Thursday, January 03, 2008

$100 Oil... Immutable Truths Facing America's Young People

Now that oil has hit the symbolic but all-too-real threshold of $100 per barrel, perhaps people are ready to take the problem of fossil fuel depletion more seriously. Although the painful truths of oil, coal, and natural gas should be of concern to leaders and consumers alike, there's a chance that current leaders will fail miserably and only young people will be forced to take the matter seriously. For their sake, let me spell out some facts. Mastering these facts and strategizing against them, or failing to do so, will spell the difference between economic pain and pleasure for the next 50 years.

  1. Fossil fuels are limited. I learned in college, in 1977 that they would start running out somewhere around the turn of the century. Some new techniques in drilling have stretched the supply a little, but there is no more to be found. The last major find was over 20 years ago.

  2. Prosperity in China and India are radically acclerating the consumption of what little oil is left. Picture that in less than 100 years we've used almost all of the globe's oil, and for 75 of those years we barely consumed anything compared to our current rate. Do the math.

  3. Radical alternative mining techniques, such as tar sands and coal shale are environmental disasters once you have a firm grasp of the logistics... the huge amount of energy we consume, vs. the material that must be harvested. Do you understand that unlike oil and gas, which spew almost unaided from the ground, these alternates NEED HUGE AMOUNTS OF ENERGY JUST TO HARVEST?

  4. Current alternative "fuels" such as ethanol and fuel cell cars are a mirage . Ethanol, while having some merits, takes substantial energy to create. Whether there's a net positive energy yield is apparently debatable. Fuel cell cars run on hydrogen. Do you know where the hydrogen comes from? Again, unlike oil, it does not spew forth from a hole in the grould. As described in Consumer Reports magazine, current techniques use natural gas to produce it.

  5. Pure sustainable energy, such as solar, geothermal, wind, and ocean currents, are great and should be maximized but if we exploit them to near perfection, they do not come close to meeting our current consumption. For the next 50 years we desperately need to safely use nuclear energy. Fear over its use, while once excusable in the face of corporate shortcuts, is no longer an option.

  6. Our energy consumption is about 2/3 industrial and 1/3 consumer. No matter how efficient we try to be as individuals, it won't solve the problem. Only when the price of fuel goes way up will individuals or businesses radically cut back on consumption. If we double the mileage of gasoline cars, there will be twice as much driving. (In fact, be prepared for twice as much car traffic because of the constantly increasing wealth of society and the durability of cars.)

  7. If we are fortunate enough to produce inexhaustible, clean energy, such as nuclear fusion, biomass, or genetically controlled bacteria, the global warming problem may ultimately occur.. The unanswered question will be "How much pure heat can we continue pump into the ecosphere?"

  8. Oil and terrorism, whether you like it or not, are simply two sides of the same coin. The problems of the Middle East are now occurring in Nigeria where American oil company employees are kidnapped because of our activities there. The world is no longer ours to do with as we please.
My message boils down to this: developing alternative fuels, while attractive, is a distraction from the action we need to take. The next three generations will learn this the hard way or the easy way. We must stop presuming that the goal is to find other energy-producing methods to bolster our energy-burning ways. Instead, we must learn to live with a sustainable amount of energy consumption. In the meantime, we must hoard more oil, for national defense and for the production of critical goods that only oil can produce. We already do, but we need to reevaluate it.

Except for the damage already done to the environment, this challenge does not have to translate to hard times or economic peril. The collective wealth of our society is many times greater than our average standard of living. All we have to do is ensure that the activities needed to solve the problem are translated into jobs, not corporate handouts.

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