Oil surplus or scarcity?

January 18, 2012

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

Iran’s threat to close the Straits of Hormuz would have a major adverse impact on the United States’ economy, which has been built on cheap, abundant supplies of energy. During the 1950s, development of the interstate highway system and federal support for airport development led to a dramatic increase in our oil consumption. It undermined the public transportation system, which had served our society for several generations, and contributed to the dramatic growth of suburbia. In turn, the growth of suburbia increased our oil consumption.

Energy analyst Daniel Yergin is cautiously optimistic about our energy future. He accepts the reality of peak oil in the sense that future supplies will be increasingly costly and involve more political and environmental risks. He remains a technological optimist in that he sees our energy future as based on our ingenuity and creativity. With more costly energy supplies, demand for oil will fall while demand for energy alternatives and efficiency will increase.

Some energy analysts are far less sanguine than Yergin about an optimistic energy future. They fear a false sense of energy abundance is being created in the public by claims that shale gas fracking will provide us with a 100-year supply and that oil supplies are plentiful if environmental restrictions do not block their development.

They believe the current enthusiasm for fracking and shale oil could turn out to be another financial bubble that will burst, leaving us with far less energy than projected, less capital to fund efficiency and alternatives, and higher levels of pollution.

Many projects, such as the development of tar sands, provide very little net energy. It takes the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil to produce three barrels of oil, far below the former ratio of one barrel for 100 barrels. Other projects are not expected to scale up in volume sufficient to meet the 18 million barrels/day characteristic of U.S. consumption.

The fiery loss of the drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico points out the high environmental and economic risks involved in deep-ocean drilling. Oil spills from drilling in the cold Arctic waters could prove more damaging.

If energy supplies prove as abundant as some claim, we will burn more fossil fuels, accelerating climate change while ignoring the need to cut demand.

The Long Emergency author James Howard Kuntsler continues to express disappointment that simple solutions — such as more walkable cities, bike and public transit, more compact communities and increased rail passenger service — fail to draw support from major environmental leaders, whose efforts are focused on finding alternative fuels to continue our car-dependent culture.

Some actions are being taken to move us toward a more sustainable energy economy. Higher standards for more fuel-efficient cars should prove helpful. While not a direct substitute for oil consumption, continuing decline in the cost of solar electric panels should increase their presence in society.

Efforts at the local level to grow food, reduce energy consumption and increase the use of renewable energy are positive steps. Put some real power into your life by occupying your roof with solar energy.

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. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Jan. 18-24, 2012, issue

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