when the cheap oil is gone ...

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And when cheap oil runs out... Enter the age of conservation

Jan Lundberg Sunday 6, 2001

"Conservation is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." - Vice President Dick Cheney on May 1 .

A new society based on conservation and renewable energy is in the offing, and sooner than you might think. Why? Petroleum is running out. Yes, I know you've heard that before, but the truth is that fossil fuels are no longer economically justifiable and are a sure path to destruction. In discounting conservation as a major component of a national energy policy, Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush have denied stark reality.

It would be nice to just ignore today's energy policy as irrational. Any grade-schooler knows the Earth contains only so much petroleum. But, in refusing to institute a rational policy, we are losing precious time for a successful transition to sustainable energy. This has implications for everyone: an acceleration in global warming, rising costs of gasoline and electricity, an increasingly toxic lifestyle.

As the White House has undoubtedly heard, under the most optimistic scenario the oil reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would fuel the U.S. car fleet for less than two years. Did that fact just go in one ear and out the other? Or do Dick and George not care to understand energy except from an oil-patch partisan stance?

Several decades ago, drilling and pumping oil in the United States was amazingly energy efficient: it took one barrel of energy to extract 50. Today, however, for new U.S. wells it takes on average about one barrel to get another. Despite rises in costs such as extraction, oil prices are still low because of government subsidies. That's helped fuel demand. Supply is another matter.

U.S. oil production peaked three decades ago. As soon as global oil production peaks in the next several years, the ensuing down-slope will not be gentle.

Demand, with world trade relying on oil for shipping, is about to meet ever- shrinking supply. Estimates of when this shortfall is to hit put it quite possibly during Bush's tenure at the White House. Time to switch to natural gas? Natural gas is on a bell curve of depletion similar to oil. As for coal, it is the least attractive fossil fuel - not just from the pollution standpoint.

There is not much anyone can do about the energy picture except conserve to the max, even with a concerted all-out effort to encourage the use of renewable energy. Even though renewables will be vital, they don't have high net-energy ratios, and renewables do not yield much in the way of asphalt, tires, pesticides and other pillars of industrial living, that oil does for consumers. The size of our population puts us way out on a limb of petroleum dependence.

The end of abundant, cheap oil means the end of our culture of overconsumption. This is where alternative-living solutions come in. With locally based trade and cooperative survival strategies, some of us will withstand the loss of those trucks coming regularly to the supermarkets. We may learn to love using just one-tenth of the energy we use gluttonously today instead of ranting about the high cost of gasoline and electricity. We will be sharing appliances, gardening in former driveways and traveling less. Lives will not be lost wholesale to car crashes and disease from exhaust fumes. It is going to be a vastly different culture - unimaginable to today's die-hard fossil consumers.

George Bush and Dick Cheney may make decisions, but the dwindling supply of petroleum will soon emerge as the real driver. Meanwhile, the planet's climate is going awry. We must leave the fossils behind and embrace the new Age of Conservation.

Jan Lundberg published the Lundberg Letter, a trade publication on oil trends and is now president of the Sustainable Energy Institute in Arcata. www.lesscars.org

-- mark (mrobinowitz@igc.org), May 06, 2001

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