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Petroleum Armageddon

Why the election cycle is our worst enemy.

By Rafe Mair 14 Nov 2005 | TheTyee.ca

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The term "peaked" is an ominous one when used in the energy context. It means that we are consuming more than we are discovering.

Some people, to make us feel better, define it to mean that we're consuming more than we are producing, the implication being that all we have to do is turn the tap up a bit and all will be well. But that's not what the word means. If we have not "peaked" now - experts differ as to when this will happen - we will, taking the rosiest of view, be at that position within the next two decades.

The answers are not hard to list - methane, natural gas or liquefied natural gas, wind power, tidal power and on the list goes. And there is research going on, but it isn't fast enough nor will it be as long as there is a liter of gas to be found. For it's the history of man that we cannot stop doing bad things until it's no longer possible to do them: the fisherman catches the last fish, the logger chops down the last tree and the oil man pumps up the last barrel.

When SUVs were cool

We already have part of the answer - the hybrid car which cuts down gas consumption by 50 percent or more. The trouble is they are hard to get. And this leads into the biggest problem, best exemplified by General Motors which is in deep trouble. GM, you see, saw the enormous demand for SUVs and built and stockpiled on the basis that would continue. They are now left with a gillion SUVs they are trying to unload on a less than enthusiastic consumer. And they are teetering on big time fiscal difficulties.

It is much easier to write on this matter than find solutions, if only because our dependency on fossil fuels is so deep that we all fail to grasp what a shortage of these fuels mean. An example from Chez Mair. I was boasting, not long ago, that we were no longer dependent on fossil fuels because most of our heat comes from a pellet burning stove and the small balance from electricity. I was brought up short when I was reminded that our stove depended on electricity as did our kitchen stove and, of course, our light. I was reminded that energy is energy.

The problem, which we all would like to wish away, gets much worse when you consider the ever-increasing demands of America and the new burgeoning appetite of China.

The Saudi shortfall

There is another chilling thought. Saudi Arabia doesn't have nearly as much oil in reserve as they and the rest of the world thinks. In a provocative and scary book, Twilight in the Desert, the Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, Matthew R. Simmons lays it out on one chilling chapter after another. The pools in reserve either don't exist or have far less oil than the optimistic Saudis tell us.

Just another leftie environmentalist dooming and glooming it?

Hardly. Mr Simmons, whom I have interviewed, is head of an investment bank specializing in the energy industry.

There is, of course, a serious environmental concern here. Access to North American oil is an ongoing environmental problem, although, admittedly, George W. Bush isn't going to let access be impeded by a few caribou. As more and more oil moves to China, the chances of oil spills in our waters increases. We have seen first hand in Iraq what environmental catastrophes pipelines become when punctured and set a light by terrorists.

The greatest problem is what I alluded to earlier. As we peak and oil thereafter becomes scarcer and scarcer, rather than setting ourselves deadlines to be weaned off petroleum, we will spend more and more to get at very expensive oil in places like the Alberta Tar Sands. We will continue to be like the man who takes the shingles off the roof and burns them to keep warm. Just as he eventually has neither roof nor heat, we continue to deplete our oil without developing alternatives in timely fashion.

Election cycles fail us

What is the role of government in all this? Is it perhaps to limit the size of cars by legislation? Is it perhaps to tax and tax hard those who buy gas guzzlers? If government is to financially encourage development of alternative fuels, how can they be sure that the money just isn't poured down a rat hole?

What we do know is this - we are approaching a petroleum Armageddon. What we don't know is when it will become a world-class crisis.

What we also know, sadly, is that no government sees past the next election so that nothing will be done until the very last moment. Unless plans are made and implemented, when "too late" arrives, it's not going to be pretty.

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. His website is www.rafeonline.com.  [Tyee]

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