Environment

Why Dems and Republicans Are Afraid of Two Words: Peak Oil

The pro-growth faction has reacted quickly and scathingly to the idea that there could be limits to growth.
In 1956, M. King Hubbert, a petroleum geologist with Shell Oil, presented a paper to the American Petroleum Institute that predicted US oil production would peak in the early 1970s and then follow a declining curve, now known as Hubbert's curve. But Hubbert almost didn't get to give his paper. He got a call from his bosses at Shell, who asked him to "tone it down." His reply was that there was nothing to tone down. It was just straightforward analysis. He presented the paper, unedited. You can read the whole story here.

Since that time, the oil industry and its political supporters have done everything they can to tone down the message that oil is a finite resource and that we will run out of it some day. Why would they do that? To further the short-sighted, short-term pursuit of profit. In 2004, Shell finally got caught in a lie about the size of its oil reserves. The company had inflated the stated size of its oil reserves to keep stock share prices high because who wants to invest in a company -- or an industry -- that is going the way of the dinosaurs?

Since 1956, the world economy has proceeded under a sort of oil company spell that has woven the illusion all around us that oil depletion is so far into the future that we don't need to worry about it. That belief was essential to support the aim of an endlessly growing economy. There have been a few hitches in that strategy.

In 1972, just as oil production in the United States reached its all-time peak, a group of computer modelers from MIT released a study called "The Limits to Growth." They predicted a steep decline in natural resources of all kinds. Because reserve numbers for many minerals, including oil, were not accurately known back then, they looked at different scenarios. Some showed us running out of oil before 2000 and some showed the peak occurring toward the middle of the 21st century.

The pro-growth faction reacted quickly and scathingly to the idea that there could be limits to growth. The MIT scientists were treated like Cassandras in academia and in the press. This strategy of killing the messenger, the bearer of bad news, soon permeated American politics. Jimmy Carter tried to grapple with the energy crisis in the late 1970s with support for energy alternatives and conservation, but he was ridiculed by the media and American consumers were not able to hear the message. Ronald Reagan walked away with the presidency and promptly tore the solar panels off the roof of the White House. Ever since then, it has somehow been "not polite" to talk about limits to growth.

Today, despite skyrocketing oil prices, most politicians still avoid the term "peak oil." Most of the media still treat peak oil advocates with skepticism, using epithets like "fringe" and "so-called"to describe peak oil theory. To be clear, peak oil is often misunderstood. The date that the world reaches peak oil is not the date we actually run out, but the date that we stop increasing production. This is followed by a "plateau" where oil production is flat.

Eventually, oil production will decline. Even a plateau is a big problem for a world economy that is based on growth. In a world where 850 million are still going hungry and 3 billion out of 6.5 billion live on less than $2 a day, stagnant oil production means an end to development models based on economic growth. The statistics show that oil production has been flat for more than two years now. These facts are simple. As Hubbert said back in 1956: "Nothing sensational about it, just straightforward analysis."

And yet the most powerful institutions in our society continue to do everything they can to avoid confronting the truth. Fortunately, a vast network of independent citizens, academics and renegade oil company employees has kept probing at the truth and attempting to educate the public about peak oil. You can find their work online at sites like energybulletin.net and theoildrum.com.

These networks have not only exposed the real statistics about oil production constraints, but they have begun to grapple with how the world should respond to this unprecedented crisis. Anyone who is interested in a firsthand encounter with the intrepid "peakists" might check out an upcoming conference. The International Conference on Peak Oil and Climate Change: Paths to Sustainability takes place from May 30 to June 1 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Michigan Congressman Vernon Ehler will launch the conference. Ehler is a member of the House Peak Oil Caucus, which was founded by another Republican, Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland. The Peak Oil Caucus is co-chaired by Democrat Tom Udall, but it has only 15 members in all. There is no similar group in the Senate and very few other politicians will use the term peak oil. None of the current presidential candidates have made peak oil an issue. Bartlett's press secretary, Lisa Wright, said that Bartlett has talked about peak oil with John McCain but not with Obama or Clinton. When I asked if McCain would take on the peak oil issue, Wright said, "I would not describe Senator McCain as being nearly as knowledgeable or committed as Representative Bartlett on the issue."

When speaking of energy issues, politicians will often use the euphemism of energy security, acknowledging that the US has only three percent of the world's oil reserves and warning that most of the rest of it belongs to unfriendly or unstable governments. While there is truth to this type of statement, it sets up a framework for conflict by creating the perception that there is plenty of oil left but bad people are keeping it away from us.

Both Democrats and Republicans buy into this view. In this election season, some Democrats seem even more willing than Republicans to play the oil fear card and promote quick-fix measures that are ineffectual or downright ridiculous. First there was the gas tax holiday proposed by John McCain and seconded by Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama distinguished himself by resisting the idea.

The economics of it make no sense. It would at best save the average motorist about $30 over a summer of driving, and at worst the increased demand would drive up gas prices. Obama's position shows he understands that oil supply is not meeting demand, even if he has not used the words "peak oil."

In the last two weeks, Congress has seen a slew of silly proposals from both sides. Democrats want President Bush to twist Saudi arms to get the kingdom to produce more oil. If that doesn't work, they want to cut off their arms -- weapons that is. Senator Reid plans to bring an expedited resolution to the Senate floor that would block $1.37 billion in arms sales to the Saudis unless they increase oil production by one million barrels a day.

Peak oil educator Richard Heinberg warns where all this confrontation might lead: "[S]uppose we get tough with the Saudis and end up destabilizing the kingdom so that forces unfriendly to us take over. Then we will feel more or less forced to invade in order to maintain access to our national drug of choice. Where would it end? Does any of this help?"

Meanwhile, what Democrats would do to the Saudis, Republicans want to do to the polar bear and the caribou. Republicans are generally in favor of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) despite the fact that even at peak production it would meet only two percent of American's oil demand. But not all Republicans favor drilling in ANWR. Peak Oil Caucus Co-Chair Roscoe Bartlett thinks we should save the Arctic oil for a real emergency. Speaking in opposition to drilling, he said "I am having trouble understanding how it is in our national security interest to use up our little bit of oil as quickly as we can. If we could pump ANWR tomorrow, what would we do the day after tomorrow?"

Bartlett takes this position because he is operating with the knowledge that oil is finite and that the world is nearing or has surpassed peak production. If all members of Congress were operating within this framework, then we would see some very different policy proposals. I asked Lisa Wright why Bartlett's office thinks the peak oil issue has gotten so little traction in the media and with politicians. Wright blamed a human psychological condition known as cognitive dissonance, "the phenomenon that you only hear what you're interested in hearing."

"Hard truths are hard to talk about as well as hard to absorb," she said. "It's much easier to believe people who say that if we just have more American production then we wouldn't have to worry about foreign imports, without explaining that we're already pumping our minute portion of world reserves three or four times faster than the rest of the world. But we can't drill our way to self-sufficiency because you can't pump what's not there."

When asked if she saw peak oil becoming an issue in the presidential campaign, Wright said, "It will become a campaign issue if candidates make it an issue and candidates will choose to make it an issue if it shows up as being a motivating issue for voters." But, she said, "It's a chicken and egg conundrum. To the extent that voters become informed and aware through media, you'll find that candidates will follow. That's generally the way American politics works."

After years of toning down the message of peak oil in public discourse, voters need to let candidates know that now is the time to tone it up.
Kelpie Wilson is Truthout's environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry.