The Peak Oil Crisis: The Real Energy Bill
Congress has now passed the Energy Bill of 2005 and, as nearly every commentator has observed, it will do next to nothing with “high” gasoline prices, reducing US dependence on foreign oil, or to help cope with the impending peak oil crisis. In short, this bill was mostly a sop, creating the illusion that the Bush administration and Congress are doing something about gas prices and a growing unease about dependence on foreign oil.
It calls for no sacrifices from the American people. Thus, within a few years – or perhaps months — we will need another energy bill to deal with the real crisis that has arisen from peak oil.
What sort of provisions should a real energy bill contain?
By the time Congress gets around to the next energy bill of course, it will be apparent to nearly everyone a world-class crisis is upon us. The poor countries will be in anarchy due to their inability to afford or purchase sufficient oil. In the developed countries, the price of gasoline will be so high, there will be no question the current price is not just a temporary “spike” caused by speculators. If long lines at the gas pumps accompany very high prices, then the message to pass real legislation will come even sooner.
The required congressional actions are obvious and simple: mandatory conservation and the halting of wasteful practices, a shift to renewable energy, and the development of sustainable lifestyles. While this is easy to say, it will require decades and much hardship to accomplish fully.
We will need a strong central energy authority make the many decisions and issue the orders to hold us together through the coming decades. As the legislative history of the 2005 energy bill shows, recent Congresses simply have not had the chemistry to make the kind of tough decisions that will be needed to deal with peak oil. Some type of “Energy Crisis Board” with extraordinary powers (like the War Production Board of World War II) will have to be set up. Congress will have to delegate to this Board, control over many aspects of our economy as they relate to the production, distribution, and consumption of energy.
It its simplest form, the new bill would give the new Energy Crisis Board the mandate and authority to do what it takes to solve the peak oil crisis, much the same way the Federal Reserve Board manages the money supply.
The goal of the conservation program would be to cut energy consumption in an orderly manner, in line with oil and gas depletion rates, so as to have the least possible impact on economy. The underlying premise would be to insure vital uses for oil such as food production, are adequately supplied, while “wasteful” use is heavily curtailed. This does not mean all will be well for many industries. Tourism, recreation, automobiles, and transportation, for example, are bound to be seriously disrupted, if not completed devastated, by the arrival of peak oil.
One of the assets the United States has as we enter an era of oil depletion, is a significant portion of our 20 million barrel per day consumption is pure waste which can be eliminated with relatively minor changes to our lifestyles and appliances.
Take electricity as an example. Our non-industrial consumption can most likely be reduced on the order of 50 percent or more by simply turning really unnecessary things off. Outdoor lighting? Off! Incandescent bulbs? Into the attic for another era! Commercial and office lighting? Disconnect until you can barely see what you are doing! Air conditioning? Very high! Heating? Very low!
Incentives to conserve will be relatively easy to create. As we all get an electricity bill (either directly or indirectly), our new “Energy Crisis Board” would simply be given the authority to impose and change, as needed, a hair-raising tax on “excessive” consumption of electricity, fuel oil, and natural gas.
“Excessive” would be deemed as consumption greater than some percentage of your previous monthly utility consumption (80%, 60%, 40%). Other ways of allocating electricity could be by carbon allocation, square foot, climate, and latitude, but all this can come later. In the short run, a very high utility tax (natural gas, heating oil, and electricity) on “excessive” consumption is simple, easy to implement, and seems relatively fair to start with.
Before we go further, you may ask: “If all our electricity here in Virginia comes from coal and nuclear reactors, why on earth do we need to cut back on electricity consumption?” The answer is: 1. Because there is a huge amount of energy wasted in frivolous electricity consumption (we will soon need the coal to convert to motor fuel); and 2. We will need the energy for transportation, which will take the biggest hit as oil production depletes.
Some 16 percent of US electric power is currently produced by oil (3%) and natural gas (13%). We are going to need this fuel for producing and distributing food and other essential uses, so the sooner we stop pumping it into large light bulbs and outdoor lighting, the better off we will be. Besides, turning out the lights is one of the few conservation measures that cost few jobs.
Seriously reducing the 13 million barrels of oil per day which runs US transportation, will be far more complicated and costly than mandating electricity conservation. This is where our “Energy Crisis Board” will come into its own, for no member of Congress wants to own the responsibility for the myriad of highly unpopular job and income eliminating decisions that will have to be made.
We can start with the assumption that higher prices or lines at the gas pumps leading to a new energy bill will have already killed considerable discretionary travel. Re-imposing, and draconian enforcement, of the 55 mph speed limit is one of the few cheap and quick measures saving significant transportation fuel.
As many commentators have noted, the heart of our fuel problem is the 210 million cars and light trucks currently averaging 20 miles per gallon. If we going to cut 75% of the fuel going into our cars and trucks, there will have to be some radical changes in their size, shape, fuel consumption, passenger load and use.
Currently, the most promising off-the-shelf technology is the electric vehicle. These can be made relatively cheaply in many flavors, ranging from electric bicycles and Segways, through neighborhood electric vehicles, to plug-in hybrids. All of these offer fuel economies on a scale (from 100 mpg to several hundred mpg equivalents) necessary for our mobility on only a fraction of our current 13 million barrels per day.
An Energy Crisis Board would have other important issues, of course, such a food production, raw materials for industry and long distance air and surface transport. Cutting down on individual consumer consumption is a good place to start.