The oil derricks shown at left against a smoggy sky are located in……..go on, you’ll never guess– Southern California. And they could have been located outside Philadelphia, along the Gulf Coast of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, or in the Caspian Sea of Central Asia. Oil derricks are everywhere, just not in your back yard yet. We are in a great and conflicted discussion about how and whether to tap the undersea oil reserves off our own coasts, and enduring a humiliating and damaging spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
I have noted in past posts that our reserves of oil, natural gas and coal are estimated to last us, globally, for at least 250 years. Is that comforting? For maximum comfort, stop reading here. Don’t go on and ruin a good mood.
One of the “right questions” to ask about world fossil fuel supplies is: when do we START running out of fossil fuels? When does world daily demand outstrip world daily production? When does demand begin to bring about stupid foreign policy behaviors designed to secure a supply of oil, gas and coal against future scarcity? When do the suppliers of oil begin to manipulate and torture (acceptable in economic circles, not so much in terror suspects) the consumers of oil by raising prices to punitive levels and controlling supplies to create artificial scarcities for their own purposes? When are we faced with the datum that we have used well over half of the original deposit of oil in the earth’s crust, and from here on the picture is going to get more and more difficult as we face slowly, almost imperceptibly dwindling supplies?
Probably you’ve stopped reading before now. If you’re not reading this, lucky you. The questions listed above are some of the many good ones that need answering as we contemplate the future of fossil fuels as our energy supply. We write these posts for ordinary people like ourselves, and we aren’t really up to the detailed math anyway. So here are some answers for ordinary people, and some opinions based on reasonable thinking. And here’s a wiki link to some straight talk about those hard questions.
Even if the hard data on fossil fuel reserves globally was not widely available (it is, but say it was a secret), we could make an observation or two about the behaviors of those powerful custodians of our welfare in recent years. Foreign policy in America is complex, but no one except a 9-11 consipiracy theorist (which puts Michael Moore and Rand Paul in the same cozy little bed, what a happy thought) could deny that oil drives much of American foreign policy for the last 20 years. OPEC (Oil Producing and Exporting Countries) has been staging artificial scarcities and fixing the price of oil for some years now, exerting an influence over world affairs out of proportion to the size and influence of the member countries. Remember, if you’re over 40, the Great Gas Crunches of the early 70s. And the equipoise of world daily oil consumption and production? We’re there. We consume more than we produce. By just 50,000 barrels a day as of late 2008. Think we’ve reduced our consumption since then?
So the information that we’ve got “lots of time, hundreds of years” to solve the energy equation and escape our deepening bondage to oil and the forces that control its supply is deceptive. Seventy five years of clear oil reserves, 250 years of coal reserves don’t seem as reassuring as they did. We’re already displaying scarcity behaviors. Our own American oil companies and financial investment industries manipulate the price and availability of oil for their own purposes. Hard to deny, then, that we’re in twilight, or at least the late afternoon, of the fossil fuel era. Won’t trouble you in your lifetime? All shortsighted, self-absorbed people get the hell out of the discussion right now. Goofy will begin your Disneyworld tour at five minutes before the hour. This is the Gotterdamerung of oil, the long retreat. Those who stay awake and keep watching “won’t get fooled again.” This is a time for serious people, both expert and ordinary, to do lots of thinking and a bit of talking about where we’re going as consumers of energy.
Renewables, including solar pv, solar thermal, wind and fuel cells, are a long, long, long payoff. Add two more ‘longs’ to that statement. We had a comment from a reader lately which quoted a conservative think tank to the effect that the numbers on renewables in the short term are laughable. The numbers said what the correspondent wanted them to, but they didn’t lie. Renewables is a long haul. And the owner of the first solar pv system in your neighborhood is sure to get laughed at for the huge investment and slow payoff. But those individuals and nations that are already acknowledging the slow decline of fossil fuels as a viable energy source are the far-sighted ones. Even their mistakes do them prouder than the smokestack economies and Drill, Baby Drillers. It will take daring, not denial, to secure an energy future for ordinary people like us as fossil fuels continue, year after year, to grow just a tiny little bit more scarce, and a measurable amount more expensive.