A future with peak oil

By Chris Amorosi

The unprecedented rise in oil and gas prices within the last few years has received scant attention by the mainstream news media. Coverage has certainly not been proportional to the unsettling significance of these prices or to the reasons behind them.

It is not enough for Fox News to scrawl the price of gas in the tiny news ticker where information deemed unworthy of America’s attention is consigned. Peak oil is a phrase that may escape a newscaster’s lips from time to time, though it may not permeate the brain of an incredulous SUV aficionado demanding his next gas fix. Though I may be a blushing debutante writing my first column, I hope to impart an idea of the broader meaning behind a $3.00 gallon of gas.

Peak oil is when the rate of oil production reaches its maximum and can only decline afterwards due to lack of crude oil remaining on Earth. The concept was first promoted by an M. King Hubbert and he correctly predicted that oil production in the United States alone would peak and begin to decline in the 1970s.

Think back to the Loony Toons cartoons of our youth where Bugs Bunny might take a wrong turn at Albuquerque and strike oil if he made it to Texas. Those of us who watch TV Land know that Judd Clampett struck “black gold” or “Texas tea” before he could become a Beverly Hillbilly.

Such whimsical tales of wealth from oil were created before the 1970s. Nowadays the stereotype is universally a rich Arab, head-dressed and high rolling, wandering our casinos or torturing George Clooney with Byzantine movie plots. Popular culture makes a subtle reference to peak oil occurring domestically.

World peak oil is far more ominous for the United States, which consumes over 20.6 million barrels of oil per day. The world’s largest producer of oil, Saudi Arabia, produces only about 10.7 million barrels per day. Unfortunately, demand only increases as the twin billion-size nations of China and India compress a century of industrial revolution into a mere few decades.

Here in the United States, demand for oil is dominated by the need to fuel a myriad of behemoth expressions of ego and excess that our car industry produces. A quick perusal of the Department of Energy’s website on automobile fuel economy reveals that this year’s most fuel efficient trucks and SUVs fail to exceed 30 MPG and passenger cars fare little better. If you groan at the pump now, imagine how your children will feel as they struggle to afford their first car’s first tank of gas. If they drive anything at all it will more likely be a hybrid or electric-powered two-seater, perhaps resembling the oddly endearing Smart Fortwo.

Assuming your child won’t be spending his money on vastly inflated food prices to feed his family, of course. A situation like that here in the United States may be hyperbole, but widespread starvation is an entirely realistic threat for a child living in the Third World. The 6.7 billion people on Earth today was made possible by the Green Revolution of 50 years ago, which was an experiment in quashing communism in poor countries by provoking enormous agricultural production and thus happy, fed people.

The revolution, and its aftermath, was entirely fueled by petrochemicals whether they were in the pesticides sprayed on crops, the fertilizers that encouraged them to grow, or driving the tractors that harvest the produce. Diesel trucks bring it to your supermarket and you drive your food home in a car. Even hippies and other environmentally conscious persons should take note that their organic foods follow a similar course on the shoulders of oil.

If lacking mobility and starving is not enough to remove every glimmer of hope, perhaps freezing in the winter will. The Northeast region contains about 70 percent of the country’s households heated by oil burning in the winter. Our region is so vulnerable that a small portion of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is located in a few sites in New England and New Jersey to provide emergency heating for the amount of time it would take to reroute more oil from the Gulf of Mexico to here. Post-peak oil shortfalls are only exacerbated by such wasteful uses which could easily be replaced by electric alternatives if the political or economic will existed. Surely it will once oil becomes increasingly rare and precious, but by then many will be left cold.

Oil provides us with cheap food, imported goods and warmth. It transports us to where we need to go, whether it is to and from a job or emergency services like ambulances and fire engines. And oil is running out. The best we can do now is conserve what is left while we build up alternative infrastructure like nuclear power plants. Only then will the future will be less Mad Max and more Demolition Man.

Chris Amorosi is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]