A Coming Energy Crisis Is Being Ignored

Tom Halsted is a former longtime Washingtonian who had a career here as a high-level public information officer for the government, specializing in energy, arms control and intelligence issues. That put him in close contact with the working press, and he eventually became a journalist himself. He became a columnist for the Daily Times of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which is now his hometown. Some of his columns have been distributed nationwide by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post syndicate. Ever the sharp-eyed reporter, he sent us what follows as a collection of “post cards from a recent trip to California.”

In Mojave just off California’s highway 58, and parked wingtip to wingtip on the desert sand, are rows of civilian passenger aircraft, some of them nearly new, mothballed by airlines that can no longer profitably operate large fleets, thanks largely to the price of aviation fuel.

In the desert hills and up along the San Joaquin Valley, sprinkled throughout blooming orange groves, there are oilwell pump jacks that once bobbed up and down like giant grasshoppers, but that now sit idle and rusting, paint peeling, weeds growing around them, marking dried-out wells that are no longer worth pumping.

And for miles along Route 58, between Mojave and Tehachapi, a startling sign of the future: towering white windmills, their spinning blades sometimes lost in low-hanging clouds, more than 5,000 of them whirring away, generating nearly a billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, enough to meet the residential needs of 350,000 people every year. The Tehachapi Wind Farm is now the largest wind power array in the world in output. Like it or not, its counterparts will soon be turning up off our shores, in other mountain passes and in other windy spots around the country.

The advent of commercial wind power on a major scale is one of the more visible signs that society is slowly adjusting to the reality that the happy-go-lucky days of a petroleum-based economy are almost over. It is also one of the few such signs, however, for most governments and societies are slow to acknowledge, far less to welcome, the extent to which all our lives will have to change as the petroleum age approaches its end.

The world is running out of oil, and the United States, which consumes more than 25 percent of the world’s supply, is hastening the day that it will be all but gone. Yet American politicians, many of them with close ties to the oil industry, are so far unwilling to take the steps necessary to prepare people in our country for the very different world that is fast approaching.

By their inaction they increase the likelihood that the consequences of a loss of oil supplies will be more sudden and severe, and contribute to future international instability as the thirst for still more foreign oil runs into increased competition from a number of consuming countries.

WHAT SHORTAGE?—Although economists, environmental organizations and thoughtful planners around the globe have long recognized the need to rethink the way we live, the subject is largely off the radar screens of most politicians in the United States, whose principal concern is the next election.

The Bush Administration has doggedly refused to acknowledge that old habits must change. Both George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, with close ties to the petroleum industry, have done nothing to displease their former associates in that field. Petroleum industry representatives played a major role in shaping the administration’s energy policies, providing significant support to the federal Energy Task Force, which developed the country’s official position, though the public has never been allowed to find out who participated in the task force discussions.

As the Center for American Progress (CAP), a Washington action group, recently noted, the Exxon Corporation played a leading role in persuading Bush to reject the Kyoto Accords, which govern global greenhouse emissions. And the New York Times revealed the other day that a former oil lobbyist, Phillip Cooney, who was Chief of Staff of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, abused his high post. In his job on the President’s Council, wrote theTimes, he was systematically doctoring White House scientific reports to delete or water down any references to climate change ot global warming. Two days after the Times report, Cooney resigned from the council and was hired by Exxon to help maintain its close ties with the White House.
LOW-TEST IDEAS—Earlier this year, President Bush presented a rehash of his 2001 energy proposals to the country; they showed yet again how close his ties to the petroleum industry remain. He billed his energy program as a prescription for reducing American dependence on foreign oil, but it was nothing of the kind.

He called for the construction of new refineries to process imported oil. He declared a commitment to build new, safer nuclear power plants, implying that nuclear power plant safety was the only public concern, though safe disposal of nuclear waste remains one of the greatest obstacles to public acceptance of nuclear energy. He reiterated his enthusiasm for pumping oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. While he agreed to continue Clinton-era tax credits for hybrid cars, there was no talk of improving fuel standards for other automobiles, no thought of weaning Americans away from the giant trucks and SUVs that are hastening the depletion of global oil supplies.

Bush’s tin-ear reaction to studies showing that petroleum supplies are fast running out is matched by the blindness of his administration about changes in the climate. It has consistently shown a lack of sensitivity to the growing evidence of climate change brought about by the failure of the U.S. and other significant industrial nations to mitigate carbon emissions. Now Bush is pressing Congress to pass an energy bill that will perpetuate bad old habits and so will not help reduce overall oil consumption.

The current Bush energy offensive is essentially a smokescreen to hide an unwillingness to think creatively about the effort needed to deal with a growing crisis as the oil runs out.

HOUSE AND SENATE AT ODDS—The House, which passed an oil-friendly bill in April, wants to perpetuate existing standards for fossil fuel consumption, while the Senate seeks ways to encourage alternative energy sources. In June the Senate voted to require utility companies to generate at least 10 percent of their energy output from renewable resources by 2020. The current standard is 2 percent.

The catchphrase “reducing our dependence on foreign oil” is meaningless when there is little more domestic oil to be found. As long as there is no interest in reducing consumption of it, the only significant sources of oil products will continue to be from abroad.

Some senators are attempting to raise automobile fuel-efficiency standards, which have not been increased in 20 years. The House, responding to oil producers and the manufacturers of SUVs and trucks, which are currently exempted from fuel efficiency standards, is adamantly against raising fuel-mileage standards.

Most analysts agree that United States’ domestic oil production capability passed its peak about 20 years ago, and that now global oil production either has passed or is about to pass its high point too. What this means is that half the world’s known oil reserves have been exhausted, and that at some time in the next few decades it will be all but gone.

We might say: “So what? We have been taking oil out of the ground for nearly 150 years. If it’s only half gone, we have a long time to do something about it.” But before we do, it is worth noting that taking the oil out of the ground since the first well was drilled, in Pennsylvania in 1859, has been the easy half; much of the rest is too deep or otherwise inaccessible for easy extraction.

Furthermore, the uses of petroleum have been expanding almost exponentially. For the first forty years of the petroleum age, oil was used for little more than kerosene lighting and the lubrication of steam engines. But with the perfection of the internal combustion engine and the proliferation of the automobile and aircraft, as well as the widespread use of petroleum for domestic heating, electric power production and the fabrication of a wide range of consumer goods, there is hardly an aspect of modern living where petroleum does not play a key role.

All this will have to change, and sooner than we’d like. And we aren’t even thinking of what will happen when the huge populations of China and India begin to demand as much petroleum as we do. Already we use more than 25 percent of the world’s supply.

THE REAL OUTLOOK—Over the long run, Americans will have to recognize that many aspects of modern life that depend on petroleum will have to change, and the “long run” may not be all that long. Within only a few years, shrinking oil supplies and soaring energy prices will force us to rethink many aspects of everyday life and adopt new ways of living—or in some cases resurrect old ones. Picture this America by mid-century, a very real possibility:

Cars: The automobile, for a century an icon of freedom and independence, will increasingly become an unaffordable luxury for many. The two-car garage will become an anachronism. People will stop buying SUVs, pickups and other gas-guzzling vehicles, and begin to demand cars using hybrid technology and other energy-efficient propulsion systems.

Other Transportation: As fuel costs soar, air travel will become so expensive that only the very rich will continue to fly, for business or for pleasure; more commercial airlines, already in trouble despite a lifetime of generous government subsidies, will go bankrupt. Decades of government neglect of rail transportation will need to be reversed, and rail networks, both for passenger and freight service, greatly expanded. Dedicated high-speed rail transportation, long a standard in Western Europe and Japan, may at last become a reality in the U.S. Locally, cities will stop further highway construction, ban automobiles from city centers, and expand and refurbish public transit systems.
Recreation: Family vacations in exotic faraway places will be a thing of the past, and Americans will begin to discover that many of the recreational gadgets such as snowmobiles, jet skis, off-road vehicles and huge power yachts are not so necessary to their lives after all. Former President George Bush, who once snapped ungrammatically, “I’ll recreate any way I want!” when critics questioned his choice of a vessel for recreational fishing, may have to retire his power boat. People will rediscover walking, bicycling, canoeing, kayaking and sailing.

Lifestyle: The rising cost of heating homes with oil, electricity and natural gas will make a virtue of lowering the thermostat and be a boon to the sweater industry. Those who can still afford to build new houses will be turning from huge, energy-guzzling McMansions to small, super-insulated, solar-heated structures. Power mowers will give way to hand mowers, and big green lawns will lose their cachet. For many, single-family suburban living will become unaffordable, and a move back to the cities will become a more attractive option. The big suburban malls, accessible only by car, will dwindle away.

Some futurists see prospects so dire, and our willingness to confront them so limited, that they see the only solution as being essentially to redraw the map of the United States and bring about a massive relocation of the population, all in the next fifteen years or even less. They would have us abandon the suburbs, depopulate much of the Western plains, move back to the cities, all but eliminate automobiles, and try to resurrect a dependence on home-grown agriculture not seen since the nineteenth century. They fear that much of the country will not be prepared to take these necessary steps, and foresee catastrophic political upheavals and widespread social disruption.

Others are more hopeful, but their prescription for a smooth transition from an oil-dependent culture also requires radical restructuring of social systems, and the acceptance of many technologies for which little serious planning is yet taking place. But it seems likely that even if many of the new concepts prove viable, they will not be able to fulfill all of America’s current energy needs. Many of the social adjustments described above would still be needed.

WRITTEN ON THE WIND—Wind power is a proven technology with great promise. Countries like Denmark, which currently gets more than 20 percent of its electric power from offshore wind turbines, are betting that this non-polluting energy source will solve much of their energy needs. Opponents of wind power tend to focus on aesthetic concerns, but such objections are likely to be overcome as wind installations become more widespread. And many of these opponents are “not in my backyard” NIMBYs, who approve of wind power in principle, but just don’t want windmills to interfere with the view from their front porch.

Nuclear power is getting a new look from some planners. It is, of course, a significant energy source that can provide electric power without the carbon dioxide emissions that make coal, oil and gas-fired power plants such environmental liabilities. But safety concerns have made nuclear power, once blithely touted as able to produce electricity “too cheap to meter,” enormously problematic.

No new nuclear power plant has been licensed in 30 years, because of safety concerns. After the Three Mile Island near-meltdown in 1979 and the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986, the public rethought nuclear power and now seems unlikely ever to support the construction of new nuclear power plants anywhere near populated places.

In addition to safety, of course, the problem of safe disposal of nuclear waste remains unsolved. “Temporary” aboveground waste storage in sealed containers remains the only viable storage option for nuclear waste to date. Public confidence in the Yucca Mountain waste-disposal plant was shaken recently by revelations that U.S. Geological Survey staffers had falsified documents saying that the facility would meet safety and environmental requirements.

But even if nuclear power met safety and disposal tests, public opposition to rail and road transportation of the nuclear waste from power plants all over the United States to Yucca Mountain and other waste depositories would likely prevent it from ever being a major option.

President Bush has been touting hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to internal combustion engines. Thus far, the only efficient way to produce hydrogen may require the combustion of more fossil fuel than it would supplant, but this may change as other technologies prove more efficient.

Given the political will, leaders would be able to admit that they have no choice but to abandon the present finger-in-the-dike approach and make the necessary adjustments and sacrifices in time to stave off disaster.

So far, however, there seems to be little such will in evidence, or the acknowledgment that the coming end of the petroleum era calls for intelligent planning now, and a national commitment to change on a scale never before attempted.