Friday, 23 April 2010 00:00
Last week, the U.S. Joint Forces command released a major policy report, signed by General James Mattis of the Marines, that within two years, “surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear” and that by 2015 there could be serious shortages. The same week, the International Energy Agency announced that oil consumption in 2010 will be a record 86.6 million barrels a day and that the worldwide economic recovery was threatened by “the potential of supply falling short of demand.” One month ago, an Oxford University report argued that conventional oil reserves are overestimated by several hundred billion barrels and that demand may outpace supply within four years. Two months ago, Sir Richard Branson, that Virgin billionaire guy, told an international conference that the oil crunch would come in five years. Another report, based on industry data, says we probably have until 2022. Somewhere in there is the truth, and it isn’t far away.
America uses 21 million barrels of oil a day. Even if President Obama’s plan to open several gigantic off-shore areas to drilling pans out in full, it will only satisfy 10 percent of this country’s current oil needs, and not earlier than 2020.
The implications are grave for Long Island, once one of America’s major breadbaskets and now an importer by truck of almost everything. Change is coming, whether we want it to or not.
Many of our Navy’s carrier-based fighters are being run on 50/50 biofuel blends. The Navy plans to run all ships, planes and vehicles on 50 percent alternative fuels by the end of this decade. The Army’s new combat vehicles will run on biodiesel and ethanol. The Department of Defense budget includes $2.7 billion to improve energy efficiency, and not because it looks good in a brochure, but as a matter of national security. As politicians blather on, people who can’t take chances are taking action.
The planet is not running out of oil, but it will eventually be expensive and difficult to extract what remains. America’s suburban economy is built on the premise of cheap energy. At $5 a gallon or so, even the big box store model breaks down. When demand outpaces what can be supplied, we will reach “Peak Oil.”
Quality is also an issue. Western Africa is shaping up nicely as a potential starting point for World War III, as the major powers jockey for position and access to the low-sulfer, “light sweet” oil that is easier to process than Arabian oil. Unfortunately, Africa contains only 10 percent of the planet’s proven oil reserves, which may turn out to be the most important 10 percent of all.
So far, we haven’t come up with the solution we need. Biofuels can reduce dependency on foreign sources, but their return of useful energy is not efficient enough to support the society we’ve built. The nuclear power industry, in addition to everything else about it, could not exist without massive loan and insurance guarantees from taxpayers (another $54 billion in President Obama’s budget plan).
The Germans decided 20 years ago that they would try to put together a sustainable economy that can work in this
century. They’ve built a significant “green” energy sector and cut carbon emissions by a fifth. Germany’s solar panel incentive program has been so successful that they may scale it back because of a glut of electrical power.
Meanwhile, some folks in upstate Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties are happy to live with ignitable tap water and other contamination as long as natural gas extraction (“fracking”) in their community continues unabated. These are the economic choices offered to millions of Americans.
Which country is better prepared to face what is coming? Americans are teaching their children that if they bring the plastic bags back to the supermarket and take slightly shorter showers, we’re all green and it will all work out. Someone will invent something.
Many politicians cheerlead for powerful interests, instructing us that any modification in how we move, work, play or eat is some kind of massive defeat for America.
Earth Day shouldn’t be about “Look how green we act.” It should be about “Look where we have to be” and “Here’s how we’re going to get there.”
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org