If you haven't read James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency, but you're interested in or worried about peak oil, check out his piece in Orion, "Making Other Arrangements." Here's the crux:
"And a harsh reality indeed awaits us as the full scope of the permanent energy crisis unfolds. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, world oil production peaked in December 2005 at just over 85 million barrels a day. Since then, it has trended absolutely flat at around 84 million. Yet world oil consumption rose consistently from 77 million barrels a day in 2001 to above 85 million so far this year. A clear picture emerges: demand now exceeds world supply. Or, put another way, oil production has not increased despite the ardent wish that it would by all involved, and despite the overwhelming incentive of prices having nearly quadrupled since 2001. "
This article ran in early 2007, so Kunstler's figures may be a bit out-of-date, and no doubt optimists and those with an interest in maintaining the belief that we can continue forever at our current pace have published refutations, either of the basic numbers, Kunstler's interpretation of those numbers, or both. I can't begin to keep up with the technical details, since everyone with a stake or a political or ideological ax to grind seems to have his own numbers and interpretations.
Most folks that I talk to here in the Dallas area are in Dick Cheney's camp: Petroleum prices are too high. Like it or not, ours is a fossil fuel economy. The obvious solution is to increase production. It's as simple as that. Drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, open offshore areas to drilling. That'll get gasoline prices down for a few years. In the meantime "they" will come up with solutions to our long-term energy problems.
But, as Rod Dreher points out:
"For the record, I agree with USA Today's editorial board that we ought to drill in ANWR, but that it barely make a difference in the nation's energy use.According to federal government estimates, if we started drilling today, oil would start coming out in 2018, and would peak in 2027 at -- are you ready for this? -- a whopping 780,000 barrels a day. According to the CIA Factbook, in 2004 the US was consuming 20 million barrels a day. If we had ANWR pumping at peak right now, it would meet less than five percent of our daily needs. And by 2018? Even more of a drop in the bucket, assuming we don't reduce consumption, which we almost certainly will have done by then. "
I don't support drilling the ANWR. I think the probability of environmental damage outweighs the potential benefit. More than 90 percent of Alaska's North Slope is open to drilling. Surely we can set aside and protect this great wilderness. Just because very few Americans want to go there, let alone live there, (It's just a goddamn wasteland! I seen it on TV!) doesn't mean it isn't worthy of protection. Nor does the fact that caribou have been seen hanging around the Alaskan pipeline (Hell, they like that pipeline!) mean that drilling and the associated development wouldn't damage the refuge's ecology.
As for off-shore drilling, I'm not educated enough to comment responsibly. I'll just say that I'm very skeptical given the cost and complexity. How close are we to effectively burning a barrel of oil to get a barrel of oil? Are the existing reserves large enough to justify development costs? Here's Kunstler, in The Long Emergency:
"The ratio of energy expended in getting oil out of the ground to the energy produced by that oil in the U.S. oil industry has fallen from 28:1 in 1916 to 2:1 in 2004 and will continue falling."
I really ought to check these numbers since they scare the hell out of me. Surely, I'm over-simplifying or misinterpreting. Please, somebody tell me why these numbers aren't that worrisome, that 2:1 really is a comfortable margin. Please. Or convince me that Kunstler is wrong.
Oil industry technology is progressing! We can get the petroleum more efficiently!
Yes, but as we deplete fields, oil becomes more difficult and expensive to extract. Will technology keep pace? Or will it fall behind and the ratio of energy gained to energy expended continue to slip? And what about the effect of petroleum cost on the pace of technology?
But let's be optimistic in the short term. Let's say oil producers are able to ratchet up production and gas prices begin to fall significantly. Won't consumption, which has decreased slightly due to high prices, begin to rise? So we plow ahead, of course, as does China and India, instead of making the kinds of "other arrangements" recommended by Kunstler, Bill McKibben, and others, or for that matter, any changes. Change can be expensive, painful, and frightening, and our neighbors, co-workers, and kids might think we're odd. Worse yet, we could over-react. After all, things still seem to be working. Surely "they" will do something to keep things going.
Maybe they will. The old engineer in me still has plenty of respect for human ingenuity. I know better than to assume that the currently unimaginable is impossible. Yet I also believe in physical limits, so I'm far less sanguine than market ideologues who shrug and say, "Don't worry. Market conditions will stimulate the necessary innovation," as if economic theory, a strange brew of sociology, politics, and mathematics, is anchored by the kinds of laws that form the foundation of the hard sciences.
What should we do? We hear a lot about the need for local economies and walkable communities. But how should the average suburbanite get started?
A while back, Matt asked a similar question and received some interesting comments.
In his column in Sunday's Dallas Morning News, Rod Dreher makes a few suggestions that will cause some of his conservative colleagues to turn green and rip out of their suspenders and bow ties. A sample:
"•Dramatically changing zoning restrictions to permit small retailing in residential areas, making it possible for people to walk or bike to do their shopping. Refuse to approve new housing developments unless they are designed for pedestrian accessibility to retail areas.
•Through regulation and tax-code changes, encouraging the development of local farming, so population centers can better afford to feed themselves. Similarly, discouraging the use of arable land for development.
•Government investing in expanding broadband infrastructure to make high-speed Internet access more accessible and affordable. A recent study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found ranked the U.S. 15th out of 30 industrialized countries in terms of broadband performance. Offering tax incentives to companies that use the Internet to decentralize their workforce to homes and neighborhood clusters."
All well and good. But consider a composite suburban couple, the kind of folks who commute 10-20 miles every day, then come home and drive their kids all over creation. Both husband and wife work at professional jobs. In fact, they're probably corporate transplants, mortgaged to the hilt. They can't afford private school for the kids; if they move into the city, the kids will have to attend a very rough public school, the kind with gangs and metal detectors. Their home hasn't gained in value. There's a swimming pool where they might have grown vegetables. They've spent their adult years living like most everyone else at their economic level, their income growing along with their debt. But now they're seeing troubling signs, feeling that that ought to make some adjustments.
Let's hope the optimists are right. Otherwise, I'm not seeing a smooth tranistion from the current fossil fuel economy to whatever lies ahead.