Viewpoint: It's about far more than gasoline prices

The buzz these days is about gasoline prices, but few are thinking beyond the price at the pump. Most seem to think the rocketing costs are entirely the result of major oil companies manipulating the take.

Veteran petroleum analyst Jan Lundberg, founder of the Lundberg Survey, told Fox News Radio: “The peak of world oil extraction is approximately now, although reserves data from the oil industry and OPEC are notoriously unreliable. Shortage of crude oil has started to make itself felt, as strained production levels of the most useful crudes reflect tight supply. It is true that oil demand has managed to reach record levels [82.2 million barrels per day, according to the International Energy Agency], but oil fields inevitably peter out.”

Lundberg said nearly 20 countries are past their peak oil production, and Saudi Arabia, the largest producer, is showing signs of leveling off. Other signs of shrinking petroleum resources: major oil companies aren’t drilling new wells, despite record profits; they are buying up reserves through corporate mergers; and the industry is not building new refineries, though capacity is almost at the maximum because they see little prospect of a return on such investments when the supply of crude is in doubt.

On his Web site,, Lundberg sounded a very somber note. “Growth of the economy,” he said, “ends when petroleum is in short supply. When the market really feels the gap between supply and demand widen, the price will go through the roof. Alternative energy sources are not ready. The coming oil shock will signal an historic flip-over from expanding our civilization via petroleum dependence to seeing the commencement—after ‘petrocollapse’—of a reversion to sustainable living based on local ecological capacity. The short answer to ‘What do we do now?’ is conserve, radically.”

But gasoline isn’t the only thing to prompt strong concern. Think on this: food is energy, and energy is required to get food. When we use more energy to obtain the food than we get from it, the result is very likely extinction.

Richard Heinberg, author of The Party’s Over: Energy Resources and the Fate of Industrial Societies, writing on his Web site,, relates how, in 1909 two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, perfected a process to synthesize ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and the hydrogen in fossil fuels. This process, became known as the Haber-Bosch process and initially used coal as the feed-stock to produce ammonia.

Today, we use natural gas to turn out 150 million tons of the stuff each year. Most of it goes into fertilizer, the backbone of modern agriculture. The end result of chemical fertilizers, Heinberg says, plus the use of powered farm machinery and the wider scope of transportation and trade, was not just a great increase in crop yields but a five-fold expansion in human population since the Industrial Age began.

Natural gas is the weak link in this chain. Production of this resource is declining by 5 percent a year. Costs are rising. Yes, there are desperate efforts to obtain a supply of liquid natural gas so we can continue our present farming methods. Liquid Natural Gas (LNG), however, is very costly to transport because the gas must be liqueified, refrigerated and then re-gassified at the receiving end. Then there are the costs of pumping the gas, special ports and specially equipped tankers to carry it.

What happens if there is not enough or no ammonia-based fertilizer? How would food be produced? Linked to this scenario is the cost of transporting the fertilizer as well as foodstuffs. As one writer put it, “The 3,000-mile caesar salad will no longer be possible” when fuel costs get too high.

Next, consider the issue of urban sprawl. As cities spread ever outward, there is less arable land to produce food. Until recently, we weren’t really hurting for farmland because we were putting more land into food production and using irrigation. But now, cropland is in decline because of salinization of the soil, urban sprawl and erosion.

Heinberg notes that about half the topsoil in the Great Plains already has washed down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. Against that backdrop, the family farm is fading away. Heinberg said at the turn of the century, perhaps 70 percent of the population was involved in farming. Today, the number is something like 1-2 percent. Varieties of crops also are decreasing due to consolidation of the seed industry.

At the same time, Heinberg reports, available fresh water on this planet is declining. In this country, 85 percent of fresh water use goes toward agriculture, which is drawing down some of our ancient aquifers faster than nature can replenish them.

We all know that farming is strongly dependent on the weather. That’s where the ogre of climate change rears its ugly, hot head. The heat signals problems that may become catastrophic in the near future.

Author John Cox, in his book Climate Crash: Abrupt Climate Change and What It Means for Our Future, presents a series of discoveries that prove how fickle Planet Earth can be. It demonstrates without question that climate change can occur very rapidly.

Fortune magazine, last year, ran an article titled ‘The Pentagon’s Weather Nightmare.” It said, in part: “As the planet’s carrying capacity shrinks, an ancient pattern re-emerges: the eruption of desperate, all-out wars over food, water, and energy supplies. As Harvard archeologist Steven LeBlanc has noted, wars over resources were the norm until about three centuries ago. When such conflicts broke out, 25 percent of a population’s adult males usually died. As abrupt climate change hits home, warfare may again come to define human life.”

Britain’s The Observer carried an article on climate change in 2004. Buried in the body of the piece was this startling statement: “By 2020, ‘catastrophic’ shortages of water and energy supply will become increasingly harder to overcome, plunging the planet into war.”

We, in the Rockford area, are looking at gasoline around $2.60 a gallon and higher for the higher grades. With all of the above to consider, what do we see on the American landscape. What heroic sacrifices are we making at home as our sons and daughters continue to die in Iraq [the current toll exceeds 1,850]? In addition to flag waving and adding stickers to our cars, what are we doing?

As Derrick Jackson wrote on “Bigger garages. Bigger houses (and more of them). New fuel economy standards that will omit the biggest cars. Hoo-aah. Brave Marines we are. From the halls of McMansions to the steps of our SUVs, we fight our exurban battles, ripping up every living tree.”

James Howard Kunstler wrote a book titled The Long Emergency. In it, he talks about what lies ahead for Americans so far as natural resources are concerned and how our lives will be affected.

“It’s been very hard for Americans,” he told Rolling Stone magazine, “lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring, to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in our technological society. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America is still sleepwalking into the future. I call this coming time the Long Emergency.”

Jan Lundberg concludes: “So it will not matter how much oil is still in the ground, or if other ways of obtaining and using energy are more renewable and greener. A massive shutdown of petroleum supply brought about by market panic and economic collapse will terminate corporate globalism and the political landscape as well. Many aspects of modern society are at a breaking point already, whether one looks at the Iraq war over oil, the housing market bubble, U.S. debt and deficits, or the prospects of damaging weather from the fast distorting of the planet’s climate.”

These statements are not my invention, they are the cold, hard scientific facts as gathered by the top scientists and researchers in the resource field. We would all do well to take
them seriously.

From the Aug. 24-30, 2005, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!