The Peak Oil Crisis: Importing Energy
By Tom Whipple
In a perfect world, the US Congress would have recognized decades ago that one day the world would run short of oil and would have initiated programs to mitigate the consequences. The initial steps are obvious: start a major conservation program and start moving the nation as quickly as possible to alternative sources of renewable energy— wind, solar, biomass, and waves. Along the way it might be nice to prepare for rationing, and the considerable social and economic distress that will ensue when oil depletion sets in, but conservation and alternatives would be a good start.
Democracies, however, simply don't work that way. It is very nearly impossible to convince people and their elected representatives something very bad is about to happen until it actually does. The New Orleans flood is a perfect example of this reluctance to recognize and deal with looming disasters.
Peak oil, therefore, is yet another example of denial with potentially much more serious consequences. Nearly every unbiased observer who has looked seriously at the issue comes to the conclusion world oil production will peak within ten years— tops. Nearly everybody who has seriously studied what we can do about it is saying it will take 10 to 20 years to develop significant alternatives to our voracious use of oil- and gas-based liquid fuels.
To effect a policy change in America of the magnitude needed to deal with peak oil, a critical mass of administration officials, industry leaders, members of Congress, opinion makers, and just plain citizens will need to form before serious Congressional action occurs. How long, and what it will take to induce this critical mass to form is one of the more interesting questions surrounding the advent of peak oil.
Two weeks ago Congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, who heretofore had been the only member of Congress speaking out about peak oil, introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to the effect that peak oil is coming and we had better do something about it—now.
The preamble to the resolution reads as follows:
"Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the United States, in collaboration with other international allies, should establish an energy project with the magnitude, creativity, and sense of urgency that was incorporated in the `Man on the Moon' project to address the inevitable challenges of `Peak Oil'."
What was interesting about this resolution was not that Congressman Bartlett introduced it, but that he had 14 other members of Congress, including Falls Church's Jim Moran, sign on to it. Fifteen is a start. Not enough to pass a peak oil mitigation program, but a lot better than one.
Depending on whether any oil industry opposition develops and who owes a favor to whom, Congressman Bartlett may or may not be able to get his resolution to the floor for a vote by the whole house. If the resolution ever makes it to the floor, the ensuing vote should give us an insight into how far along we are on the formation of our critical mass in the Congress.
Over in London last week, a senior official of the Department of Trade and Industry told an energy conference that the government expects to announce an investigation of peak oil within the next few weeks. At the same time however, the official went on to say, "There is no imminent danger of global oil production peaking as technology and growing supplies will meet market requirements."
Attendees at the meeting expressed both satisfaction that British government was finally taking the issue seriously enough to launch an investigation and disappointment that they were still holding to the view that peak oil is decades away. Some believe that that the British government's unwillingness to embrace the concept of imminent peak oil comes from an overriding concern not to scare people too soon.
The oil industry, which will be an important component of the critical mass, that will one day do something about peak oil, is currently split on the issue. Two large oil companies, Chevron-Texaco and Shell, have come very close to acknowledging peak oil will arrive soon without actually uttering the word "peak". A third, Exxon-Mobile, is saying flat out that non-OPEC production is about to peak, but is looking to OPEC to make up any shortages that develop as world demand increases and non-OPEC countries go into depletion.
The bottom line seems to be that a coalition of people who recognize the consequences of peak oil is slowly starting to form. Perhaps Congressman Barttlet's resolution will result in Congressional hearings. Perhaps the British investigation of peak oil will make world headlines. Maybe unusually cold weather this winter will be the catalyst.
Given the inertia of the current political system and the love affair of man and his cars, it is more likely that it will take uncontrollable prices and shortages to trigger a major policy shift.
There is no shortage of potential events that will lead to higher prices in the next few years. The Gulf of Mexico is not going to cool down anytime soon, so we can expect each year the hurricane season will produce a succession of monster storms some of which will once again tear up oil facilities. The overall political situation in the Middle East is deteriorating. Every month brings us closer to an event that will interrupt a significant share of OPEC oil production.
Once the flow from Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, or Venezuela is interrupted, the resulting shortages and prices will lead to the rapid formation of a consensus, from the White House to the court house, something more than tax breaks, drilling where little is to be found and elimination of environmental controls is needed to maintain a semblance of our current lifestyles.
In the meantime sit back, enjoy $2.37 gasoline and wait for winter.