Colleges should plan - and teach - for an oil-scarce world
Some years ago, bringing up "peak oil"—the concept that oil production will crest and then decline, leading to all sorts of trouble in society—might have made you seem like the kind of person who frequents Web sites that sell survival books and freeze-dried food.
Today, such discussion has pretty much hit the mainstream. Last month, The Wall Street Journal featured a front-page story about two prominent geologists arguing over how much oil is left in the ground—and it noted that the view of the pessimistic geologist is "ascendant."
Experts famously argue whether oil is past its peak, yet to hit its peak, or destined to hit its peak a long way off—as in, perhaps, a few decades from now. (Alternative fuels may swoop in to save the day, but no one should bank on that.) Here's the bottom line: Oil—our main transportation fuel and an integral part of every product we use—is a finite and dwindling resource. The current price increase should give higher-education institutions an opportunity to think about how they might fare if oil got really scarce.
Robert K. Kaufmann, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University, recently gave a seminar for journalists on the economics of the oil market. As oil goes up, the value of the dollar against the euro goes down; other energy sources, meanwhile, become expensive as they substitute for more-expensive oil. Today's oil prices may be inflated, he said, but they will not collapse as they did in the 1980s. Because demand is going up worldwide, uses for oil have concentrated in transportation and manufacturing (where alternatives to oil are difficult to come by), and oil fields outside of OPEC are in a production decline, what we are experiencing now is very likely a permanent trend.
Mr. Kaufmann gave no date for a world production peak, offering various possibilities between 2014 and 2032. (A report by the U.S. government released last year said that oil production will probably peak sometime before 2040, but it was vague.) According to his analysis, within 10 years of the peak, alternative fuels would have to rise to the equivalent of 10 million barrels a day, or the current production of Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer.
Most campuses plan to be up and running long after 2040. Consider the pain campuses are feeling now and how much worse it could be. Some colleges—like state colleges in Oklahoma—are already raising tuition to cover energy costs.
College leaders, with help from facilities managers, sustainability directors, faculty members, and even students, should think hard about how systems on their campus would operate in an energy-scarce world. That thinking should range beyond running part of the campus fleet on a cafeteria's fryer oil, a seemingly-popular response at the moment. Look at food supply chains, for example, and how far food travels from field to dining hall (1,500 diesel-powered miles, on average). How do you heat and cool buildings, and is that new building in the campus master plan really necessary? (It's regrettable that this energy crisis comes at the end of a campus building boom.) Is your campus an integrated part of the community around it—friendly to pedestrians and affordable to students and staff members? Or is it a destination at the end of a long freeway drive?
Brett Pasinella, a program coordinator at the University of New Hampshire's sustainability office in Durham, is thinking about some of these very issues with his colleagues. "You quickly run into problems and questions that go far beyond the standard internal university thinking and more into how the university fits into its region and its community," he says. "You run into the same problems that a town planner would run into."
The most important question colleges should ask themselves: If students are getting squeezed by high energy prices, what will compel them to pay your tuition?
A looming energy crisis offers a tremendous opportunity for colleges, and not just for the major research universities that are looking into algae biofuels and hydrogen fuel cells. Alternative fuels may not reach levels that will slake our tremendous thirst for oil, which now stands at about a quarter of the world's consumption. Coming generations may live in a world vastly different from the one we see now—more local, more interdependent, more efficient, and more creative. Colleges that offer an education that equips students to live in that world will remain relevant.