The Empty Tank
The Empty Tank: Oil, Gas, Hot Air, and The Coming Global
Financial Catastrophe. By Jeremy Leggett. New York: Random House,
2005. 239 pages.
This is a well-done introduction to the problem of "peak
oil." Since I’ve already read a number of other such
introductions, perhaps I’m a bit jaded by now at reading yet another
exposition of the subject, so I look for ways in which this book is
different from, e. g. Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over,
Kenneth Deffeyes’ Beyond Oil, and Matthew Simmons’ Twilight
in the Desert. Heinberg’s book, in the crowd of people I run
around with, is coming to be cited as the "standard"
introduction to the subject of peak oil. Deffeyes has a more analytical
/ mathematical slant, and Simmons adds considerable knowledge of Saudi
Arabia. So how is Leggett’s book different? I found several new
The first difference is Leggett himself — a
geologist turned Greenpeace activist and global warming activist.
Not everyone who believes in global warming these days (which is just
about everyone except our Fearless Leader) buys into the concept of
"peak oil," and there have been reports of criticisms of
"peak oil" in global warming circles. Jeremy Leggett is
best known precisely because he is so active in spreading awareness of
global warming. He first became well known to me because of The
Carbon War, which made the politics of global warming into a
fascinating and dramatic narrative.
Leggett understands the need to communicate to a wider
audience. He keeps the discussion both intelligent and engaging,
so he interrupts his factual discussions with little stories that
illustrate his point. His trip to Baluchistan in search of oil, the
pipes freezing in his home during the British coal strike of 1980, his
first meeting with Matthew Simmons — all these provide little
vignettes which give you more insight into what is going on in his mind.
Finally, there is also a discussion of global warming, for which Leggett is quite
qualified to provide us with an overview. He provides an account of the
history of the attitudes towards fossil fuel consumption, showing
ignorance at first and then complicity afterwards.
He has, interestingly, both optimistic and pessimistic conclusions.
The last chapter states that we can replace fossil fuels with renewable
energy, though not in time to avoid a serious economic crunch. There
will be a point at which, he projects, it will suddenly become obvious
that we are past the peak of oil supplies, and then we will see runaway
gasoline prices. He says that there will be a great temptation to turn
to coal as a substitute for declining oil and natural gas supplies —
something which we must try to avoid at all costs. He does not have any extensive discussion of either food problems or
population problems. On balance, Leggett
seems to a bit more optimistic about the continuation of civilization
than other discussions, though what he says is sobering enough.
So I would recommend this book for everyone. If you have read
a dozen "peak oil" books already, this one will not provide any
startling new revelations, but it does provide an interesting perspective on the
problem and reinforces the belief that we're not just hallucinating this
whole "peak oil" problem — which is reassuring given the
almost solid wall of disbelief received from this concept of limits to
oil from many quarters.
December 22, 2005