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The Oil Trap

[ Here's a good introduction to the peak oil issue dredged up from the archives, first published in August 2002 ]

Nobody – not even George Bush and Dick Cheney – believes that the Earth is producing more petroleum, at least not within an interval of time or at a scale to be of any use to us or to our successors.

Everybody knows that sooner or later we will run out of oil, although only a few informed geologists even suspect how ominously soon this may be. And when it happens, the consequences may well be unimaginably catastrophic. It will be so if we do nothing at all to forestall these consequences.

The Bush administration has chosen to do nothing at all. Instead, it has chosen to increase oil consumption, thus hastening the day of reckoning.

The coming end of the petroleum age involves much more than the question of whether or not we continue to drive SUVs. Petroleum is the source of plastics, medicines, and other industrial and consumer products too numerous to mention. But most significantly, petroleum is the foundation of industrial agriculture. Thus the threatened depletion of this vital resource entails nothing less than the issue of how we or our children and grandchildren will eat – how we will survive.

Though few of us appreciate it, in a real sense all of us “eat petroleum.” Petroleum-based agriculture has reduced the proportion of the US population engaged in agriculture from about half nearly a century ago to less than two-percent today. In other words, the average American farmer feeds fifty of his compatriots, in addition to still many more abroad through our agricultural exports. He accomplishes this through the gasoline that drives his tractors and combines, and the petroleum based fertilizers and petroleum derived pesticides that he puts on his fields. Accordingly, Michael Pollan, in his revealing “Power Steer” (New York Times Magazine, March 31, 2002), estimates that a corn-fed steer “consumes” 284 gallons of petroleum in its lifetime. 

Petroleum also moves food from the fields and feed-lots to the cities and to suburban homes occupying once-productive farm land. Thus Floridians feast on salmon from Alaska, while Alaskans enjoy orange juice from Florida.

In short, our very existence depends upon what ecologist Kenneth Watt calls “the fossil fuel subsidy” – the massive import of energy into industrial agriculture from petroleum, natural gas and coal. In a speech at the first Earth Day (1970), Watt warned that:

Between 1950 and [1970] a final 11 million horses have been taken out of American agriculture and replaced by tractors powered by crude oil. Since it takes very roughly four times the acreage to support one horse as a person, this means the we have been able to add 44 million people to the American population [in those twenty years] for that one cause alone, because of a fossil fuel subsidy...

Mankind is embarked on an absolutely immense gamble. We are letting the population build up and up and up, by increasing the carrying capacity of the Earth for people, using a crude-oil energy subsidy, on the assumption that there's no inherent danger in this because when the need arises we'll be able to get ultimate sources of energy...

The world can probably support between one and four billion people at the absolute outside without a fossil-fuel energy subsidy...By the time we run out of this fossil fuel energy subsidy, there will be 10 to 20 billion people in the world... 

And how soon will “the oil crunch” appear? Several scientific sources indicate that it may happen during the current decade.

In 1956, geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that US oil production would peak in the early 1970s and thereafter decline. His projection, which was widely criticized at the time by both academics and industry, turned out to be right on target, as US production declined after 1970. Now geologist Kenneth Deffeyes (a former colleague of Hubbert), in his new book Hubbert’s Peak (Princeton University, 2001), foresees a decline in world oil production as early as 2004. Numerous analysts, publishing in such prestigious peer-reviewed journals as Science, Nature and Scientific American, concur, setting the peak at some time within this decade. (World-Watch, March/April, 2002, pp 33-4, see also Hubbert's Peak and Hubbert Peak of Oil Production).

Of course, the end of the petroleum age will not happen all at once. But as production declines, prices will rise – particularly the prices of that most oil-dependent and essential of commodities, food. Since virtually all commodities use petroleum fuel to move from production to consumption, as fuel prices rise, all commodity prices must also rise. And as the price of food and other essential commodities rise, luxuries and dispensable goods and services will drop out of the family budgets and the standard of living will decline. Economic collapse will follow.

If oil production falls precipitously and no alternative energy supply and infrastructure is available to replace petroleum, widespread starvation is a likely outcome. 

Strange to say, if there are to be any winners in the coming catastrophe, it will be third-world subsistence farmers – Juan, or Nguyen, or Hamid – who till the land that has been sustainably productive for generations, through the “primitive” method of raising food through the toil of their own labor and that of their draft animals.

Industrial civilization will not go gentle into the dark night of decline and collapse. It is one thing for the oligarchs to deprive the rest of us of our fair share of the national product, to rob us of our pensions and our Social Security, and to deprive the poor of their education and job opportunities – all this can be layered over with spin and propaganda. It is quite another matter for the masses to be deprived of their food. They will not stand for that. The coming collapse of the petroleum economy endangers us all – even the heads of the oligarchs are on the block.

Apparently, the Bushistas fail to foresee the dangers to us all, not excluding themselves. Not even “enlightened self-interest” can motivate them to take appropriate action. Instead, sharing the ill-founded faith of such cornucopian economists as Julian Simon, they presume that the sacrosanct “free market” – i.e., human ingenuity combined with economic incentives, totally “free” of government direction or “interference” – will suffice to solve all problems, including this ultimate “energy crisis.” (See “Perilous Optimism,” this site).  Assuming, of course, that they think at all about such things.

For George Bush, you see, is in effect “The Lobbyist in Chief,” not the President of all the American People. His task his not to serve us, but to serve those who by violating our right to vote and our Constitution, put him into his office. Such individuals do not believe in community, or society, or a “common good.” (“There is no such thing as ‘society,’” said Margaret Thatcher). Moreover, the corporate vision is inherently myopic. Investors are only interested in next year’s returns on their investments, and CEOs only in the remaining five years of their tenure, or at most the fifteen years of their longevity post retirement. And always there is that inevitable cop-out “we’ll think of something.” “Posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?” Apres nous, le deluge! (See our “In Search of Sustainable Values” ). 

The future looks dismal – but it is not inevitably so. Unfortunately, almost nothing is being done by the Bush administration to avoid this dreadful fate. Instead, Bush and his allies have successfully defeated increased fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards and have cut funds for research and development of alternative energy sources.

And it is through these alternative sources that we might escape the coming “oil trap.” 

The most promising sources of new energy are the sun, hydrogen, and biomass. Some thirty years ago, Barry Commoner calculated that an area less than the size of Arizona could, through solar energy, produce more than the current US energy needs. I once calculated that if I covered the roof of my southern California home with solar cells, I could, with adequate storage facilities, supply all my household electrical needs, with surplus watts to send to the power company. Solar panels produce electricity directly, and that electricity can, in turn, produce hydrogen through electrolysis – a process familiar to all high-school chemistry students.

Which brings us to hydrogen – the combustion product of which is water (i.e., zero pollution, zero greenhouse effect). Hydrogen, however, like electricity, is a “secondary” energy source – it takes energy to produce the energy (usually from the inexhaustible source of water). As noted, electricity is the primary source, and it can be supplied from non-polluting, non-fossil fuel sources such as solar power and hydropower.

Finally, there is biomass, which, as it decomposes, produces such fuel products as methane and methanol. Methane, which is released from farm animals, swamps and garbage dumps, is a powerful greenhouse gas. Far better that it be used as a fuel, the combustion products of which are water and carbon dioxide. (This CO2, unlike that from fossil fuels, is a benign greenhouse gas, since it is obtained from carbon presently cycling in the ecosystem rather than geologically sequestered deposits). Technology over a century old, can, through “anaerobic digesters,” convert raw sewage, animal wastes, and agricultural waste, into methane, methanol and organic fertilizer.

What is missing in all this is an infrastructure, which, in turn, can only result from a full commitment to and investment in the transition to a post-petroleum economy. Only when a hydrogen or fuel-cell car can count on a network of refueling stations within driving range of each other, will the public purchase post-petroleum cars. Only when farm machinery is fueled with cheap and abundant non-fossil fuels (hydrogen, or methanol, etc.) and when organic fertilizer is widely employed, will the coming famine be safely averted.

To their credit, some major auto companies are engaged in significant research into fuel-cell technology, as are such energy companies as Shell and British Petroleum. (Keep that in mind, next time you fill up). But this is all too little, and unless significantly augmented, will prove to be too late.

In short, we can avert the catastrophic consequences of the inevitable end of the petroleum age through an international government sponsored “Manhattan Project.” But this will require massive investments in research and infrastructures. None of this is being done, or even contemplated, by the “gas-house gang” that controls the White House and the Congress. 

The escape from catastrophe will require collective and cooperative effort in behalf of the common good and the distant future – and the very word “collective” raises, in the American mind, the spectre of socialism or even communism. Such is the legacy of the successful attack on “government” by Reagan and his successors. Thus have we been effectively alienated from the potential source of our salvation.

Hopefully, the 2002 election will give us a Democratic Congress that will restore funding for the research, development and infrastructure of alternative energy sources. Beyond that, we may have to wait another two years, following the defeat of George Bush in 2004, to initiate appropriate measures to avert the coming collapse of industrial civilization. Surely we can wait no longer than that.

If, somehow, George Bush is re-elected in 2004 and persists in his policies, thus failing to use the remaining oil reserves to build a bridge to the post-petroleum age, devastation will ensue and the civilized condition and all its advantages may follow the dinosaurs into extinction.

Copyright 2002 by Ernest Partridge
The Online Gadfly
www.igc.org/gadfly

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