peak oil' The Final Energy Crisis, (with engineering professor, Seppo Korpela and oil geophysicist Colin Campbell) does examine and test Hubbert's theory - for gas and coal as well as oil (and gives you the maths to test yourself in an appendix) - but the book doesn't stop with the usual (updated) depletion curves.

It is really the beginning of the elaboration of a new paradigm, which seriously examines (among other possibilities) nuclear fusion, nuclear fission, geothermal, terra preta/agrichar and the logistics of energy distribution in different social systems. It is like most books before this were explaining that society depends on fossil-fuels, but this book assumes you know that, and discusses the world within that knowledge perspective. It is for people who have already looked into the subject broadly but would like help to understand the limitations of different proposed technologies and political solutions. I read somewhere that the Editor had said that it was written for people who dealt with problems and fear by learning as much as they could.

Not limited to the 1000 word article or the one minute sound-bite, it also engages relevantly in original and sophisticated geopolitical and economic analysis, for instance about the history and future of Latin American oil and the possibility of realignments among ex-Soviet Union and third-world oil and gas producers.

The "Battle of the Titans", written in 2002 by the late Mark Jones, and also included in the first edition, is a prophetic piece which shows how the reckless and wasteful 'free market' energy policies since the days of President Reagan have caused the economy of the US to have become vastly less efficient than those of Europe and Russia. In coming months and years the energy vulnerability of the US will compound the problems caused by the collapse of its finance sector.

Newman assumes that her readers will be intelligent and adventurous and doesn't limit her authors to basic reviews of simple flow-energy technologies. Rather, she invites us to jump in the deep end and follow particle physicist, Michael Dittmar, as he dissects nuclear fusion technology in the 10 billion Euro International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project on the basis of the durability of nuclear 'carpets' and the half-life of tritium.

Dittmar's description of the staggeringly complex and difficult technical problems to be overcome before the dream of unlimited cheap power held out by the proponents of nuclear fusion is to be realised left me in little doubt that further expenditure on ITER is a massive wast of public resources.

Similarly, in the chapter, "Peak Soil", Alice Friedemann, shows, in a lively and pithy analysis, that industrial bio-fuel production on a large scale will only make our energy and environmental circumstances worse and not better. Friedemann plunges head-first into a meter of topsoil to see the damage which destroying crop-stubble for cellulosic ethanol might pose to world food supply by destroying an environment which supports "ten 'biomass horses' underground for every horse grazing. Sadly, some of Friedemann's forebodings have become reality in recent months as the diversion of agricultural production to bio-fuels has caused food shortages in many countries.

Other technologies, which are somewhat more promising than the above two described in the book are geothermal and the other more familiar forms of renewable energy such as wind, solar, hydro-electric, tidal, etc, and even nuclear fission. However, as Ross McCluney shows in the chapter "Renewable Energy Limits", all have their limitations and problems. Ultimately we have no choice but to scale back our consumption of energy. We must certainly dispense with any expectation that we can continue to raise both our own material living standards and those in the Third World in a planet with an ever increasing population.

Nuclear fission writing is usually limited to very polemical argument for or contra. These polemics are discarded and nuclear is examined from a host of unusual perspectives, including the importance of trade economics and income from fuel recycling in preserving certain nuclear proliferation treaties, the influence of insurance costs in preserving old designs, why no-one is building thorium fueled fast breeder-reactors, but why India might take a lead in breeder reactor technology and thorium fuel. Newman admits that it is very difficult to evaluate the costs and returns of nuclear power plants, including the dangers, but describes a relatively simple method by which one might begin to evaluate and compare any fuel source and technology, including nuclear.

In the chapter "How Will Japan Feed Itself Without Fossil Energy", agricultural scientist, Antony Boys explores Japan's carrying capacity in the Edo period (1603-1867) and contrasts it with import reliance and nitrogen overload in the twenty-first century.

Already some societies have been forced to confront the challenge of depletion of fossil fuel, particularly petroleum. Two examples are given, both from the 'socialist' camp, Cuba and North Korea; one reputedly successful, the other a disaster. As Cuba transformed itself, in the 1990's, to cope with a dramatic drop in oil imports following the collapse of the Communist bloc in 1989, North Korea, also without its own deposits of gas or oil, descended into famine when its imported oil and gas supplies fell by more than 50% after 1990. This is described in the Chapter "North Korea: The limits of Fossil Energy-Based Agricultural Systems" by Antony Boys.

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Sheila Newman, in the chapter "France and Australia after oil", raises the "Cuban solution" as an example of the principle of relocalisation. After analysing pre-fossil fuel France and her options for the future, Newman makes surprising and frightening political predictions for Australia, based on whether it adopts relocalisation or 'big' power options, such as nuclear and massive coal-operations. She identifies the big power options with the interests of infrastructure development lobby groups that are promoting big power developments in the expectation that these will service huge new cities of new immigrant consumers, supplied by Australia's huge and unpopular mass immigration program. Newman points out that the democratic interests of Australians are unlikely to be served by these corporate agendas, which she notes have also distorted the Australian water supply situation. She also seriously questions the costs of financing such schemes and the logistics of building and maintaining them. Reading her analysis, one starts to seriously doubt that the 'important people' who decide these things have actually done the maths.

For me, this is one of those rare books which left few questions begging. It seems as if the editors and the contributors had already gone nearly everywhere I had intended to go and a good many other places, besides, and had thoroughly researched the issues and thought through the questions posed. The orthodoxies of the mainstream environment movement and scientific community are held up to critical scrutiny and often rejected. This is particularly the case with the last two sections which are focused on proposed solutions and future prospects. Andrew McKillop's critique of 'free market' 'solutions' to the energy crisis, in particular the 'carbon finance and credits circus', in the chapter "No Choice But International Energy Transition" was particularly satisfying.

This is an enlightening rather than a depressing book. The editor, who writes the introductions for each section, has a good feeling for the absurd and finds humour and hope in unusual places. A message comes through not to panic, but to think. For all the absurd beliefs and ugly outlooks exposed by the various authors in this book, we find hope in unusual and unexpected places and a sense that, although answers will not necessarily come from the expected authorities, and the problems we face are extraordinary, there are ways we could slow down the crisis to a manageable pace, there are choices about the values that dictate our decisions, and politics are important.

See also: Review of The Final Energy Crisis by Mark O'Connor author of Overloading Australia (RRP AU$20) on page 8 of the December 2008 newsletter (pdf 923K) of Sustainable Population Australia, other customer reviews at

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The world now consumes 85 million barrels of oil per day, or 40,000 gallons per second, and demand is growing exponentially.

Oil production in 33 out of 48 out countries has now peaked, including Kuwait, Russia and Mexico.

A report by Citigroup says Gulf kingdom consumes a lot of its own major export and may have no oil exports in 18 years. Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, could become an oil importer by 2030. It also consumes 25% of its production. Energy consumption per capita exceeds that of most industrial nations.
Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and violence in eastern Ukraine have rattled oil markets, keeping benchmark Brent futures near $108 a barrel after hitting $112.39 on March 3, the highest this year.

Saudi is faced with such a severe natural gas shortage that half of its electricity production now comes from oil. The critical question that dominated the minds of more than 450 Arab scientists who met for the first conference of Arab expatriate scientists was how citizens in the Gulf region could maintain sustainable development when their natural wealth of oil and gas runs out.

Saudi has recently undertaken a remarkably ambitious and expensive plan – to become a world leader in technology and innovation by kicking its oil habit, shifting away from decades of single-commodity dependency and moving towards a knowledge-based economy by 2025.

Graduate and PhD students at Kaust’s New Ventures programme are given both encouragement and financing to find solutions to pressing problems such as water treatment and renewable energy.

Shaikha Mouzah Bint Nasser Al Missned, wife of the Emir of Qatar, on Thursday urged Arab scientists in Doha to put trust in her vision and help her develop Qatar into a knowledge-based society.

Meanwhile, here is Australia, we are almost completely dependent on imported oil - yet our governments are still in the growth and road stages of future-ignorance. Australia is the ninth largest energy producer in the world but would run out of petrol in just three weeks if imports were interrupted. A new report claims Australia's fuel supply is a national security issue and urges the government to save the oil refining industry. Our governments are building road, tunnels, bridges and supply chains based on petrol and oil, and "growth" in the economy based on a cornucopia dream of endless energy supplies.

Australia's Fuel Security, commissioned by the NRMA last year, found that Australia imports 91 per cent of its fuel, up from around 60 per cent in 2000. Twenty-eight per cent of the refining industry is set to close by the end of this year, according to retired Air Vice Marshal John Blackburn. The former deputy head of the RAAF also accused previous reviews of energy security of being purely economic.

'This is a national security, a national survival issue in the longer term,' he said. No-one's looked at the vulnerability of our supply chains. We are locked into growth, of populations expanding, and being more reliant on petrol and fuels, without a plan B!

Fuel Security: Australia