Peak oil–cutting oil consumption and its damages

May 19, 2010

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

As economic interests pursue dwindling fossil fuels, environmental degradation will intensify. Devastation accelerates as the energy industry seeks new supplies to run our energy-intensive economy. As low-cost, easy-to-exploit energy resources are consumed, we turn to dirty, costly, difficult-to-harvest energy resources such as tar sands, heavy oil, oil shale and gas and deep offshore oil.

The coal industry continues to remove mountain tops, leaving behind a wasteland where ecological diversity, renewable forest resources and clean water once prevailed. Miners continue to risk their lives securing coal from unsafe mines, as they need jobs and owners seek profits.

Securing the natural gas industry’s expanding harvest of shale gas requires substantial volumes of water, which leaves depleted water supplies and deteriorated water quality in its wake.

The latest oil disaster in the Gulf is devastating the seafood, restaurant, tourist and ocean recreation industries, adversely affecting all of the workers and communities benefiting from the Gulf’s renewable resources. Estimates of the economic damages have ranged from billions to a trillion dollars.

All of these energy resources demand substantial amounts of energy to secure them and turn them into useful products and services at escalating energy, economic and environmental costs.

While speculation and withholding energy supplies from the market can drive up costs beyond fair-market prices, there is increasing global recognition that the world has arrived at the point of peak oil. This means we have used up half the world’s existing oil resources and face a future of diminished, more costly, and more environmentally-damaging oil supplies.

As supplies become less plentiful and more costly, we are left to wonder how our national leaders will respond. Will they continue to expand the quest for energy while ignoring or downplaying the environmental consequences of securing additional supplies? Will they expand military efforts to secure energy supplies? Will they impose energy-rationing schemes to reduce demand, as was done in World War II? Will they design more subsidies to maintain our excessive use and continue business as usual?

The most rational choice from both environmental and economic perspectives would be to end the billions of dollars of subsidy to oil companies and make sure they pay all their taxes and royalties while letting energy prices rise to reflect their full environmental and social costs. By paying higher prices now, we can begin to rebuild our economy along more sustainable paths.

Rather than wait for federal and state actions appropriate to the arrival of peak oil, some citizens and communities have begun developing plans to move away from their oil dependency and have designed strategies to capture what they see as huge opportunities available to local communities from such a transition.

The majority of local government-led plans to move away from oil dependency have emerged in the United States. In 2007, Portland, Ore., produced one of the first documents, followed by a similar plan for Oakland, Calif. Other communities have followed suit.

The recently-developed peak oil plan for Bloomington, Ind., will be presented by Dave Rollo at this year’s Ninth Annual Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair Aug. 7-8 in Oregon, Ill. It could serve as a model for cities in Illinois.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. The Vogls and the IREA are members of the Environmental Hall of Fame. Dr. Robert Vogl is vice president of Freedom Field, and Dr. Sonia Vogl is a member of Freedom Field’s Executive Committee. The Vogls consult on energy efficiency, renewable energy and green building. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are active in preserving natural areas and are retired professors from Northern Illinois University. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the May 19-25, 2010 issue

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