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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 angles here.

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.

Keith Akers
December 22, 2005

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