May 12, 2005

Peak Oil

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) has been talking for the last half hour or so in the House about the coming peak oil crisis, and recommended the site Peak Oil: Life After the Oil Crash, which describes our enormous dependence on oil, and opens with the following greeting: "Dear Reader, Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon. This is not the wacky proclamation of a doomsday cult, apocalypse bible prophecy sect, or conspiracy theory society. Rather, it is the scientific conclusion of the best paid, most widely-respected geologists, physicists, and investment bankers in the world. These are rational, professional, conservative individuals who are absolutely terrified by a phenomenon known as global 'Peak Oil.'."

Bartlett noted that the U.S. consumes 25% of the world's resources even though we only represent 1 in 22 people, and that we were beginning to have to compete with fast-growing China, which has become the second largest consumer of oil.

Bartlett said that "we have in our country the tyranny of the urgent." He said that a focus on immediate concerns ignored the fact that US peak oil was correctly predicted at about 1970, and that the predicted world peak in oil at the turn of the century was only put off because of the Saudi oil embargo of the 70s. He said that if we use all the oil we have for our typical economic activities, there will be none left to transfer over to the age of renewables.

Bartlett pointed out that several countries, likely including Saudi Arabia, have already peaked and that it's only a matter of time before world oil peaks. He said that though it wasn't a positive election theme to point out this issue, it was important to look beyond the next election and do the right thing.

Bartlett said that be believed the U.S. could have a "very high quality of life" while using less oil, and create a new economy based on alternative fuel sources. He said that conservation was vital so that investments could be made in other energy sources before oil usage diverged too widely from the available supply, because it could seriously threaten the possibility of basic civil order, exposing civilization as a thin veneer.

Clarifying, Bartlett noted that half of all the oil ever existing was still there, but that cheap, high quality oil was gone. He quoted Rep. Dingell as saying to him that we would never see $50 a barrel oil again, by which he meant that it was very unlikely to ever see average prices fall below that. He said that using sources like nuclear energy for power production didn't help because oil wasn't generally used for production of electricity, and only replacing the use of oil in current applications was going to be any help.

"It's all about timing," Bartlett said. "... We have blown about 25 years," when the country could have been developing alternatives while it was known that this was likely to happen. Noting that there was only about 50 years of coal left if it was used to replace oil consumption at expected growth rates, he said that "These are finite resources. When they're gone, they're gone."

Discussing the possibility of replacing oil with biofuels, he said that around 50% of the energy that went into the typical bushel of grain or legumes came from nitrogen mainly derived from natural gas and that many of the other chemicals used to produce these crops came from petrochemicals. Diverging to mention the petrochemical industry that produces additional goods, from plastics to cosmetics, he said that oil was "too good to burn."

For readers interested in pursuing this issue, I recommend checking out the Apollo Alliance, which is actively lobbying for the pursuit of energy alternatives.

Updated: Some quotes added. And btw, it's nice to see a Republican drawing attention to these issues. My thanks to Rep. Bartlett, who proudly notes on his website that he voted no on the recent energy bill.

Posted by natasha at May 12, 2005 02:46 PM | Economy | Technorati links |

Thank you for addressing this issue! To the environmentalists who are looking forward to Peak Oil (on grounds that it will mean less carbon dioxide emissions), I say, be careful what you wish for. Without adequate preparations to move away from a fossil fuel based society, the economic, social, and political disruptions engendered by competition over an increasily scarce and expensive vital resource may leave us all much worse off.

Posted by: Roy Smith at May 13, 2005 04:08 PM