Book Review: A Thousand Barrels a Second

by: Justice Litle

A Thousand Barrels a Second: The Coming Oil Break Point and the Challenges Facing an Energy Dependent World
by Peter Tertzakian

Aug 2007

It feels appropriate to review this book as crude oil futures hit all-time contract highs, in the vicinity of $79 a barrel. The 1980 inflation-adjusted highs for crude (roughly $100 per barrel in today's money) are just around the corner in geopolitical terms.

In the book's title, "A Thousand Barrels a Second" refers to the point at which world oil demand exceeds 86 million barrels per day. (86.4 to be exact -- there are 86,400 seconds in one day). The International Energy Agency [IEA] believes the 86 million threshold could be crossed this year.

The "Coming Oil Break Point" refers to the aftermath of crisis and inevitable forced change. Tertzakian explains:

...the history of energy shows that a time of crisis is always followed by a defining break point, after which government policies, and social and technological forces, begin to rebalance the structure of the world's vast energy complex. Break points are crucial junctures marked by dramatic changes in the way energy is used.

During the break point and the rebalancing phase that follows (which can last for 10 to 20 years), nations struggle for answers, consumers suffer and complain, the economy adapts, and science surges with innovation and discovery. In the era that emerges, lifestyles change, businesses are born, and fortunes are made.

I read the entire book on one leg of a coast-to-coast plane trip, a feat made possible by the clarity and lucidity of Tertzakian's writing. He excels at laying out detailed concepts in ways that are easy for the reader to grasp and understand, and paints a convincing picture of the significant challenges we face.

cover-atbasTertzakian firmly grounds his argument in history, explaining what he calls the "evolutionary energy cycle" through the lens of past transitions. At one point we journeyed to the ends of the earth for whale oil, just as we do for "rock oil" (the literal meaning of petroleum) today. In the switch from wood to coal, tallow to whale oil, whale oil to kerosene, and so on, predictable aspects of the evolutionary energy cycle begin to emerge.

In addition to outlining the situation we're in, Tertzakian gives a fascinating, though brief, history of the oil industry. He covers the rise of Rockefeller's Standard Oil, its eventual breakup, the curious origins of Saudi Aramco, the British Navy's fateful switch from coal to oil, energy's role in respect to railroads and WWII, and more.

In my opinion, Tertzakian can be classified as an Urgent Simonist.* The word "Urgent" is meant to distinguish from the "Pollyanna" Simonists -- those who believe technology will magically solve our energy problems with no real pain or discomfort.

On the emotional subject of peak oil, there are two extremes of debate. At one end you have those who think civilization is doomed no matter what (the viewpoint of cheery websites like At the other end, you have those who think peak oil will be shaken off like a mild head cold.

Tertzakian helps bridge the gap between these extremes by explaining that yes, the challenge is serious, and gut-wrenching times are ahead... but we will ultimately see our way through. He is "urgent" in pointing out that the sooner we act the better, and pulls no punches in terms of what's at stake.

Perhaps the real power of "A Thousand Barrels A Second" is in showing readers how to think about the big picture, orienting them to the mind-boggling mechanics of energy supply chains.

There are so many steps and processes involved in the discovery, extraction, and distribution of energy that supply chains generally evolve at a glacial pace. Major energy transitions are measured in decades, not years; the scale and scope of the task is breathtaking to behold. Without taking a closer look behind the scenes, it's hard to get an intuitive sense of the time frames and logistical complexities involved. Tertzakian helps readers do that.

In sum, if you truly want to understand the energy issues we face -- or at least get a handle on the key elements -- I strongly recommend this book. It could also make an excellent gift for those friends and colleagues locked in one of the "extreme" camps, i.e. "what me worry" vs. "we're all going to die." (The book might not change their mind, but it will certainly make them think.)

I too consider myself an Urgent Simonist -- we'll make it through, but only with serious pain -- and believe that Tertzakian succeeds in his goal of providing "a highly researched and balanced assessment of our energy situation."

*Julian Simon, an influential economist, wrote a book in 1981 called The Ultimate Resource, in which he argued that technology and human ingenuity would always ensure an abundance of raw materials. In 1980, he also made a famous wager that a basket of base metals would fall in price, rather than rise, over a significant period of time. He won the bet. Ever since, those who believe in the power of innovation to overcome doomsday scarcity predictions have been dubbed "Simonists."