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How peak oil could save Obama's presidency

Can it be morning in America again? Photo: SashaW via FlickrCan it be morning in America again? Photo: SashaW via Flickr
E. J. Dionne Jr.'s recent column in the Washington Post, "Can Obama Find His Morning in America?" notes an increasingly widespread domestic view that America is in decline. Dionne argues that such an infectious tumult could either cripple Obama or, alternatively, create an opportunity to right his presidency and recapture the confidence of the American people.

What Obama needs, says Dionne, is a morning in America moment. But what he lacks, Dionne believes, is a compelling narrative around which to rally the people and tap into their latent positive energy about American possibility.

I agree wholeheartedly.

That's why when Obama (or any American president for that matter) fails to address the elephant in the room—peak oil— he also fails to grab the obvious way out of the morass currently depressing morale, hamstringing economic movement and feeding the partisan divide.

Peak oil to the rescue?

If, in politics, hope's twin brother is a boogeyman of some sort, we've got it in spades with peak oil. It's just the willingness to begin speaking about it that's at issue. I don't mean this cynically. It's simply that a vague and undirected "hope for change" has much less to offer than one with an identifiable target to aim for or a predicament to address.

Fortunately, the International Energy Agency's 2010 World Energy Outlook gives cover to any top-tier politician or candidate who wishes to bring the issue to the table. Effectively he or she can take the approach that, "It's not my idea, it's the IEA's assessment."

How could peak oil play the hero in breaking political gridlock while motivating American enthusiasm?

Well, nothing else is working, for one. So, what is there to lose with a Hail Mary pass?

Second, leveling with people after a long period of obfuscation and avoidance itself can help break long-festering tensions and restore trust.

Look at what's been been said by every American president of the last nearly 40 years—the old "fossil fuels are running out and we need an energy independent solution" refrain. In response to which, what has been done?

Nothing. Nothing has been done.

I would call serial presidential commentary on declining fossil fuels "crying wolf" except that you and I both know that the wolf is now at the door. And the American people have certainly heard the story enough times that if the administration and Congress finally gets real, at least the news is not new.

Finally, exposing a true predicament while also offering a viable and optimistic strategy to address that predicament creates myriad opportunities for hope to morph into vision and vision into strategy.

The moment couldn't be more ripe

Yes, we peak oil insiders may say it's too late already. That infrastructure plans should have begun long before now. That the economic mess all but destroys any way to pay for solutions. But unless we're ready to give up entirely, to resign ourselves to crippling pessimism while awaiting the blows of brutal decline, it's our duty to keep the dialogue on possibility alive.

Grim though it is in many aspects, peak oil could offer that rallying point.

Energy experts and likely the administration both know that even if unconventional oil in tar sands, deep water and shale stave off a second peak in world oil production until 2030 or 2040, the truth is that the period of increasing reliance on unconventional resources will in no way mirror growth and development with conventional oil. The cost alone is so much greater. "Prohibitive" being the better word.

Ten dollar a gallon gas will not fuel an American rebound.

Then there are the oil recovery and refinement issues. Unconventional recovery creates a much bigger impact on global warming as well as polluting up close and in person in the form of devastating water impacts, among other issues.

We need a different way.

A deep breath, and then...

The US hit its oil peak in the 1970s, and its growth (economic) peak now. We need to tack in a different direction to recover an asymmetrical growth trajectory and inspire our people.

While clean, renewable fuel alternatives (solar, wind, ocean, geothermal and biofuels) will never replace the magic of fossil fuels, they can begin taking up some of the slack (and provide future security) while creating not only jobs, but also hope, inspiration, challenge, promise, a vision. The same can be said for building infrastructure that saves energy, such as passenger rail.

Today President Obama is meeting with top CEOs in an effort to get business leaders to stop sitting on the $1.9 trillion in cash they have from ten years of the Bush tax cuts to business and use it to create jobs in the US.

In fact, the premise that business would create jobs with the Bush tax cuts is undercut by the sheer size of the pile of cash they're already sitting on and hoarding while unemployment continues to rise.

Are we to believe that another two years of Bush tax cuts will spur business to get on board and begin a vigorous new commitment to domestic job creation? We can hope.

I'd like to go so far as to say we should demand that industry create new jobs. I'd like to hope that a loud enough critique of business by a more aware and vocal populace might help stem the leakage of American jobs to low-wage countries. Perhaps tax cuts could be tied to outcomes rather than just given as endless treats.

But when Obama meets with these CEOs he should forget about job creation in the predictable areas. Forget the same-old same-old cars-and-highways paradigm. It isn't working and it has no real future in the wake of peak oil. Forget GM and Detroit unless they're diversifying and going into new projects such as rail cars, hybrid vehicles, and solar and wind parts for other infrastructure. Forget expanding oil and gas. These are sunset industries.

Instead, Obama should focus on sunrise areas. Here's my three-point plan:

  1. Call for a full throttle effort to prepare America for a world beyond cheap oil. Present it as competition with China, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu has dubbed it, "America's Sputnik Moment." Lay out in stark and unforgiving terms just what's at stake if America grows any more inert. Call it a straight path to that spectral decline. By speaking boldly and directly about the implications of peak oil on American quality of life, the president can pose infrastructure renewal and build-out, particularly in rail, as a way to protect the home front. But the president must explicitly present all these improvements as a direct response to peak oil. He needs to tell the public that if we don't undertake this project, we're going to be twisting in the wind in 30 years. Guaranteed. Then he must use every ounce of the bully pulpit to drive it home. America dealt with the Civil War, and World Wars I and II, so we can deal with this, too. We have it in us. In fact, we almost need it.
  2. Work with industry to create domestic manufacturing jobs in both energy and transportation but also in textiles, steel and consumer products. Dealing with distributed power, conservation efforts and transportation will bolster national security and connect our transport networks on land in order to be poised for the time when distance costing money will mean the real end to significant global trade. In the post peak economy (long before 2030) distance will cost money and we'll be so glad those folks are back to work and those goods are available here. Alternatively we could let ourselves become China's bitch, grateful for 20-cents-an-hour jobs making the products for the growing appetite of middle-class consumers in Shanghai. It's our choice.
  3. Create a vocal culture of encouragement surrounding relocalized economies, so that regional areas remain vibrant by making and exporting specialty local goods both abroad and within the US. Encourage local farming, smaller scale production, smaller scale clean energy production and local transit solutions. Follow the American people's leadership on the desire to shop locally and lessen stress. Bring back Buy American! This isn't protectionism. It's survival. Revival.

Together, these three bold responses will create jobs, spur the right kind of growth, and lift the leaden eyes of a downcast population toward the vision of a new paradigm, one they sense and that more than a few long for. How are we going to pay for it? Let's figure it out.

And what's the alternative, besides the abyss? Should we embrace instead going full scale into dirtier oil, mountaintop removal in spades, more coal fired plants, and war, war, war? The other alternative is illusion, and with it, sure decline.

If not now, when?

Spit it out, already!

As long as the president is afraid to say the words peak oil, he's got nothing to rally the nation around. Everything else we've heard so far from the White House or seen in the news is just too vague. But in contrast to something like global warming, an invisible and amorphous threat that's all too easy to deny or ignore, everybody can understand that oil is a finite resource. Obama got close to this in his Gulf oil spill speech, but then dropped the ball. It's time to pick it back up again and make a bee line for the basket.

We can't turn a finite resource into an infinite one, however much wishful thinking we apply to it. And however much business and other interested parties try to deny the reality of peak oil in order to achieve their own interests— short term personal profits, the long arc of American success be damned—there is no more time to waste.

Every driver understands the price at the gas pumps. Those prices are rising, and with it, so are food prices. The jobless are crying out for relief. All that pain needs an explanation. Peak oil is not a hard story to tell. And moreover, it's as true as the sunrise this morning.

Once Obama uses that bully pulpit to his advantage, lays out the case on peak oil, and invokes competition with China for conservation and clean energy solutions as crucial to reviving our national purpose and drive, he'll get somewhere. Then he must not let up.

And who doesn't love the prospect of solar panels? Who doesn't love the romance of the train, especially while surfing YouTube and reading your email, free from the burden of driving?

Look, ten years of green marketing has laid the groundwork. The people are ready. Now if the leader steps out in front and rides the tail wind, we'll maybe get somewhere.

The detractors can yell from the sidelines all they want. But the people will be relieved that at last America is not pussyfooting around any more. Fear of the diagnosis is the only thing in our way. First you cry, then you get on with it.

It's standard political messaging, President Obama. You start the conversation, you own it. Don't get stuck playing defense; make the other side respond to your bold initiatives. Then, they're playing on your quadrant and you're on top.

We can talk illegal immigrants and anchor babies in 2012. Or we can talk jobs now.

And a sunrise.

-- Lindsay Curren

Editorial Notes: From the author: Lindsay Curren has no intention of ending up the Scarlett O'Hara of the 21st century, dizzy and confused as neo-Rome burns. Instead, the Staunton, Virginia based writer, designer and high-heeled survivalist is editing Transition Voice, a new online magazine on peak oil and the coming life of sweaty labor and, hopefully, nicer manners.

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