Riding on empty
By H.D.S. Greenway
Some time ago, National Public Radio collected the recorded voices of the last five or six American presidents and broadcast them, each with his own distinctive tone, all saying exactly the same thing: America has to end its dependency on foreign oil.
Today President George W. Bush makes much the same kind of statements as his predecessors did, but the measures he recommends hold only a little promise. And today the problem is rapidly becoming not just foreign oil, but oil itself.
To be fair, the president is absolutely right when he says that our energy problems cannot be solved overnight. "Most of the serious problems, such as high gasoline costs or the rising dependence on foreign oil have developed over decades. It's going to take years of focused effort to alleviate those problems."
His critics have said that the $14.5 billion energy bill is a giveaway of tax breaks to energy companies, including nuclear, but the world is going to need all the oil it can get in the next three or four decades, and alternatives have to be financially encouraged. The trouble comes when the "focused effort" wanes, and politicians become unwilling to pay even a short-term price for a long-term gain.
The disappointing and weak side of Bush's approach is symbolized by the disinterest in both the White House and Congress in imposing better gas mileages in the automobile industry.
The United States, the world's largest oil importer, consumes 20 million barrels a day, and 40 percent of that goes out the exhaust pipes of cars and trucks. Car manufacturers, however, complain to the Republicans that mandatory fuel efficiency might hurt their flagging businesses, and labor complains to Democrats that jobs might be endangered.
Experts disagree on when the world's oil will start to run out, when production will reach its peak and start its downward slide. But they do know that demand is rising extraordinarily quickly. In 2002 the world consumed 79 billion barrels of oil each day. In 2003 the figure had risen to 82.5. Last year it was 84.5 - much of that due to China's industrial revolution.
An ad paid for by Chevron, America's second biggest oil company, says: "It took us 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil. We'll use the next trillion in 30." This is all the more startling when some experts hold that there are only about 1 trillion barrels of oil left in the ground.
Chevron's chairman David O'Reilly says, "Some say that in 20 years the world will consume 40 percent more oil than it does today. At the same time, many of the world's oil and gas fields are maturing." For "maturing" read running out, and predictions of $100 a barrel and more in the not too distant future are becoming common.
Unlike the oil crisis of 1973, the current rise in prices is not coming as a result of war or boycott. It is coming because of high demand and not enough supply, a delicate balance which a hurricane can too easily upset.
And although the world's economy has survived petroleum price increases remarkably well so far, this is now beginning to show the inevitable strain.
Some hope that new oil fields will be found, but I was surprised to read in The New York Times that a U.S. Department of Energy report earlier this year had said that such discoveries have been "disappointing," and that if "recent trends hold, there is little reason to expect that exploration success will dramatically improve in the future."
"The world has never faced a problem like this," the report concluded. "Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary." Whereas the world's shifts from wood to coal and coal to oil were gradual, "oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary."
Optimists put their faith in extraction technology to save the day, but this can only temporarily slow petroleum's depletion and will do nothing to curb demand - unless alternative energies are found and conservation implemented.
While one can sympathize with President Bush for wanting to apply the brakes slowly, he needs to glance at the gas gauge too, which may be falling toward empty more quickly than he knows.