The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy
March 29, 2005

The Program on Science, Technology, America, and the Global Economy (STAGE) recently hosted a discussion with Peter Huber on his self-described heretical new book, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy. Michael L. Telson, Director of National Laboratory Affairs for the University of California provided commentary.

An oil deposit of 1.6 trillion barrels (the world's largest) lies not in politically troubled Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or Iraq, but under Athabasca tar sands in Alberta. Unfortunately, current technological limitations, environmental concerns, market forces, and politics prevent us from taking full advantage of this deposit that would fuel the United States for the next 100 years. Fortunately, says Huber, oil will not be the dominant fuel of the next economy. Currently, coal, uranium, and gas used in the production of electricity account for 60% of our energy use, and as every one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy is driven by electricity, the use of and importance of these fuels will only increase. Even transportation, a sector dominated by oil, is switching to the electrical grid, especially as cars become, in Huber's words, "Cuisinarts on wheels." We are not tossing aside the internal combustion engine yet, but every other part of the automobile is turning electrical. Huber suggested a convergence of the infrastructure of the oil and non-oil sectors within the next 10 years.

Americans spend $400 billion per year on raw fuel, but spend $500 billion on engineering hardware to use that fuel to produce electricity, motion, etc. Currently, one third of the cost of electricity is raw fuel, and uranium comprises only one tenth of the price of nuclear power. As technology becomes more sophisticated, those ratios will become more lopsided, heralding the twilight of fuel. Without a trace of irony, Huber suggested that the "cost of fuel is irrelevant," pointing out that we barely consider it when using our products (Americans who will spend $60,000 on an SUV and $5000 on a plasma TV think little about the price of gas and less about their electric bills).

Huber was skeptical of the campaigns for conservation and improved efficiency with the goal of reducing energy consumption. He suggested that as efficiency lowers costs, consumption actually rises, pointing to the experience of airlines, their ever more efficient jet engines, and their ever increasing passenger manifests and flights. Taking a contrarian view, he argued that if one were serious about reducing consumption, products and processes should be made more inefficient.

Michael L. Telson admitted that since he had a similar background TO Huber's, he agreed with the bulk of his argument: energy in the long run is essential and desirable. However, borrowing from Keynes, he noted that "in the long run we're all dead," and criticized the book as unhelpful in solving short term problems, and undervalued the importance of energy efficiency. However, this laboratory director and former DOE official found Huber's "stress on innovation and infinite creativity" was "exactly on point," and hoped for more support for interesting research, such as nanotechnology, catalysts, bacteria, and other technology that could play a role in reducing waste and harmful byproducts. He also noted that the book did not pay enough attention to security concerns and how they warrant a push for the end of energy dependence.

During the discussion, an audience member noted that it took us 10,000 years to use our first 1 trillion barrels of oil; but we will burn our next 1 trillion in 35. Huber rebutted by noting that people have been predicting an energy crisis for decades, partly because they never forecast the development of new technologies, such as computerized drills that seek oil and dig wells in all directions dozens of miles underground. For Huber, "the calculus always ends up a positive sum game," and the "fallacy is to assume we've thought of it all." But another audience member warned that "the real message of the boy who cried wolf is that the wolf [eventually] showed up."

Huber defended the hydrocarbon economy, calling it "the best thing to happen to the North American environment." He contrasted the "tiny footprints" mining and drilling leave with the massive deforestation necessary for the carbohydrate economy of our past and much of the current third world. However, his medium term solution to meeting growing energy needs is nuclear power. Huber argued that nuclear energy is "fantastically frugal with materials," pointing out that a "Dupont Circle apartment can hold enough fuel rods to power the Metro area for years." He held little concern for the issues of pollution (burning coal and gas produce and send more radioactive emissions into our atmosphere) or safety (the relatively centralized nature and small scale of the plants and their waste mean that securing them only requires pouring more concrete around them) concerning atomic energy, calling these issues political and not engineering problems.