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Politics after the Peak

There is little doubt the effects of peak oil will someday soon radically change the political landscape in America—and nearly everywhere else for that matter. It is still a little too early to say when oil depletion will start appearing in political equations. If we have a particularly bad summer as some suggest, then "gas prices" could feature prominently in our November 2006 mid-term elections. If predictions of peaking within the next couple of years are correct, then energy policy likely will be a major factor in the 2008 presidential election. If peaking slips a bit then it is almost certain that the 2012 and 2016 elections will be fought over nothing else.

From the vantage of April 2006, it would be folly to speculate on the details of elections taking place months or years from now. A new "Peak Oil Party" could emerge to lead us out of the darkness (literally) or the same old Republicans and Democrats, retooled for the post-oil era, could compete for our votes. America could emerge from a decade or two of converting to new lifestyles as a new and stronger democracy, or the demise of the oil age could be too much of a strain for our current political arrangements. However, there is a lot of recorded history around for insight and human nature being human nature, a few general observations might be in order.

One of the most disturbing things I have read recently pointed out how hard it is for people to radically change a way of life. The writer noted how in 1860 when the South was threatened by abolition, an entire generation picked up arms and marched off to endure terrible sufferings in order to protect a way of life from which few benefited directly.

Equally disturbing is how a significant portion the German middle class embraced the Nazi Party after their economic well-being was wiped out by hyperinflation.

Given the love affair that Americans, and everybody else in the world that can afford one, have with cars, giving them up is going to be the collective trauma of a lifetime. Polls tell us a vast majority of car owners say they will drive to their last dollar or until there simply is no choice.

From a political point of view, such a strong emotional and lifestyle attachment is fertile ground for demagoguery. The Congress already has summoned the oil executives to lecture them before the cameras about high gasoline prices. Various states have passed anti-price gouging bills to make it look as if they are doing something. The administration has declared an "Advanced Energy Initiative" which throws a few million dollars at a problem that will require trillions. The trivial increases in CAFÉ standards for SUVs will someday appear as laughable as battling an ocean with a sword.

We are starting to see scattered instances of peak oil tax demagoguery. At a time when government should be rapidly increasing energy taxes to slow consumption, some politicians are calling for the elimination of gas taxes so their hard-working constituents can afford to drive as they wish. At a time when gasoline prices will soon be thought of in round dollars —$3, $4, $5 gas— rather than cents, eliminating a few pennies of tax will soon be recognized as pointless.

The ultimate absurdity will be the price cap. If anyone wants to bring transportation in a country to a complete halt, simply decree that motor fuel can't be sold for more than "X." Osama Bin Laden couldn't come up with a better idea if he tried.

As some point however, the silly season will end, the body politic will come to recognize that hearings, tax cuts, price caps, and drilling in national parks are not the remedy for peak oil. Whenever that day comes, congressmen, legislators and governments will start look for real solutions: massive conservation and a transition to sustainable fuels and lifestyles. The real question then is whether this will happen soon enough to avoid causing damage that will set the transition back many years and increase the hardships. Will an administration —the current, the next or the one after that— have a change of heart mid-term, or will an election have to be fought over remedies for peak oil first?

Any poll taken today will show Americans are worried about "dependence on foreign oil" but are not yet ready for hardships, such as serious reductions in driving to achieve this goal. For an administration committed to not rocking the boat while tossing in a sea of other troubles, it probably will take a mega-development in the oil production world that quickly spikes gasoline prices into the $6-$7 range to force a change.

The bellwether for change will be the imposition of a strictly enforced nationwide 55 mph speed limit. Until such an inexpensive and effective oil conservation measure is passed, our politicians are still listening to the call of a bygone age rather than preparing us for the next.

Before the oil age comes to a complete close, let's hope someone rehabilitates Jimmy Carter as one of the most prescient Presidents ever to hold the office. Congress might even rename an airport for him— just before it is shut down forever.

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