August 21, 2005

The Oil Problem (Hint: It’s Not Running Out)

The problem with our increasing consumption of oil goes beyond pollution and geopolitics: There's also the critical issue of supply. But not necesarily the supply issue you think.

A lengthy article in today's Sunday N.Y. Times magazine makes the case that the world's oil reserves are NOT about to go dry. The crisis is one of capacity. Some experts - "still a minority in the oil world - contend that because of the peculariarities of geology and the limits of modern technology, it will soon be impossible for the world's reservoirs to surrender enough oil to meet daily demand."

In other words, it's the increase in demand that's causing our problems, because it's starting to outstrip the ability of the world's oil infrastructure to pump ever-higher amounts each day. According to a study by the U.S. government's own National Energy Technology Laboratory: "The world is fast approaching the inveitable peaking of conventional world oil production."

Notes the Times: " 'Peak oil' is the point at which maximum production is reached; afterward, no matter how many wells are drilled in a country, production begins to decline. Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members may have enough oil to last for generations, but that is no longer the issue....Crunch time comes long before the last drop."

In fact, "if too much oil is extracted to quickly ... the amount of oil that can be recovered from a field can be greatly reduced."

THIS is the danger of our society continuing its wasteful ways, where we think it's not only OK but admirable for people to drive SUVs on 30- or 50-mile single-passenger commutes to their energy-guzzling McMansions in the exurbs. It's not that the oil wells will run dry. It's that the oil can't be pumped fast enough to meet this increased level of daily global demand.

Add the surge in consumption in China, and we are heading for an inevitable day of reckoning. Yet as a nation we remain in denial, led by our oil industry president who does nothing to encourage conservation.

Back in the 70's, President Carter called for the moral equivalent of war to reduce our dependence on foreign oil; he was not re-elected. Since then, few politicians have spoken of an energy crisis or suggested that major policy changes are necessary to avert one. The energy bill signed earlier this month by President Bush did not even raise fuel-efficiency standards for passenger cars. When a crisis comes -- whether in a year or 2 or 10 -- it will be all the more painful because we will have done little or nothing to prepare for it.

As Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson put it:

Gasoline is over $2.50 a gallon, the death toll of American soldiers in Iraq is over 1,850, and what patriotic, heroic displays of sacrifice can we find on the American landscape?

Bigger garages. Bigger houses. New fuel economy standards that will omit the biggest cars. Hoo-aah.

There IS a sane middle ground between expecting a majority of Americans to give up their mid-sized private automobiles - that won't happen until the wells go bone dry - and creating a society where people think it's normal to drive tank-sized vehicles half a mile away in nice weather because our communities are so pedestrian hostile. But who among our leaders will be courageous enough to move us there?

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