Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What if the oil runs out?

That was the topic of a program on the Science Channel I watched this weekend. It was a mix of experts talking about the real facts of the situation and a fictional documentation of what the year 2016 will be like. I will flat out state it was really scary and depressing.

This is a subject I have give some thought to, but haven’t dwelled on it to any great extent. I have discussed it on this blog several times. But one of the points that was being hammered upon in this show was that America, and all of the world, for that matter, is in serious denial about the situation and is refusing to confront some very unpleasant facts that could greatly alter our society in the years to come. There is no doubt that a finite resource will ultimately run out. You just can’t argue with that. The problem is that most people in the country, including our politicians (those wise folks who we have chosen to lead us in difficult times) find it much easier to avoid this and other extremely difficult and unpleasant problems.

Here’s the truth of the matter. We are going to have to acknowledge that we are looking at a huge problem, at some time in the future, one that has the potential of causing the collapse of our society. The scarcity and expensive of oil and oil based products could make mass food production very difficult and expensive, if not impossible. Even the food that is grown might not be able to be moved to a central market for mass consumption. And even if that were to occur, many people will be without jobs, as the lack of oil will affect that as well, such that they may find the food that is available unaffordable. All the non-essential jobs and businesses will most likely be gone. The country will start to suffer electrical power outages, as there won’t be any fuel to power the trains which haul massive amounts of coal to fire the electrical generation plants. Only nuclear and hydro-powered electrical plants will be able to be counted upon, and those are not enough to furnish the entire country. The only debatable point of this is when the situation will shift from “expensive” and “a nuisance” to “dire”.

We are not talking about small disruptions here, such as the oil embargo of the 70’s, when gas for the family car (and all other vehicles in the U.S.) became in short supply. Two block long lines of cars waiting to get into the gas stations that had gas might become a fond memory. Unless we do something soon, we could end up with riots and a domino effect on our economy. Given the amount of guns out there in this country and a sizeable portion of our right leaning population that seems rather eager to use them, I am very fearful of what this crisis might actually look like. We are already seeing some signs of what’s to come. Venezuela has just cut off imports to Exxon Mobile, Inc., in protest of Exxon Mobile’s seize some of Venezuela’s oil-based assets. Russia is seriously thinking about cutting off natural gas shipments to the Ukraine. These are not promising signs. They look more like harbingers of further troubles.

Looking at message board for the television show on the Science Channel, it appears that many people still seem to consider anything that deals with future energy shortages or possible environmental changes as something from the “lunatic left”. “We aren’t running out of oil, we are sitting on a vast reserve in ANWR!” “It’s all a liberal plot!” Etc., etc, ad nauseam. I just do not understand our species’ ability to flat out ignore self evident truths that are sitting in front of our collective noses. We are dependent upon oil. There is no arguing about that. Oil is a non-renewable resource. That’s pretty self evident, too, unless you are talking in the range of millions of years. The combined countries of the world are using more and more oil every single day, especially with China and India transitioning from “developing countries” to “major economic powers”. That increases the demand. Significant finds of new oil deposits are few and far between. Saudi Arabia, one of the largest producers in the world and usually looked upon as being the buffer for any possible shortages, hasn’t had a major oil discovery since the early 1970’s. The remaining finds that being made are in areas that are exponentially difficult to get to, such as in the Bering Sea or the North Sea.

The stock answer for the conservatives in this country is to drill in ANWR. ANWR may have promise as an producing oil field, but some estimates put the total for ANWR as low as a six months supply for the U.S., as current consumption rates. Six months. This is a debatable point, with many people saying that we can’t actually tell how much recoverable oil there might be until we actually drill there. That is true enough, but what is also self evident is that, even if the U.S. were to drill there and the available oil from there meets or exceeds our hopes and expectations, it is still a limited resource that will eventually run out. All that drilling in ANWR will do is postpone the inevitable.

The governments of the world need to recognize this coming crisis and the potential for catastrophe that crisis contains. Someone needs to take the lead and start working this problem as soon as possible. Space exploration, as enlightening and inspiring as it is, is a very large drain of national resources that would be better served in an effort to come up with a viable alternative to an oil based energy system upon which the entire world is based. As much as I dislike this prospect, I believe that we need to get busy building more nuclear power plants. Part of this effort must go towards finding an acceptable solution to the waste nuclear products that remain lethal for hundreds of thousands of years. But if we are going to retain any semblance of the society that we have now, the world must have electricity, and on a large scale. Wind farms are good, and more research and actual construction of these farms should be increased. Private residences and businesses should be encouraged, with tax breaks if necessary, to become much more energy efficient than they are now. More effort should be put into finding any sort of viable sources of energy, no matter the source, as long as it isn’t oil or coal based.

I realize that I have developed a very selfish and shortsighted viewpoint on this issue, just as I have the possible effects of an environmental catastrophe brought on by global climate change. I am hoping that the worst effects are far enough out in the distance that I won’t be personally affected by them. That is a crappy attitude, I know. However, I have very little faith that mankind actually has the will to address these problems. We are mired in the trivial. Our society cares about the latest meltdown from Paris Hilton or Brittney Spears, whether or not a political candidate paid $400 for a haircut. The people in the United States can barely stay awake while the current President and his cronies systematically gut the Constitution that has formed the basis of our government for over 200 years, and make the argument that torturing people really is O.K. now, even if we prosecuted Japanese officers after World War II for the exact same thing that we are doing now. No, this problem will not be addressed before it becomes a crisis. Denial is easy, action is hard.

I feel very badly for my daughter and the rest of the young people who will inherit this mess we are bequeathing on them.

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