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As crude prices soar, 'Peak Oil' looms

Of all the doom and gloom scenarios out there - jobs to China, global warming, nuclear terrorism - few are as real as the end of cheap oil.

And with crude going for a record $44 a barrel, what better time to consider the question?

Richard Heinberg, the California-based author of "The Party's Over" gave a fascinating presentation on oil and the economy earlier this summer during the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair in Custer, Wis. His comments are also available on the RENEW Wisconsin Web site.

Heinberg called the global embrace of hydrocarbons "the biggest party in world history" and noted that the U.S. has been at the center because of its own vast oil reserves.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. was sitting on the second largest share of the world's petroleum. Only Saudi Arabia was blessed with more recoverable oil.

The U.S. achieved global dominance in large part, Heinberg argues, by running through its own vast reserves of oil and natural gas like there was no tomorrow. He says the flow of petroleum from states like Texas, Oklahoma and California helped build the world's largest economy and rewarded its people with unprecedented wealth and mobility.

Unfortunately, as the book title suggests, the party is indeed about to end. The Baby Boom generation in its lifetime has watched the country burn through about 75 percent of its original oil supply. It's a fact Heinberg said few Americans are willing to face.

Today, as U.S. demand for crude oil continues to rise, nearly 60 percent of the nation's 20 million barrel per day consumption is imported. That's one reason for the nation's $500 billion annual trade deficit and why the U.S. has found itself amid the insanity in the Mideast.

But Heinberg said we're now facing the imminent arrival of what scientists call "Peak Oil" - defined as the day when oil production peaks.

Peak oil is a concept introduced by M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist who gained notoriety for his prediction that oil extraction in the lower 48 states would reach its zenith between 1966 and 1972 and then decline. Ridiculed by oil industry executives and the U.S. government, Hubbert turned out to be pretty accurate. Domestic extraction peaked in 1970 and has fallen since by two-thirds, although output from Prudhoe Bay and deep-water wells in the Gulf of Mexico has flattened the decline slightly.

So has the world hit "peak oil?" Opinions vary on how much recoverable oil is left but most experts agree that about one trillion barrels have been pumped. Pessimists say that represents about one-half of the resource; optimists say it's closer to one-third.

In either case, Heinberg is more interested in how Americans respond to peak oil than the actual date. The implications are far more sweeping than simply paying another dollar a gallon at the pump.

"Shrinking volumes of petroleum not only mean less gasoline, diesel oil, and jet fuel, but also smaller crop harvests and more expensive food," Heinberg warned.

Unfortunately, the government response to date can be summed up by the arrogance of Vice President Dick Cheney, who has said "The American way of life is non-negotiable."

Instead of any real discussion of the issue, there are symbolic gestures like calls to expand drilling in northern Alaska to give the impression that the government is on the case and citizens are safe from enduring any sacrifice or hardship.

But as any petroleum geologist will tell you, a few new straws stuck into the Alaskan tundra will have as much effect on global oil supplies as rain dances on the Sahara Desert's climate.

Mike Ivey is a business reporter at The Capital Times. He can be reached at 252-6431 or at mivey@madison.com

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