A plague that makes no one sick
For Petroleum News
“Black Monday,” a novel by R. Scott Reiss. Published by Simon & Schuster. 352 pages. Released February 2007. Price: $25 hardback.
This rather bleak novel is a thought-provoking account of 55 days of incipient anarchy and chaos. It takes place at the present time in the Washington, D.C., area and on the eastern seaboard of the United States. The mayhem is the result of the microbic contamination of most of the world’s oil supply.
Like most plagues this one happens very suddenly and spreads with unbelievable rapidity. The microbe involved attacks crude oil and refined hydrocarbon products and quite simply prevents them from working in combustion engines. As a result airplanes fall from the sky, vehicles stall and cannot be restarted, and disorganization and panic quickly ensue.
Fortunately, the somewhat flawed hero of the novel, Dr. Gregory Gillette of the Center for Disease Control, is a man of great imagination and tenacity. He follows his intuition to a degree that makes him a dubious employee, and while doing so he leads the reader through a convincing explanation of the origin and characteristics of the evolution of the bacterium or microbe that is causing the problem.
This is a novel, so the plague is not just an accident of mutation. The microbe is being exploited by an evil foreigner who employs a ruthless, but skilled killer to spice up the action and endanger Dr. Gillette. In fact some of the action reads more like a movie script. It is therefore no surprise that the author, R. Scott Reiss, is described as a Hollywood screenwriter and that the book has already been optioned by Paramount Pictures. The book has many moments of suspense and action, but I suspect it would make an even better movie.
But this book is not about thrills or science or even the societal reliance on petroleum. It is about human nature. How will we react if we are denied oil? After all, automobiles and airplanes are only about 100 years old. Many of us still remember walking to school and huddling around the hearth of a wood or coal fire. The author is convinced we have forgotten such past habits, and if the transportation infrastructure of America were brought to a halt we would quickly revert to rather unpleasant, animallike behavior. In the 55 days of the crisis America is burnt and looted and firearms become necessary for survival. Government barely functions. It abandons Washington, D.C. Fortunately, electricity, made from coal or nuclear power allows some trains to run and the lights to work. Moving food to the public seems to be an insurmountable problem; consequently the Washington, D.C., zoo animals serve a function that was not originally intended.
Perhaps, the recent aftermaths of the hurricanes Katrina and Rita give some credence to these dour scenarios. I hope not.
In truth there are some thoroughly good and caring people in this story. So not all is as dark as the title, Black Monday, would suggest. However, it would be reassuring if one could say that the so-called Delta-3 bacteria that cause all the trouble do not and cannot exist in real life. If so we don’t have to worry about the societal breakdowns described in the novel.
Unfortunately, oil fields and pipelines are full of such bugs, and some of them can do nasty things to steel and machinery. So far, nothing approaching the destructive power of Delta-3 has been discovered, but perhaps history can be a guide.
The Black Death probably killed at least a third of the known world’s population from 1347 to 1351. Even today there is no exact certainty as to the identity of the bacterium that caused the outbreak, but it was undoubtedly spread by fleas from rats and originated in Southeast Asia. The history of those times records dramatic effects on the behavior of civilized Europeans, varying from the bacchanalian happenings of “The Decameron,” to the senseless persecution of Jews, Muslims and lepers.
The Black Death died out on its own, but was followed at regular generational intervals by Bubonic plague outbreaks in the major cities of Europe.
In the aftermath of the First World War, in which more than 9 million soldiers and civilians died, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 killed somewhere between 20 million and 40 million people around the world. It was commonly called Spanish Flu because about 8 million people died from it in Spain in the first months of the epidemic. The war undoubtedly helped it spread, and more than 10 times as many Americans died from the influenza than were killed in the war.
The virus was thought to have originated in China from a genetic mutation that simply bypassed all the immunity mechanisms in humans, killing indiscriminately.
Can such unpredictable and dramatic changes occur to microbes in oil? Probably, but the scenario in the book where Delta-3 can survive 2000 degrees and thus escape destruction by the refining process that produces gasoline and other useable products from crude oil sounds highly unlikely.
But the author acknowledges the theories of Dr. Thomas Gold, who, in a controversial 1992 paper, “The Deep Hot Biosphere,” postulated that hydrocarbons were “not biology reworked by geology” (ancient organic materials compressed and heated over geological time), but rather “geology reworked by biology.” According to Gold and Soviet scientists before him, crude oil originates at extreme depths and migrates upward through deep fracture networks. Bacteria feeding on the oil at such depths accounts for the presence of biological debris in hydrocarbons.
Gold’s theory is a minority opinion, especially among geologists, but bacteria have since been found in rocks three kilometers (1.8 miles) beneath the earth’s surface, an environment previously thought to be totally inhospitable to life. So perhaps Delta-3 is not so far fetched after all.
More applicable to real life is the social and political reaction to the shortages of oil in the novel. It is fair to say that politicians in America are quite devoid of leadership in regard to our energy future. It really doesn’t matter what causes the oil shortage, be it the peaking of world oil, an evil demagogue or a nasty bacterium.
What is certain is that oil shortages will be part of our normal life before too long, and we all need to think about how we are going to react. Perhaps reading this book will start that thought process and make us realize that anarchy is not an option. It will also supply a few hours of entertainment.