Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Welcome to Charge: the future of energy
BY Daniel C. Sweeney, PhD


ASPO (the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas) concluded its annual meeting in Boston a week ago and, in contradistinction to many professional societies, published all of the conference notes on their Website. Good for them. Information on issues of such importance should be made widely available in any working democracy.

Obviously, anyone presenting papers at such an event is preaching to the choir. If one didn’t think peak oil were a problem, one presumably would not be in attendance. We haven’t read every word of every paper, but we did skim the lot of them, and we don’t recall anyone bothering to advance new data on the subject. Rather the attitude seems to be that the problem is clear so now palliatives if not solutions must be advanced.

Meanwhile, we’ve been seeing a flurry of announcements from various peak oil debunkers that do purport to show new evidence. One such document, whose provenance we have unfortunately forgotten, made the astounding statement that some 11 trillion barrels of crude reside on the Arabian Peninsula, or approximately twenty times the high estimates of the past. Certainly, this figure was not part of any official ARAMCO announcement, Saudi oil reserves are a well kept state secrete, but recently an ARAMCO official claimed that Saudi reserves alone would ensure 140 more years of business as usual. Then of course there is George W. Bush’s appointment of an ex-Exxon-Mobil CEO to head a study on peak oil, an individual who is also a fervent debunker.

The predictable result of all of this is a further flood of articles in the mainstream business press dismissing peak oil in the same way that much of the business press has dismissed global climate change. What is not so predictable is the effect of a concerted infinite oil campaign.

Peak oil is much less in the news than global warming, though both problems are urgent. And, in the case of global warming, as a matter of interest, the coverage evokes little sense of urgency.

Global warming in the collective consciousness assumes the form of a disaster movie—ice shelves plunging into the sea in spectacular geysers of spume, floods in the Andaman Islands and various other godforsaken places where the plumbing doesn’t work, and droughts somewhere in the Horn of Africa wherever the hell that is. Nobody but a few tree huggers expects that anything bad will happen in the U.S. It’s kind of like globalization. It will be good for us but bad for some guy in Somalia, but what the hey?

What we’re saying is that while most people accept the existence of global warming, they’re not particularly frightened by it. Indeed, it was scarcely an issue in the midterm elections.

Peak oil is different. We’ve never seen a poll as to the number of Americans who accept the validity of the concept, and we’ve heard very few politicians discuss the implications of dwindling oil reserves in any detail. The exception is Bill Clinton since he’s been out of office, but the guy never talked about it when he was in office and in a position to do something about it. Instead you get a lot of platitudes about oil independence and kicking our oil addiction, but the back story behind that narrative is that oil dependence is a problem because Islamo fascists own the stuff, not because it may be running out altogether.

Of course, if peaking is imminent, then it is difficult to conceive of how even the privileged United States can escape economic travails. Maybe that’s why politicians avoid the topic. It’s simply a downer. There’s no audacity of hope, no upbeat movie of the week when it comes to peak oil. Or even a good disaster movie. Making do with less never makes for a very good political narrative. Remember the seventies? Small is beautiful…. No, it’s not. Supersize me, Jack, because I be living large.

But, back to the conference papers. The ASPO guys are mostly scientists and scholars and not necessarily all that Green. Nobody, for instance, was offering the hydrogen economy based on renewable energy as a solution. You’d probably be laughed off the podium if you trotted out that tired scenario today. Almost everyone thought that hydrocarbon liquid fuels would be the mainstay of the transportation energy for decades to come—in other words, for the foreseeable future—and few saw ethanol or biodiesel production playing any major role in the mitigation of the effects of peaking. So that means petroleum analogs from unconventional natural gas, from oil shale, from coal, and possibly from some concentrated forms of biomass, though few thought that biofuels could assume anything close to a dominant position in the mix.

Estimates on how much liquid fuel could be derived from unconventional fossil resources varied, with some running as high 25 million barrels a day in 20 years, but most much lower. Everyone agreed that capital investments in the trillions of dollars would be required to initiate a transition to unconventional sources, and that a crash program would extend for decades. No one discussed what business as usual involved if the confident predictions of ARAMCO and Exxon-Mobil prove misguided or just plain deceptive.

Which brings us to a final point. Do the peak oil debunkers have a hidden agenda? Is the object to discourage a transition to new energy resources so demand for oil and the price it commands will both ascend precipately? To attempt such a ploy would be audacious. To pull it off would be something approaching madness. Could one pull it off? Could one lobby unconventional energy sources out of existence, profiteer from peak oil, and then deflect the certain wrath of the public as all manner of economic catastrophes were visited upon it? And would the remainder of the business community go along with an energy policy that only enriched oil companies while creating dire problems for everyone else with the exception of bankruptcy lawyers?

We don’t know. If, as Sean Hannity had confidently predicted, the Republican Party had picked up several dozen Congressional seats in the recent election, we might have believed that any political capitulation to a well endowed industry, however inimical to the public interest, would be possible. Presented with a choice between a candidate offering a flag burning amendment and one promoting a sane energy policy, what right thinking person could possibly support the latter?

But such was not the case. Fear based appeals to the reptile brain found the reptile for the most part dormant. That’s not to say it can’t be roused again, and that the public can’t ultimately be gulled into accepting a policy of business as usual in regard to energy in the face of worsening oil shortages.

We shall see.