[Paleopsych] CHE: The End of Easy Oil
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Mon Sep 27 14:43:42 UTC 2004
The End of Easy Oil
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4.10.1
By MALCOLM G. SCULLY
You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist or a Michael Moore
enthusiast to think that Donald Rumsfeld and his colleagues in the
Bush administration are being disingenuous when they declare that the
war in Iraq is not about oil.
In fact, according to the authors of two new books, most
foreign-policy and many domestic decisions made by the current
administration -- and by its predecessors going back to that of
Franklin D. Roosevelt -- have been shaped, overtly or covertly, by a
desire to assure a secure supply of cheap petroleum for America's
economic and military needs. And, the authors of the books conclude,
maintaining that "energy security" will become more difficult, more
dangerous, and more likely to produce violence in the years ahead.
Our petroleum habit will have growing influence on both geopolitical
and economic issues, according to Paul Roberts in The End of Oil: On
the Edge of a Perilous New World, published by Houghton Mifflin, and
Michael T. Klare, in Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of
America's Growing Petroleum Dependency, published by Metropolitan
As Roberts, a writer who focuses on economic and environmental issues,
says: "Although we will not run out of oil tomorrow, we are nearing
the end of what might be called easy oil. Even in the best of
circumstances, the oil that remains will be more costly to find and
produce and less dependable than the oil we are using today."
Klare, a professor of peace and world-security studies at Hampshire
College and defense correspondent for The Nation, suggests that the
United States has never resolved the inherent tension between our need
for assured supplies of petroleum to keep the economy cooking and our
growing reliance on overseas sources of that oil, especially from
areas, like the Persian Gulf, that have a long and continuing history
Rather than develop a sustained strategy for reducing our reliance on
such sources, he says, American leaders "have chosen to securitize oil
-- that is, to cast its continued availability as a matter of
'national security,' and thus something that can be safeguarded
through the use of military force."
Klare argues that our demands for energy and those of other major
powers will require the petroleum-rich Gulf states to "boost their
combined oil output by 85 percent between now and 2020. ... Left to
themselves, the Gulf countries are unlikely to succeed; it will take
continued American intervention and the sacrifice of more and more
American blood to come even close. The Bush administration has chosen
to preserve America's existing energy posture by tying its fortunes to
Persian Gulf oil."
Even more worrisome, Klare says, is the intense and growing
competition among countries such as the United States, China, India,
and those in the European Community over petroleum supplies. "This
competition is already aggravating tensions in several areas,
including the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea basins," he writes. "And
although the great powers will no doubt seek to avoid clashing
directly, their deepening entanglement in local disputes is bound to
fan the flames of regional conflicts and increase the potential for
That's pretty alarming stuff, and some people may be tempted to
dismiss Roberts's and Klare's analyses as anti-Bush, anti-oil
rhetoric. But the questions they raise transcend approval or
disapproval of any one administration, and go to the core of whether
any country can -- purposefully and without vast disruptions -- make
the transition from an economy dependent on one finite resource to an
economy based on renewable, nonpolluting resources.
The authors argue that such a transition would be difficult in the
best of times, and that these are not the best of times.
Roberts notes, for instance, that the development of renewable
alternatives to petroleum, such as biofuels, solar power, clean coal,
and hydrogen, has not been as rapid or as simple as their promoters
had hoped. And even if those alternatives had been developed more
fully, he adds, "many of the new fuels and technologies lack high
power density and simply will not be able to deliver the same energy
punch as the hydrocarbons they replace."
What that means, he says, is that the new technologies must be
accompanied by sharp increases in energy efficiency. He is not
sanguine about achieving such gains. "In spite of high energy prices
and rising concerns about energy security, consumers and policymakers
alike have all but stopped talking about the ways we use energy, how
much we waste, and what might be changed."
Klare writes that President Bush's choice of Vice President Dick
Cheney to conduct a major review of energy policy preordained an
antiefficiency outcome. When the National Energy Policy Development
Group began its work, in February 2001, he writes, the United States
"stood at a crossroads." It could "continue consuming more and more
petroleum and sinking deeper and deeper into its dependence on
imports," or "it could choose an alternative route, enforcing strict
energy conservation, encouraging the use of fuel-efficient vehicles,
and promoting the development of renewable energy sources."
While the group's report -- National Energy Policy -- gave lip service
to the concepts of conservation and energy self-sufficiency, he says,
a close reading "reveals something radically different." The policy
"never envisions any reduction in our use of petroleum," Klare writes.
"Instead it proposes steps that would increase consumption while
making token efforts to slow, but not halt, our dependence on foreign
Given the Bush administration's close ties to the oil-and-gas
industry, such an outcome may have been inevitable, Klare says. But
even an administration without such links would find it politically
risky to move to a radically different energy policy. Like his
predecessors, he notes, President Bush "understood that shifting to
other sources of energy would entail a change in lifestyle that the
American public might not easily accept. ... And so he chose the path
of least resistance."
Roberts, who focuses on the question of total energy supply more than
on the geopolitical consequences of relying on foreign oil, finds
little cause for optimism in our current strategy. The longer we put
off the transition to a postpetroleum era, the harder that transition
will be, he says, and the more unrest and violence we will encounter.
As oil supplies dwindle, "energy security, always a critical mission
for any nation, will steadily acquire greater urgency and priority,"
he writes. "As it does, international tensions and the risk of
conflict will rise, and these growing threats will make it
increasingly difficult for governments to focus on longer-term
challenges, such as climate or alternative fuels -- challenges that
are in themselves critical to energy security, yet which,
paradoxically, will be seen as distractions from the campaign to keep
energy flowing. ... The more obvious it becomes that an oil-dominated
energy economy is inherently insecure, the harder it becomes to move
on to something else."
In the meantime, Klare argues, the Bush administration's war on
terrorism, the impulse of its neoconservative supporters to spread
"democracy" to the Middle East, and our desperate need for stable
supplies of oil have merged into a single strategy -- one that will
commit us to maintaining military forces in many parts of the world
and to using those forces to protect oil fields and supply routes.
"It is getting hard," he writes, "to distinguish U.S. military
operations designed to fight terrorism from those designed to protect
Many of the authors' arguments and conclusions have been advanced
before, and both men fall into the category of "energy pessimists,"
who do not believe that we will be able to maintain our current levels
of oil consumption for as long as agencies like the U.S. Geological
Survey and Europe's International Energy Agency predict. Such
agencies, Roberts says, "are under intense political pressure to err
on the side of wild optimism."
But regardless of whether Klare and Roberts err on the side of
pessimism, their message is unsettling: We are headed into uncharted
territory, led by a government that seems prepared to use force, when
necessary, to preserve the current system. We face growing competition
from other countries for a finite resource at a time of growing
animosity toward the United States.
It is a message that is moving beyond academic and environmental
circles. In a recent "midyear outlook" report, Wachovia Securities, a
large investment company, examines the impact of "the end of cheap
oil" for investors. "We neither expect, nor wish to dwell on,
worst-case scenarios -- but the market knows it is foolhardy to ignore
the possibilities," the report says. It warns that with record-high
oil prices and many domestic refineries operating at or near capacity,
"a disruption somewhere in the production chain could have a greater
than normal effect on energy markets."
The war on terror, it adds, "raises the risk that such a disruption
would not be an accident."
Malcolm G. Scully is The Chronicle's editor at large.
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