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Vision: Building a World That Can Run Without Fossil Fuels Will Be the Challenge of Our Lifetimes

After a college invited ExxonMobil's CEO to do a commencement address, outraged students instead invited Richard Heinberg. Here's what he had to say about life after oil.

Editor’s Note: Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA invited Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, to give the commencement speech at its 2011 graduation ceremonies on May 14. When students heard this, many were surprised and upset. As Linnea Palmer Paton of Students for a Just and Stable Future put it in a letter to WPI President Berkey, “[W]e, as conscientious members of the WPI community and proud members of the Class of 2011, will not give [the Exxon CEO] the honor of imparting ... his well-wishes ... for our futures ... when he is largely responsible for undermining them.” The students then invited Richard Heinberg, senior fellow of Post Carbon Institute, to give an alternative commencement speech. After a few days of negotiations, the college administration agreed to give Heinberg the podium immediately after the main ceremony. Many students chose to walk out during Tillerson’s address. Here is what Heinberg had to say.

ExxonMobil is inviting you to take your place in a fossil-fueled 21st century. But I would argue that Exxon’s vision of the future is actually just a forward projection from our collective rear-view mirror. Despite its high-tech gadgetry, the oil industry is a relic of the days of the Beverly Hillbillies. The fossil-fueled sitcom of a world that we all find ourselves still trapped within may on the surface appear to be characterized by smiley-faced happy motoring, but at its core it is monstrous and grotesque. It is a zombie energy economy.

Of course, we all use petroleum and natural gas in countless ways and on a daily basis. These are amazing substances—they are energy-dense and chemically useful, and they yield enormous economic benefit. America started out with vast reserves of oil and gas, and they helped make our nation the richest and most powerful in the world.

But oil and gas are finite resources, so it was clear from the start that, as we extracted and burned them, we were in effect stealing from the future. In the early days, the quantities of these fuels available seemed so enormous that depletion posed only a theoretical limit to consumption. We knew we would eventually empty the tanks of Earth’s hydrocarbon reserves, but that was a problem for our great-great-grandkids to worry about. Yet U.S. oil production has been declining since 1970, even with huge discoveries in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. Other countries are also seeing falling rates of discovery and extraction, and world crude oil production has been flat-lined for the past six years, even as oil prices have soared. According to the International Energy Agency, world crude oil production peaked in 2006 and will taper off from now on.

ExxonMobil says this is nothing we should worry about, as there are still vast untapped hydrocarbon reserves all over the world. That’s true. But we have already harvested the low-hanging fruit of our oil and gas endowment. The resources that remain are of lower quality and are located in places that are harder to access than was the case for oil and gas in decades past. Oil and gas companies are increasingly operating in ultra-deep water, or in arctic regions, and need to use sophisticated technologies like hydrofracturing, horizontal drilling, and water or nitrogen injection. We have entered the era of extreme hydrocarbons. This means that production costs will continue to escalate year after year. Even if we get rid of oil market speculators, the price of oil will keep ratcheting up anyway. And we know from recent economic history that soaring energy prices cause the economy to wither: when consumers have to spend much more on gasoline, they have less to spend on everything else.

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