Peak Oil News: American Energy Policy

Saturday, December 18, 2004

American Energy Policy

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The human race has just completed the first high-energy century in history, and its accomplishments were significant. Crop productivity shot up more than fourfold with the massive increase is fossil fuels and electricity used in agriculture. Longer and healthier average lives can also be linked to better nutrition and medical advances that depend on energy, including everything from food pasteurization to vaccine refrigeration. The current unprecedented mobility in people, goods and information is also dependent on energy created by fossil fuels. Unless you live in a hut and take principled stands against penicillin, there is simply no disputing the long-term benefits of the dirty Industrial Revolution its technological spawn.

But uncritical hymns to the miracles of energy-driven growth are anachronisms. Although success has done much to inflate modern man's hubris in his conquest of nature, it is now apparent that he cannot continue with the same tools or the same abandon as in the 20th century. Doing so now risks undoing all of our gains. This is so for two fundamental reasons, both long established but gaining new clarity and force with each passing day.

First, we are using energy much faster than we are replacing it with new reserves. Fossil fuels are finite resources. The world is currently consuming four times more oil than it is finding, and the gap will increase exponentially in the coming years as demand and supply run in opposite directions. Thus the current fossil fuel driven world economy just can't be sustained, even if it were desirable that it should. Sober and respected energy analysts like Mamdouh G. Salameh expect chronic shortages of oil to develop as early as 2010.

The second reason why we "can't" maintain the status quo is less easy to predict with pinpoint accuracy, but still rooted in science. As surely as we are running out of oil, so too are we increasing the amount of carbon gasses in the atmosphere and raising the earth's temperature. It is impossible to gauge the exact consequences of this, but there is a consensus that the effect will be a qualitative change, of a degree dependent upon current and future emissions. This temperature change will most likely have severe effects on every aspect of life on earth; it is hard to imagine that any of them will be good.

These would seem two unanswerable arguments against continuing down the path that served us so well in the last century. What could be more compelling than these two declarative statements? 1) It is technically impossible for us to continue indefinitely, and 2) even if we could it would kill us. Threatened by this double-whammy, the US government--representing the world's largest economy and hence the largest possible engine for change--has a choice. It can dig into a fantasy world in which the status-quo is permanently maintained through a combination of supply-side policies, increasingly perilous games of geopolitical chess, and rapid environmental degradation, or it can tap the huge potential of demand-side manipulation, throw massive resources into the development of sustainable sources of energy and begin to lessen the world's growing dependence on diminishing reserves of Middle East and--coming soon to a nightmare near you--Central Asian oil. It is a choice between willfully ignorant and enlightened leadership; between representing your colleagues in the oil business and representing the human race.

Famously, the Bush Administration has chosen the first of these and is following it to a pathological extreme. It is common knowledge that this administration is in the well-lined pockets of the oil industry, but the depth and baseness of these connections are breathtaking and bear constant repeating over the public megaphone. The President, like his father, is a proud Texas oilman; his National Security Advisor sat on a major oil board and has a Chevron oil tanker in her name; the Vice President was CEO of one of the world's largest energy services company months before assuming office. In fact, the speech Dick Cheney gave last March outlining the Bush energy plan could have been lifted in parts from a speech he gave in 1999 to the London branch of the Institute of Petroleum, an industry group that included Cheney on its board of directors until last year. Cheney is the driving creative force behind the Administration's energy policy, and his "coming out" speech of March 2001 shed a harsh light on what we should have already known.

In his speech, Cheney called for more exploration and drilling and summarily dismissed the idea that conservation could be a significant pillar in a coherent energy program. In a memorable and revealing line, he mocked belief in the potential of both conservation and efficiency as "70s era thinking." The widespread employment of alternative energy sources was downplayed as unfeasible, and funding for their development was slashed to make sure it doesn't become feasible anytime soon. It is hard to disagree with Ralph Nader that the Cheney proposals prove the Bush team consists of "dinosaurs living in the age of mammals." The speech and the subsequent plan aren't surprising, yet somehow shock all the same. If the dinosaurs hold the reigns of power, then the rest of us are forced to live in a world of their creation. And if we must wait for a meteor to make the dinosaurs extinct, let us pray that it comes soon.


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