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U.S. oil supply looks vulnerable 40 years after embargo

Staff, USA Today
Could oil shocks, such as those in 1973, happen again? How resilient is the U.S. now? While its energy picture has changed dramatically, it still imports 35% of the petroleum it consumes.

In 1973, Archie Bunker’s All in the Family topped TV rankings and Tony Orlando’s Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree led Billboard charts. On the economic front, the United States depended heavily on foreign oil… How different are we? While the nation’s social and economic fiber has changed dramatically, including a recent surge in energy production, could the oil shock of 40 years ago happen again? Today’s continuing dependence suggests, yes, unfortunately, it could…

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Click thumbnail to view then and now comparison graphics at source
(19 October 2013)

Why governments are blind to fossil fuel energy risk

Jeremy Legget, Renew Economy
Humans are capable of mass collective blindness to risk. In modern times, the financial crisis of 2008 shows us that clearly. A whole industry pushed a delusional narrative. Regulators bought it. Auditors, ratings agencies and every other segment of the financial chain bought it. We the citizens bought it, bar a few admirable whistleblowers who nobody listened to. The end result was a near collapse of the global economy.

None of this surprises neuroscientists and psychologists. They are well versed in the human tendency to suppress rational thought, individually and collectively, and to favour comforting narrativesover uncomfortable ones. None of it surprises anthropologists, who know from history how failed civilisations believed their delusional narratives all the way to the point of collapse and beyond.

So a question arises. Having courted economic Armageddon in the financial sector, might we be capable of repeating the trick in the energy sector?

My answer is a resounding yes. We are doing so. On multiple fronts…

So, I thought, I have a story to tell. A true one. I have seen these threats to society build over the years, frequently close to, often behind supposedly closed doors. Why don’t I tell that story? As the drama unfolds, hopefully it will show people how brains work in the energy incumbency that is stoking such catastrophe for the world.

I thought hard about the wisdom of this. I would be irritating a lot of very powerful people in industry and government. Some would accuse me of breaking confidences, of talking about meetings that were implicitly private.

But then I reflected, who cares: the stakes in this drama are just too big for that to matter…And so I wrote The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance…
(26 September 2013)
Link to the book page for The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance

Fuel Choice for American Prosperity [Report]

United States Energy Security Council
From the foreword
When a public policy problem is chronic, it is often a good idea to examine assumptions and seek alternative paradigms. This is the case with the oil challenge. The tendency of many of those thinking about energy security, including nearly every president going back to Dwight D. Eisenhower, has been to focus on the concrete and measurable – the number of imported barrels – rather than the difficult to assess abstract notion of oil’s status as a strategic commodity. As a result, over the past forty years Americans have focused on a wrongly defined problem and debated how to reduce the nation’s dependence on imported petroleum, specifically from the Middle East, rather than how to reduce the commodity’s strategic importance. This has led to a public policy attachment to solutions intent on addressing that incorrectly defined problem (for example domestic drilling and vehicle efficiency) and to an assumption that the vulnerabilities associated with oil dependence will be alleviated should oil imports into the U.S. decrease. After forty years of experimentation it has become increasingly apparent that this paradigm is a failure. Import dependency has fallen – and today only nine percent of the oil we use originates from the Middle East – yet the price of fuel to the American family continues to rise. It is past time to recalibrate national thinking on oil to a more accurate problem definition and thus to solutions that have a chance of getting America – not to mention the rest of the world – out of the mire…

This report offers policy proposals aimed to do just that. Instead of focusing on import reduction, its purpose is regulatory reform aimed at removing obstacles to competition among different commodities in the transportation fuel market; it is after all oil’s virtual monopoly over this market from which its status as a strategic commodity stems…
(October 2013)
Link to video of the Energy Security Conference where the report was launched.

UMD Researchers Address Economic Dangers of ‘Peak Oil’

Press Release, University of Maryland
Researchers from the University of Maryland and a leading university in Spain demonstrate in a new study which sectors could put the entire U.S. economy at risk when global oil production peaks ("Peak Oil"). This multi-disciplinary team recommends immediate action by government, private and commercial sectors to reduce the vulnerability of these sectors.

While critics of Peak Oil studies declare that the world has more than enough oil to maintain current national and global standards, these UMD-led researchers say Peak Oil is imminent, if not already here—and is a real threat to national and global economies. Their study is among the first to outline a way of assessing the vulnerabilities of specific economic sectors to this threat, and to identify focal points for action that could strengthen the U.S. economy and make it less vulnerable to disasters.

Their work, "Economic Vulnerability to Peak Oil," appears in Global Environmental Change. The paper is co-authored by Christina Prell, UMD’s Department of Sociology; Kuishuang Feng and Klaus Hubacek, UMD’s Department of Geographical Sciences, and Christian Kerschner, Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Read the article.

A focus on Peak Oil is increasingly gaining attention in both scientific and policy discourses, especially due to its apparent imminence and potential dangers. However, until now, little has been known about how this phenomenon will impact economies. In their paper, the research team constructs a vulnerability map of the U.S. economy, combining two approaches for analyzing economic systems. Their approach reveals the relative importance of individual economic sectors, and how vulnerable these are to oil price shocks. This dual-analysis helps identify which sectors could put the entire U.S. economy at risk from Peak Oil. For the United States, such sectors would include iron mills, chemical and plastic products manufacturing, fertilizer production and air transport.

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The figure above shows sectors’ importance and vulnerability to Peak Oil. The bubbles represent sectors. The size of the bubbles visualizes the vulnerability of a particular sector to Peak Oil according to the expected price changes; the larger the size of the bubble, the more vulnerable the sector is considered to be. The X axis shows a sector’s importance according to its contribution to GDP and on the Y axis according to its structural role. Hence, the larger bubbles in the top right corner represent highly vulnerable and highly important sectors. In the case of Peak Oil induced supply disruptions, these sectors could cause severe imbalances for the entire U.S. economy. [Click here for high-res]…
(16 October 2013)

Oil barrel drip image via shutterstock. Reproduced at with permission.