In 1896 a brilliant chemist, Svante Arrhenius, theorized that increasing atmospheric carbonic acid would cause ground temperatures to rise by trapping heat within the earth’s atmosphere. It took 110 years for most of us to hear of and understand Arrhenius’s theory and to finally listen to the “radicals” who had been trying for years to get our attention about greenhouse gases and climate change.

The news media presumably could have done its job by researching, asking politicians hard questions and reporting. But the media didn’t. Instead, it was a former Vice President and defeated presidential candidate who managed to get our attention with the blockbuster documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

Were it not for the Al Gore’s persistence and his movie, the public would be mostly unaware of the greenhouse effect of CO2 and Global Climate Change. And congress – because it generally follows, not leads, public opinion – would be indifferent to rising CO2 levels and changing climates.

Now that Vice President Gore has our attention, the media is finally doing it job with this issue. Unfortunately, there is a potentially bigger issue that awaits either another “rock star” documentary or the press and voter attention that will follow: Peak Oil.

I’d be satisfied with either a movie or reporters, but because I still believe in the Fourth Estate I’m hoping for the press starts doing its job informing us about the biggest energy challenge.

Peak Oil

Because there is a finite amount of oil in the earth. At some point extraction and production of liquid fuels – gas and oil – will peak and with that peak, the availability of oil will start to diminish. This truth is as dependable as gravity.

While there will always be some oil, when demand exceeds availability unpleasant things – real unpleasant things if there are no substitutes – will likely follow. Prices will rise, spot shortages will occur, wars will be fought, blood will be spilled and dislocations will be inevitable absent alternative energy sources.

Virtually ever significant issue our society and government faces requires money. Want secure borders and a strong military? Better healthcare system? Fiscal integrity of Medicare and Social Security? Good schools? Better roads, bridges, water and sewer systems? Stronger levies? Research & development? A secure future? All of these require money, most of them lots of money. And money comes from economic growth.

Harnessing and consuming energy is how we get economic growth. Lower availability of affordable energy means less economic growth and less money. More availability yields more growth and more money.

Which do you prefer?

So When Is Peak Oil Going to Happen? (1)

Good question. Because we won’t know until after it occurs, there are different answers from various experts regarding when Peak Oil will occur globally. Some say it happened a couple years ago. Others think we’re a few years from Peak Oil. While others say we have several decades.

Surely there is an official US Government answer to this question, but your government isn’t giving it to you. Because of the strategic importance of the answer, there is undoubtedly a National Intelligence Estimate that provides a forecast that should be guiding government policies and legislative action. But getting our government to share its insights is seemingly impossible.

I’ve asked my senators, congresswoman and the President, “What is the National Intelligence Estimate forecast for when Peak Oil will occur and how is this forecast shaping policy?” there have been three types of answers: (a) no response, (b) there’s a NIE but we can’t find out what is says and the ever helpful (c) we appreciate your input!

I should be more discouraged but my disappointment is saved for the media.

When was the last time you read or heard an interview where substantive questions and follow-ups were asked? Why don’t reporters ask real questions such as, “Senator you say we need to be energy independent. Since we cannot grow our way out of our need for oil, specifically what do you mean by ‘energy independent’ and how will we achieve what you claim we must?” Or how about, “What does the NIE say about Peak Oil and how are you using this to shape policy?”

Maybe reporters don’t ask questions such as these because they’re waiting for Al Gore to make another movie.


1. Peak Oil in the lower 48 happened in the 1970s, in 1980s for the north slope of Alaska, in the late 1990s Norway’s North Sea and probably a few years ago in Mexico.

Chris Steele retired from Best Buy in 2002 where was vice president of finance. In addition to various roles at Best Buy, Mr. Steele worked for The Limited, Dayton Hudson Corporation (now Target) and Norwest (now Wells Fargo). Additionally he served eight years on nuclear submarines. He has written for the Boundary Waters Journal and has had commentaries on Minnesota Public Radio. He lives on the edge of the wilderness at the end of the Gunflint Trail in northern Minnesota.