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June 15, 2009
Can We Be Honest About
Energy That Will Last?
Over the last several decades, the general assumption has been that
enough oil could be found and produced to meet what was expected to be
continuously growing demand. The relationship took on the sheen of the
world’s most obnoxious economic booster, flogging the idea of growth
while angrily shouting down anyone who suggested that there are limits.
That has included shouting down the growing voice that warns we will get
to where demand outstrips supply. No problem, the booster would tell
you, because that would drive up prices which would then reduce demand
to meet supply. If oil were not the blood of the globe’s economy, that
would be fine. But higher gas prices in the past have prompted
recessions, and reduced demand and is a sign of an economy either
stagnating or in recession. The price of oil, creeping up even as we
speak, is beginning to cause worry that it might derail economic
The decline of American oil production is a reminder that even the
world’s blood has its limits. But there has always been another
assumption – that there is enough supply to last for a long time. Just
as conveniently as the supply-demand relationship suggests that demand
for energy will never rise above supply, it has always been supposed
that there is enough oil to last. How much? Who knows – but it’s enough
to last through the immediate future, which is all anyone really cares
The latest Energy Information Administration report suggests that peak
oil, the end of cheap and reliable energy, may be a bit closer at hand
than previously believed. The report scaled back expected production
from previous reports, and in 2030, expects the output of conventional
fuels to be about 93.1 million barrels a day. Although that’s still
higher than current production, it’s 14.1 percent lower than what
previous reports have predicted.
When you consider that demand for energy – especially for transportation
– is generally expected to rise, a drop in projected production should
raise eyebrows. Although the report corrects a supply-demand discrepancy
by projecting declining demand, that is predicated on slowed growth in
India and China (combined, those countries are soon expected to surpass
the United States as the world’s chief consumer of liquid energy). When
those two countries recover from the global recession, which could
happen this year or next, it could eventually prompt cut-throat energy
things currently stand, that means investing in unconventional fuels.
These include things like biofuels, most of which aren’t entirely ready
for the marketplace, but also things like oil shale and the Canadian tar
These come with very serious practical problems, like an ever-increasing
input of energy to get the final energy product. Put short, it means
squeezing blood from stone. In the case of oil shale, it uses a great
deal of water where water is already scarce.
The elephant in the room is environmental costs. Production of
unconventional hydrocarbon fuel generates even more greenhouse gases
than production of regular old petroleum. Why? You’re using energy to
create energy. Liquid fuel produced from coal, for instance, just about
doubles carbon emissions. This is on top of physical damage to local
Combined, these suggest urgency and foresight in efforts to wean
American motorists off oil, either through higher fuel economy or by
development of advanced batteries necessary to make the electric car
practical for the marketplace. It also adds legitimacy to novel ideas
like the Pickens Plan, which would substitute natural gas for petroleum
in many of the nation’s buses and trucks.
Will it work? If there is a concerted effort to shift, it’s possible to
avoid economic upheaval. It means being honest about the marketplace’s
tendency toward short-term gain rather than long-term sustainability,
and permanently shelving the mindless boosterism. It also means being
honest about the need for coherent, top-to-bottom energy policy, which
is keenly within the purview of government.
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