By Eugene Linden With global oil production virtually stalled in recent years, controversial predictions that the world is fast approaching maximum petroleum output are looking a bit less controversial. At first blush, those concerned about global warming should be delighted. After all, what better way to prod the move toward carbon-free, climate-friendly alternative energy?
But climate change activists have nothing to cheer about. The U.S. is completely unprepared for peak oil, as it's called, and the wrenching adjustments it would entail could easily accelerate global warming as nations turn to coal (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/19/07, "Rx for Earth: Sooner Not Later"). Moreover, regardless of the implications for climate change, peak oil represents a mortal threat to the U.S. economy.
Peak oil refers to the point at which world oil production plateaus before beginning to decline as depletion of the world's remaining reserves offsets ever-increased drilling. Some experts argue that we're already there, and that we won't exceed by much the daily production high of 84.5 million barrels first reached in 2005. If so, global production will bump along near these levels for years before beginning an inexorable decline.
What would that mean? Alternatives are still a decade away from meeting incremental demand for oil. With nothing to fill the gap, global economic growth would slow, stop, and then reverse; international tensions would soar as nations seek access to diminishing supplies, enriching autocratic rulers in unstable oil states; and, unless other sources of energy could be ramped up with extreme haste, the world could plunge into a new Dark Age. Even as faltering economies burned less oil, carbon loading of the atmosphere might accelerate as countries turn to vastly dirtier coal.
GIVEN SUCH UNPLEASANT possibilities, you'd think peak oil would be a national obsession. But policymakers can hide behind the possibility that vast troves will be available from unconventional sources, or that secretive oil-exporting nations really have the huge reserves they claim. Yet even if those who say that the peak has arrived are wrong, enough disturbing omens—for example, declining production in most of the world's great oil fields and no new superfields to take up the slack—exist for the issue to merit an intense international focus.
The reality is that it will be here much sooner for the U.S.—in the form of peak oil exports. Since we import nearly two-thirds of the oil we consume, global oil available for export should be our bigger concern. Fast-growing domestic consumption in oil-exporting nations and increasing appetites by big importers such as China portend tighter supplies available to the U.S., unless world production rises rapidly. But output has stalled. Call it de facto peak oil or peak oil lite. It means the U.S. is entering an age when it will have to scramble to maintain existing import levels.
We will know soon enough whether the capacity to raise production really exists. If not, basic math and the clock tell the story. All alternatives—geothermal, solar, wind, etc.—produce only 3% of the energy supplied by oil. If oil demand rises by 2% while output remains flat, generation of alternative energy would have to expand 60% a year. That's more than twice the rate of wind power, the fastest-growing alternative energy. And all this incremental energy would somehow have to be delivered to transportation (which consumes most of the oil produced each year) just to stay even with the growth in demand.
Nuclear and hydropower together produce 10 times the power of wind, geothermal, and solar power. But even if nations ignore environmental concerns, it takes years to build nuclear plants or even identify suitable undammed rivers.
There are many things we in the U.S. can do (and should have been doing) other than the present policy of crossing our fingers. If an oil tax makes sense from a climate change perspective, it seems doubly worthy if it extends supplies. Boosting efficiency and scaling up alternatives must also be a priority. And, recognizing that nations will turn to cheap coal (recently, 80% of growth in coal use has come from China), more work is needed to defang this fuel, which produces more carbon dioxide per ton than any other energy source.
Even if the peakists are wrong, we would still be better off taking these actions. And if they're right, major efforts right now may be the only way to avert a new Dark Age in an overheated world.
Views expressed in Outside Shot are solely those of contributors.
Eugene Linden is author of The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations.