On Native Ground
R.I.P: THE HYDROCARBON ECONOMY
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - The modern world runs on hydrocarbons. The global economy is based on cheap, limitless supplies of oil, natural gas and coal.
Unfortunately, the era of cheap, limitless hydrocarbons is ending. It stands to follow that the global economy as we now know it will collapse as a result.
That may seem like an extreme conclusion, especially to those who believe that there is no energy crisis. But there is, and it's only going to get worse in the coming years.
There is plenty of blame to go around, so there's no need for finger-pointing and recriminations. What's needed is for consumers, governments, businesses and investors to realize that we are entering an age of energy uncertainty and that something needs to be done - soon.
These facts are not subject to debate. The world's energy-producing countries are operating near maximum production. Demand for oil is rising faster than production. And there haven't been any major new discoveries of oil in nearly three decades.
In other words, we may be at or very near what's known as "peak oil," the point where demand permanently outstrips supply. Depending on whose estimate you believe, it's either happening right now, or will happen sometime within the next 10 years.
There may be promise in turning the huge amounts of American shale and Canadian tar sands into oil, but the process is tremendously expensive. There are huge oil reserves in the Caspian Sea region, but there are also equally huge difficulties in getting the oil out. And don't forget that most of the nations that produce oil or have potentially large reserves have regimes that don't particularly like Americans or are racked by internal civil unrest.
The ripple effects of higher energy costs are starting to be felt throughout the U.S. economy. There isn't any real economic growth. If it wasn't for borrowing money, there wouldn't be any growth at all. The federal government is borrowing about $1 billion a day to keep going. Consumers rely on credit cards and home equity loans to keep going. And businesses are seeing that now is a great time to cash out their gains rather than invest in the future.
Whichever way you slice it, the era of cheap, limitless energy is over. Dealing with this reality cannot be postponed or delayed any longer. The United States can't keep invading other countries to control their oil. It can't drill its way out of this supply crunch. It needs to commit itself immediately to a plan to conserve energy, develop new energy sources and find ways to make the transition away from a hydrocarbon-based economy.
The last time this nation had to face a drastic change in its energy consumption habits - during the 1972-73 and 1979-80 Arab oil embargoes - the results were astounding. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that the energy efficiency improvements made since the mid-1970s oil embargo now save this nation more than $400 billion in energy costs each year.
By simply insisting that SUVs and light trucks meet the same 27.5 miles-per-gallon average fuel-efficiency standard that cars must now meet, about a million barrels of oil a day would be saved. And if we insisted on the long-postponed goal of requiring U.S. automakers to have a fleet average of 40mpg for all vehicles, we could save the equivalent of the total predicted oil production of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 10 times over.
While in the long run, our economy will benefit from using less energy and by making more efficient use of what we do use, this nation needs to rethink its energy sources. We need to think about renewable fuels, like wood and bio-diesel, and non-polluting technologies like solar and wind power. With tax credits and more money devoted to research, solar and wind power can provide more and more homes with clean and plentiful power. Coal and nuclear energy - two currently demonized energy sources - will have to be used in the interim until other sources are developed.
But conservation may not enough. Neither will a crash program to develop alternative energy sources. The reality may be that we are entering a period of permanent energy scarcity that will directly impact every American.
Quite simply, the lavish and abundant American lifestyle cannot be sustained much longer. Are Americans prepared to re-scale their lives? Are they prepared to live a life that involves less mobility? A life without central air conditioning and Super Wal-Marts? A life without fruits and vegetables flown in from South America or trucked across the country from California? A life without cheap consumer goods from China? Without wonder drugs, or the tens of thousands of other products that are petroleum-based?
In the current age of unreason, few Americans want to think about this. Better to ignore it, because Americans are supposed be can-do optimists who figure out a solution to any problem. But our leaders aren't doing anything, and have no plans to. They want to maintain the current set-up as long as possible.
They can't and they won't. The question is not whether this nation can change its consumption habits. It's how much longer it can survive if it doesn't, and how many of us will get hurt along the way.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.