Viewpoint: Energy crisis almost being ignored

The most serious and pressing problem facing this country, in fact the entire planet, is not Iraq, or the Michael Jackson trial, nor the Schiavo case, and not even the teetering economy. It is energy, specifically oil and gas.

It is surprising that given that fact, it is only now that the national media are becoming dimly aware that we have a huge problem that threatens our lifestyle and our welfare.

Demand for petroleum is beginning to outstrip supply. Yet the major media seem to be opposed to shedding any light on the situation. A few weeks ago, the price of a barrel of crude oil topped $55. That’s about $20 a barrel more than one year ago. The story, however, appeared on page six of The New York Times.

Scientists tell us that about two-thirds of the planet’s resources have been used up, but despite the decline in production, the world’s appetite for oil and gas continues to climb.

Arjun Murti, an analyst with Goldman Sachs, said: “Our view is that oil prices have to keep rising until the economy is impacted. At $80 (a barrel) oil we might expect some negative reaction on the demand side” (

That figure is entirely possible in the near future. OPEC admits it has completely lost control of oil prices (

Some, however, are not content to wait for oil to hit that level. The International Energy Agency (IEA) wants to curtail, or at least reduce, oil consumption.

The IEA has issued a report titled: “Saving Oil in a Hurry: Measures for Rapid Demand Restraint in Transport.”

The report outlines some steps governments can take to cut demand, but it also proposes a number of additional steps to lower fuel consumption. How about cutting the cost of public transportation or, in more extreme cases, making it free?

It also suggests things like car pooling, telecommuting and checking tire pressures. Things can get a lot stricter than that, though. How would you like severe speed restrictions and compulsory driving bans?

A ban could be effective one out of every 10 days, or it could be based on your license plates, working like our snow plowing rules: even-numbered plates could drive on even-numbered days, odd-numbered plates on odd-numbered days. If it isn’t your day, you would be banned from the roadways.

Of course, enforcing these kinds of rules would mean more police, and that would be added cost. In the U.S., the workforce of about 138 million people would require an additional 1,380 officers to aid in enforcement of the bans.

“If our policing cost estimates are relatively low,” says the IEA, “results clearly show that even a doubling of our estimate would make (bans) a cost-effective policy. The more stringent odd/even (day) policy is also more cost-effective than a one-day-in-10 ban, as the costs are the same…maintaining enforcement is critical” (

U.S. oil production peaked about 1970. We produce about 5 million barrels a day, but we use 20 million barrels a day. More drilling is not going to solve our problem, either. The proposed oil exploration in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge will supply less than 2 percent of our needs, and it will be several years before any of that oil would reach the lower 48 states.

Most of our imported oil comes from large fields in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Mideast. The Saudi fields have begun to decline. They are unable to boost production as they promised.

Hopes for a major bonanza from the Caspian Sea region have largely fizzled. There is less oil there than thought, and it is of poorer quality. Russia is not producing as much oil as it was; partly because of the heavy hand of government. The North Sea fields have declined drastically, and we have alienated the government of Venezuela, which is our fourth-biggest supplier.

The focus now is on oil from Africa, but that is one of the flash points as we contend with China and its rapidly growing demand for more energy.

Most Americans are unaware of what lies on the horizon, and there is a major misconception about Peak Oil among those who do know of it. It is often said: “Oh, there’s plenty of oil in the ground. We don’t have to worry.”

That is not the issue. Peak Oil means the maximum amount of oil that is produced in a given year. After that, the oil is harder to get out of the ground, and it costs more to do so. The point ultimately arrives where it is not economically feasible to pump it. This is not a temporary condition.

The age of cheap and plentiful oil is over. Pump prices will not head down. That signals a bigger change for us than just less driving. Americans are moving like lemmings toward the cliff’s edge.

We live in a technological society. Nearly everything we use and do relates to oil. Think about it. The fertilizer we use to grow our food is made from natural gas; plastics are made from oil, it figures in the manufacture of clothing, hydrocarbons are used to generate our electricity, and they heat our homes.

What if there were no air conditioning this summer? Or you couldn’t use your computer, your microwave, your television, your refrigerator, your toaster oven? How much fun would it be to sit in the dark in winter in a cold house? How would we get water? No pumps would run. Supermarket shelves would be mostly bare because long-distance trucking would be a thing of the past.

There are some who claim plentiful supplies of “abiotic” oil that lies below the mantle and will replenish all the oil fields. That is pure myth. There is no place on earth where such replenishment has happened.

That is only a small part of what can and will result from dwindling energy supplies, unless we move now. The Bush administration has known about Peak Oil and its impact for several years. Instead of trying to find a viable alternative energy source, the administration has opted for trying to take other people’s oil at gunpoint.

James Kunstler, in his article “The Long Emergency,” comments: “The successful regions in the 21 century will be the ones surrounded by viable farming hinterlands that can reconstitute locally sustainable economies on an armature of civic cohesion. Small towns and smaller cities have better prospects than the big cities, which will probably have to contract substantially. The process will be painful and tumultuous.

“New York and Chicago face extraordinary difficulties, being oversupplied with gigantic buildings out of scale with the reality of declining energy supplies. Their former agricultural hinterlands have long been paved over. They will be encysted in a surrounding fabric of necrotic suburbia that will only amplify and reinforce the cities’ problems” (

Read our weekly Renewable Energy page every week. Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and other writers have been informing our readers about Peak Oil for three years.

From the April 6-12, 2005, issue

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