Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Energy Crisis Is Becoming Longterm Problem

In the last two years, there has been a growing recognition that the world has an energy problem. The problem, however, has been around for decades. In the 1970s, many oldtime oil people were shocked that the United States had reached its maximum production for the lower 48; the United States at one time had one of the world's largest reserves but we were one of the earliest countries to develop its fields and one of the first to see its oil production fall as new fields became smaller and smaller and more expensive to develop.

Some of the oldtime oil people saw the writing on the wall; they and others realized we needed alternative energy. But politics and profits got in the way of good sense and then the Middle East started supplying cheap oil for a variety of reasons, one simply being that companies had learned how to pump out the oil faster to keep pace with the world's appetite. After a heydey of a few short years, alternative energy hung around for three decades; some things, like wind power, improved and some things stagnated but alternative energy never received the full attention or research money it deserved.

After Jimmy Carter, most Democrats and Republicans neglected alternative energy over several administrations, but in recent years Republicans have specialized in doing the bidding of the oil companies, Republicans like Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. But reality eventually has a way of intruding on the politics of convenience. There is talk of Peak Oil, how oil production is beginning to plateau, and may start falling in the next few years. But even if oil production manages to creep back up in the next five to ten years, there is the fact that India and China have growing economies and hence the demand for oil in the coming years is going to be greater than ever. We need alternative energy.

The oil companies and many of their political friends tell us not to worry; there's still plenty of oil. Yes, there's plenty of oil but often not in places easy to get at, and not enough to satisfy the world's demand. The oil companies tell us that they can make up the difference with oil sands, heavier grades of oil, oil shale and that they can even convert coal to oil. Yes, that's true but at what price? All these extra exotic methods of producing oil or their derivatives have problems, the biggest being that the technology is very dirty. And there is now an additional reason why we have to look at these alternative methods with skepticism: global warming. The evidence keeps growing that global warming is real and that we need to cut back on fossil fuels that are putting a huge excess of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels will continue to be pumped out of oil fields. The exotic methods of extracting fossil fuels I mentioned will also be used. The oil companies and the oil producing nations will continue to make their profits. But we need to face facts: we need to start switching to alternative fuels, clean fuels, fuels that will allow our children and grandchildren to have a future.

Even auto companies are now coming around. Micheline Maynard of The New York Times has the story:
The Chrysler Group, which depends more heavily on sales of pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles than any other Detroit automaker, said Monday that it expected gasoline prices to remain at $3 to $4 a gallon for the rest of this decade.

The comments by Thomas W. LaSorda, Chrysler’s chief executive, are the first time a Detroit automaker has issued a specific forecast on gas prices since they began climbing to $3 a gallon and higher.

Ford’s chief sales analyst agreed Monday that high gas prices were not a temporary phenomenon, although he did not cite a price range. The analyst, George Pipas, said the auto company expected gas prices to remain high, volatile and unpredictable.

Together, the comments signal a recognition that the two automakers may have to fundamentally change their product mix to put more emphasis on fuel-efficient vehicles — a move General Motors says it already is making.

While the Bush Administration fights battles having more to do with the 19th century than even a strange reinvention of the Cold War, the world is changing. We are in a new era. Public relations, outright lies, and politics as usual won't get us to the future. If someone tells you we already have the solutions, they're just talking. We need action. We are still the greatest innovators in the world. It is time to innovate again and return to a pragmatism that made us great in the first place.


Note: A great resource on oil problems and other potential energy sources is The Oil Drum; they tend towards the Peak Oil view but they're very fact oriented. Some of their articles are great for general readers and some are more technical. Today, they had a technical post on oil reserves and production that's well worth reading for those who wish to look deeper into the subject of where we are when it comes to oil. They also have great discussion threads.

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