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The Politics of Peak Oil

To many of us, peak oil means that we are staring the collapse of industrial civilization in the face. But our political leaders aren’t paying attention. Once again, Roscoe Bartlett has introduced his symbolic peak oil resolution into the House of Representatives.  Once again, it's attracting little attention or support — so far, it doesn’t seem to have any co-sponsors, though in previous years it has gotten perhaps a dozen. We are having problems convincing anyone in Congress, besides Roscoe Bartlett, that peak oil is a problem. Why is this, and what can we do about it?

The basis of our political problem is that we have not clearly explained the effects of peak oil — specifically, we have not explained why peak oil requires a different approach than global warming. Almost as important, we also don’t have a coherent plan to deal with peak oil. While of course we face all the usual political obstacles, these two problems — both in our power to address — are, I believe, the decisive ones.  Here's my "rough draft" of the kind of things we need to be saying in response to these two issues.  

Two Smart Guys Who Don’t Get Peak Oil

Most peak oil presentations concentrate almost exclusively on the question of whether peak oil is real. We assume that it’s obvious that if peak oil is here, and we’re not prepared, that we have a big problem. Therefore we concentrate on convincing political leaders that peak oil is in fact real. It’s real! It’s coming soon . . . no, it’s already here!

But this "obvious" point is not obvious to a lot of smart people who know about global warming. Global warming means we shouldn’t be consuming so many fossil fuels; peak oil means we won’t be able to. Either way, we should be looking for alternatives to oil. So what’s the big deal? Why should a person already aware of global warming worry about peak oil?  

Two writers have made more or less this exact argument: Joseph Romm and John Holdren. In an article for Salon entitled "Peak Oil? Consider it Solved," Joseph Romm argues that solving global warming will also, parenthetically, solve peak oil. He foresees a future of plug-in hybrid electrics, carbon capture and storage, and ramping up of solar and wind power. The whole debate over peak oil, he argues, is moot: whether it’s here now or here in 50 years, either way we need to drastically cut our dependence on oil. 

John Holdren wrote an article "The Energy Innovation Imperative" published in the Spring 2006 issue of Innovations. This article is doubly significant because John Holdren is President Obama’s new science advisor. Like Romm, he also warns against trying to meet peak oil by increasing the supply of oil from dirty fossil-fuel sources. He notes that "there is little agreement among specialists about whether peak oil is 5 years away or 50, and even less agreement about whether its occurrence will precipitate a shift away from fossil fuels or just a shift among them." 

He concludes: "I suggest that for purposes of energy-policy planning today it does not really matter very much who is right about peak oil.  The economic and security perils of the world’s current and growing dependence on oil tell us that we need to move smartly to reduce that dependence no matter whether peak oil is close or far away. And the looming danger of unmanageable climate change tells us that we must choose ways to do this that reduce rather than increase the energy sector’s emissions of CO2."

I suggest that the logic of these arguments has not been met, and that failing to do so is the key reason why it is hard to get public officials to look at peak oil.

The Economic Impact of Peak Oil

The point that Holdren and Romm have missed is the timing and impact of peak oil. 

Peak oil is primarily an economic threat, not an environmental threat.  The peak oil and global warming problems have a completely different impact.  If global warming were the only problem we had, the first thing you'd do is to start phasing out coal plants, because that's the worst fuel in terms of global warming; and the next thing would be to phase out or sharply reduce meat consumption, which is the next most important factor.  But peak oil is a liquid fuels crisis, which renewable electricity won't do much for until we have electrified transportation (probably decades away).

The timing of the peak oil crisis is also completely different.  Peak oil will hit sooner, faster, and harder than global warming.  A typical slogan for global warming is, "reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050." While this is radical enough, the time frame is decades away.  Peak oil is essentially here now, and we’re probably feeling the first economic effects already. These effects will seriously undermine our ability to respond to the needed energy transition. That’s the problem.

Our whole economy runs on fossil fuels.  A temporary decline in oil supply of 5% in 1979, after the Iranian revolution, resulted in a very serious recession that lasted several years. When the decline of oil begins in earnest, we could see oil availability go down by 3% a year, perhaps more in importing countries such as the United States. A 3% decline over 5 years would be a 15% decline, and it wouldn’t be temporary. 

The needed investments in renewables to sustain this economy are massive. The Hirsch Report estimated it would take 20 years to prepare for peak oil. Who’s going to pay for all these wind turbines and solar power?  

We could borrow the money to invest in renewables, but our whole society is drowning in debt right now, both personal and societal.  This debt is so large that we can only realistically repay it if the economy is growing. And the whole problem that we're facing is basically, well, growth.

In a shrinking economy, borrowing or lending doesn't make much sense.  We’ve gotten into our debt-based economy because we’ve assumed there will be unlimited growth based on unlimited natural resources. People lent each other money because they assumed there would be a bigger pie down the road from which the principal and interest could be repaid.  Now we see that this assumption is false, and it’s likely that much or most of this debt — not to mention any new debt incurred to build out solar and wind power — won't be repaid. This leaves us exposed to the alternatives of massive default and depression as banks and businesses fail, or printing money to pay the bills and hyperinflation. Your choice: the Weimar Republic, or the Great Depression. That’s what we’re looking at as a consequence of peak oil.

All right, maybe it's not that serious.  Peak oil activists disagree on exactly how dire our situation is.  But the key point is that someone needs to be looking into this seriously. The effects of global warming will seriously disrupt the economy in 2050.  The effects of peak oil, however, are already here.  That is what neither the experts nor the politicians are hearing from us.

Lack of a Plan

There’s a second political problem that we face that is almost as serious. We don’t really have a plan or approach to deal with peak oil. There are a lot of ideas, often somewhat contradictory, floating around, but no consensus. Conservation; electric cars; lots of solar and wind; more railroads; nuclear power from thorium; a steady-state economy. But there is no unified and agreed upon response.

ASPO-USA has a set of mitigation strategies, including education, conservation, building rail networks, and so forth.  All of these have merit and I applaud them.  I would look on these, however, as mitigation tactics, not strategies.  There is one overall strategy: the physical scale of the economy has to be reduced, and fairly drastically and fairly quickly.  Ecological economists  such as Herman Daly, Jack Manno, Robert Goodland, etc., say that there are three policy dimensions which ecological economics has to address: 

Scale (sustainability, how big the economy is),
Distribution (justice, how we spread out the wealth), and 
Allocation (markets, what we actually make and do with that wealth).  

Of these, scale is the most important and is the issue forced by the problem of peak oil.  

We do not necessarily need a plan to take political action. If a problem is serious enough, it could warrant political action just to get the leaders to figure out what to do. Suppose that we had solid evidence that a large meteor was headed to earth and was going to impact in Washington, D. C.; we wouldn’t need a concrete plan of action to get the attention of Congress. But for anything less serious than such a meteor, it is really asking a lot of a political leader to take decisive action when you can’t even tell them what "decisive action" looks like.

Why is this so difficult? 

Why is coming up with a plan so difficult?  There are a number of factors; the problem of peak oil is multi-disciplinary, sometimes technical, and some aspects baffle even the experts.  Recently, the editors of The Oil Drum, a blog of collegial and open-minded peak oil experts, found that they were unable to develop a  consensus recommendation of what Obama should do about peak oil.

But the fundamental reason is that our basic strategy, namely reduction of the physical scale of the economy, is absolutely unprecedented.  No prominent leaders on either the left or the right are ready to acknowledge this.  (Well, there's Roscoe Bartlett, I suppose.)  They all cling to the mirage of "sustainable growth" -- when, that is, they acknowledge that sustainability is an issue at all.

For what it's worth, my suggestion to President Obama is that we need to shift the economy to a "steady-state" economy rather than the growth economy we have had for 300 years. We need to accept a material standard of living less than what we currently enjoy. We need a revolution in the economic and social structures of the country and the world. It is not just a question of a few extra renewables here, and a couple of tax incentives there. The whole society needs to change.

The time for an environmental future that made sense was the 1970's.  Now the question is whether we have a future at all.  Without political leadership, it is likely that we are looking at a rather messy economic and political collapse.  

Regardless of what you think about all this, we are not going to get far with this or any other suggestions unless we can communicate in a better way.  We need to do two things to make our message more effective: (1) spell out the economic consequences of peak oil in more specific terms, and (2) put forward a plan of action. 

Neither of these is going to be easy. But there is some good news here. As time progresses, more and more people are going to become aware of the peak oil problem. The more people we have thinking and talking about it, the better chances for arriving at a better answer to these two questions. This is the information age. Sooner or later, our political leaders are going to get into the act, too.

Keith Akers

P. S. A note on vegetarianism

In an earlier version of this article I said that vegetarianism would only marginally help the problem of peak oil.  This was wrong or at least misleading. 

In the U. S., about 17% of all energy use (mostly fossil fuels) goes into agriculture, so vegetarianism is not the first thing you would think of when thinking about reducing U. S. energy use.  But the U. S. is incredibly wasteful in many ways, and the U. S. energy budget for agriculture is still a huge amount by world standards.  Agriculture is basic to human existence and the human economy.  In international terms, the effect of peak oil on agriculture may be one of the primary reasons for being vegetarian.

"Peak oil" will have the effect of driving food prices up, and there is a clear relationship between the price of oil and the price of basic commodities such as wheat, corn, and soybeans, and most of this energy is funneled into livestock agriculture.  This is an inconvenience in the U. S. A., but can be critical for the 1 billion people living on less than $1 a day.  

There are also other factors such as natural gas fertilizers, soil erosion, species extinction, and land use which you would want to consider in evaluating vegetarianism as a strategy.  The case for vegetarianism on environmental grounds is not limited just to peak oil or global warming, but relates more generally to the question of  "limits to growth," which requires a more extended discussion than was intended for this short essay.

January 26, 2009 (revised March 10, 2009 and April 12, 2009)