Last week, I attended a conference on Peak Oil in Washington, D.C. With about 250 others, I heard that the world is probably reaching the top of petroleum production right now. This would mean a future of ever declining supplies and rising prices. It was scary. But there was also a strong message of hope.
Most speakers agreed that Peak Oil could be the biggest problem America faces today – bigger than terrorism, health-care reform or immigration. And because it could disrupt our peace and prosperity in ways most of us had never imagined, Peak Oil could even be bigger than global warming in the short term. And it will affect these other issues, too.
Yet, if it’s such a big problem, why don’t we hear about much about Peak Oil in the media? I’ll come back to this. But before that, I’d like to share three big things I learned about Peak Oil.
First, its absence from the 11 o’clock news doesn’t mean Peak Oil isn’t real.
Dozens of leading petroleum geologists as well others in the oil industry and in government have agreed that we are nearing the twilight of cheap oil. Chevron has launched a campaign to inform the public that oil is depleting. The U.S. Army is planning for permanent oil shortages. Even the U.S. Department of Energy put out a 91-page report on the subject in February 2005.
"As (oil) peaking is approached," the report said, "liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking."
Second, oil has become the top issue in world politics, and it will likely remain there for decades to come.
Despite official explanations that the U.S. invaded Iraq out of self-defense or to free the Iraqi people from an evil dictator, Operation Iraqi Freedom is really just a mission to protect U.S. oil sources, according to Michael Klare, author of the 2004 book Blood and Oil.
Unlike other commodities such as copper or coffee, oil has long been securitized. That means governments will go to war to protect supplies. The British securitized oil just before World War I. President Carter made oil security into official U.S. policy on Jan. 23, 1980, after the Iranian revolution disrupted supplies.
Since then, under the so-called Carter Doctrine, all subsequent U.S. presidents have made guarding "our" oil in the Middle East an issue of national security. Saddam threatened U.S. suppliers in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, so he had to go. Iran could be next, and then, who knows? The U.S. could fight decades of future wars just to guard oil. We could even see a new cold war, this time pitting the U.S. against the world’s second-biggest oil user, China.
According to Klare, in the last 20 years the U.S. military has essentially been turned into a "petroleum-protection force." Think about that the next time a young person you know wants to enlist.
Third, alternative fuels are not a silver bullet that will allow us to continue our current lifestyle unchanged. That’s because no other energy source known today can even come close to providing the level of cheap and convenient energy that oil has given us for a century.
The problem is biggest in transportation. Current sources of power like coal and nuclear, though terrible for the environment, will provide electricity for now. Clean power from solar and wind can help in the future. That will keep the lights on in homes and offices
But cars, trucks and planes do not run on electricity, despite some failed experiments like GM’s EV1 electric car. Instead, they burn liquid fuels – gas, diesel and kerosene. And since adequate battery technology to convert vehicles to electric power is nowhere on the horizon, most transport is going to continue to need liquid fuels for the foreseeable future.
Oil now provides 97 percent of all fuel for transportation. And despite lots of excitement about other liquid fuels such as hydrogen or biofuels, replacements for oil in aircraft and road vehicles won’t come on-line for decades, if ever. Why? It’s because most other sources have a much lower energy return than oil.
Energy return works like financial investing. Just as you have to spend money to make money, so you have to use energy to get energy.
Oil gives the best return of any energy source so far. For every one barrel we use in finding, drilling, refining and shipping oil, we gain up to 100 barrels. That’s like investing $1 and getting $100 back.
By contrast, other sources give much worse returns. Some kinds of ethanol actually take more energy to produce than they give. And hydrogen is not an energy source at all, but just an energy carrier – it always takes more energy to produce hydrogen than you get by burning it. That’s like investing $1, losing it, and then having to pay a few cents extra to cover costs.
Since there’s no high-yield energy source coming to replace oil, we’ll probably have to give up many of our cars, trucks and planes in the future. That means we’ll travel less and buy fewer goods from far away. This will be a revolutionary change in our current lifestyle.
That brings me to the question of why we don’t hear much about Peak Oil in the media.
The White House must have known about it for years, since both Bush and Cheney were oilmen, but they’re saying nothing. They must think that Americans won’t like to hear that our lifestyle is threatened by Peak Oil. So, instead of urging us to live with less, as they should be doing, our leaders peddle dangerous or fanciful schemes to get enough energy to feed our current wasteful consumption – at least until the next election.
But I think they’re wrong. Americans have been willing in the past to make sacrifices when our leaders have called on us to do so in a time of great crisis. We pulled through the Great Depression and World War II because we were challenged, and we rose to the challenge.
We can pull through Peak Oil, too, but the public must know the truth. The good news is, the truth is starting to come out. In the fall of last year, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) and a bipartisan group of House members formed the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus. Since then, they’ve been speaking widely on Peak Oil and trying to pass legislation to help us prepare.
So what was the message of hope at the conference? It was this: In crisis lies opportunity. And whatever Washington does, people should start preparing for Peak Oil themselves. That means finding a way to live that uses less energy. Indeed, Peak Oil might be just the chance many of us need to go beyond a lifestyle of consumption, and to reconnect with nature, with our families and with our communities.
I, for one, am inspired and energized by this project. I am eager to get started.
Learn more about Peak Oil at www.energybulletin.net/primer.php.
Erik Curren is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Curren is the author of Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today. More information about Curren’s works is available on-line at www.alayapress.com. The views expressed by op-ed writers do not necessarily reflect those of management of The Augusta Free Press.
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