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Drilling Down: USU's Joseph Tainter Releases New Book on Energy Crisis

Thursday, Sep. 15, 2011

book cover for Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma

USU professor Joseph Tainter, a renowned scholar of societal collapse, is co-author of a new book that details the Deepwater Horizon disaster and explores society's energy challenges.

USU professor Joseph Tainter

USU professor Joseph Tainter, a renowned scholar of societal collapse, is co-author of a new book that details the Deepwater Horizon disaster and explores society's energy challenges.

On April 20, 2010, a blast aboard the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform killed 11 workers, critically injured others and caused a leak that spewed thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for more than three months. Cited in a government report this week [Sept 12] as one of worst environmental disasters in history, the deadly catastrophe forms the context of a new book by Utah State University professor Joseph Tainter and co-author Tadeusz “Tad” Patzek of the University of Texas-Austin that explores society’s current energy crisis and calls for discussion on future energy solutions.

Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma, details the specific causes of the Deepwater calamity and offers commentary on energy and society, energy and history, as well as energy in the future. The book is scheduled for release Sept. 30, 2011, by Copernicus Books, an imprint of global scientific publisher Springer.

“The book is written in two parts,” says Tainter, professor in USU’s Department of Environment and Society. “My co-author, Tad, is a petroleum engineer and provides a detailed explanation — moment by moment, in some parts — of how the Deepwater disaster unfolded. I discuss the broader implications of our dependence on fossil fuels and the challenges and risks we face as we look to the future.”

As the world grows increasingly complex, it needs more energy but finding oil and gas and bringing it out is becoming more difficult and expensive, Tainter says.

“It takes energy to find and produce energy and the world’s remaining, untapped petroleum reserves are in deep, dark, cold, remote and dangerous locations,” he says. “We need highly complex technology and equipment to meet our energy demands.”

In the 1940s, when the U.S. petroleum industry hit its stride, the net cost to produce oil and gas was about 100 to one.

“It cost about one barrel of oil to produce 100 barrels of oil,” Tainter says. “Today, that ratio is about 15 to one in the United States. Though it varies throughout the world, the trend is clear. Energy is becoming very costly in terms of resources, safety and environmental health.”

Alternative energy provides a possible solution, but is a challenge to implement, he says.

“We have some hurdles to clear with the infrastructure needed to make renewable energy a viable replacement for fossil fuels,” Tainter says. “Alternatives such as biomass, solar and wind power require large land acquisitions and a distribution network that doesn’t yet exist.”

Oil has fueled an unprecedented standard of living in the United States and many parts of the world, but it won’t last forever, says the historian and anthropologist whose 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, remains a definitive work on societal collapse. As societies grow more complex through the bounty of cheap energy, Tainter says, they also confront problems that seem to increase in number and severity.

“Looking into the past, we can see that cheap energy and increasing complexity have contributed to a mutually reinforcing spiral,” he says. “We’ve become dependent on an energy source that can’t sustain us indefinitely and we have to figure out what to do about it.”

Related links:

Contact: Joseph Tainter, 435-797-0842,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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