Noam Chomsky was in Seattle today and appeared as a guest on KUOW FM’s “Weekday,” where a caller asked for Chomsky’s opinion on peak oil. First, the host Steve Scherr asked the caller to define ‘peak oil,’ and after the description, Scher said “they should call it ‘peaked oil.'”

Chomsky’s reply: If you’re interested – I don’t know if we have time to talk about it – there’s quite an interesting article about it in the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists, in the current issue [“Oil: Caveat Empty” By Alfred J. Cavallo], which is a very serious journal, and the person who wrote it I know is very good.

He points out that Exxon/Mobil, the biggest energy corporation, and the one that’s very quiet and conservative about this, just published its forecasts, and for the first time ever, they bring this up.

What they predict is that within five years – five years – non-Opec oil will have reached the peak. Non-OPEC means U.S., Canada, and so on. Venezuela – Venezuela isn’t OPEC, but most of the non-OPEC oil producers will have leveled off. That’s five years.

And Exxon does not predict that alternative sources like tar sands, shale and so on will replace it – they think that’s way too expensive and uses too much energy in fact.

Their prediction is that it’s just going to have to come from OPEC, meaning mainly the Gulf. So the gulf states are going to have to sharply increase oil production even to meet current demand, let alone the future demand, which is rising. And that’s not a long way off, they’re talking about five years.

So yeah, this is a very serious issue, and my own guess is that if we ever get the secret documents about the planning for the Iraq war, my expectation is that these considerations will have entered significantly.

As to when you get a peak for OPEC, that’s farther off – decades, but it’s certainly real.

There’s another side to this, there’s a sense in which it’s advantageous if the oil peak is earlier. The reason why is it will compel the world, primarily the U.S. here, to move toward something like sustainable energy.

If there’s unbounded amounts of hydrocarbons, we’re just going to destroy the environment for human life or most biological life, so the earlier the peak is, in some respects – yes, it could be catastrophic, it could also be beneficial.

Host Steve Scher: So you see a silver lining?

Chomsky: There is, because the major threat is the effect we’re having on the environment, and that’s mostly through hydrocarbons.

Scher: There was a report that China was experiencing blackouts and expensive gasoline in the last week because of a shortage of oil.

Chomsky: China is probably the most polluted country in the world – you can’t see. It’s kind of a totalitarian state, so they kind of force it on people, but the level of pollution is awful, and India too.

Still in per-capita terms, the U.S. is way above anybody else, and we don’t do anything about it.

For example, I was just in Europe for a couple of weeks, and they have the same traffic jams we do, but not SUV’s. Their mileage for cars is way higher than ours. They have a public transportation system which we don’t have.

So here the rail system, which is the most efficient, has been very much underfunded for fifty years and is now being virtually eliminated. There they’re way more advanced, and Japan even more so. These are policies that HAVE to change if society is going to survive.

Noam Chomsky institute professor and professor of Linguistics at MIT. He is the author of several books including his latest, Illegal but Legitimate: A Dubious Doctrine for the Times.