Related Topics:

With world demand for oil now at a thousand barrels per second, maintaining supply is a considerable challenge. Some dire forecasts are that the world will soon run short on oil. Tertzakian makes the much more sensible but less sensational point: "We're not running out of oil ...We are, however, running short of cheap oil." He explains that ample supplies of remaining oil are to be found at the ends of the earth—deep under the ocean, locked in tar sands, and trapped in shale oil—and that the twin impact of higher prices for crude and ever-improving technology are making these more accessible. He also describes the ways in which refinements in vehicle design are likely to cut significantly the need for oil per mile moved. He explains that new-age energy shortcuts, such as hydrogen power or renewables, have to compete against a moving target, namely, the ever-improving existing pathways.

Despite his analytical emphasis on the incremental process of change to the existing energy system, Tertzakian repeatedly argues that we are reaching a "break point" in which the world will get less energy from petroleum and more from coal, natural gas, and uranium. However, the changes he describes seem less than sweeping—hardly the sort of black picture drawn by those who warn about political blackmail from oil producers, much less the environmental cataclysm forecast by those who worry about catastrophic global warming. Indeed, the most original and important contribution Tertzakian makes is providing much perspective about the grand sweep of history—rather surprising that this comes from an energy economist at a private financial firm (ARC Financial) rather than a historian. His account about the rise and fall of whale oil as an energy source is fascinating. On this point as on so many, his analysis is tempered rather than apocalyptic: He shows that while whale populations collapsed quickly, the transition to the next fuel source (kerosene) proceeded rather smoothly.

Sprinkled through the text are many useful charts, frequently showing a much longer historical context than is customary in books about contemporary problems. A few charts are peculiarly drawn (one shows a time scale which changes suddenly in mid-course from centuries to decades) and at least one (about Canadian oil production) is flat wrong (it appears to have been incorrectly converted from barrels to tons). More annoying, there is no list of charts and figures: Flipping through the book for a chart one thinks one remembers is not very satisfactory.