God forbid if the Freepers see our debate over here. They will take many of the policy arguments put forward and rush them to the bank. First and foremost - "Those liberals want to take away your car!!!" And - "Those liberals want you to live in a one-room yurt built out of recycled tires!" Remember, Jimmy Carter's energy proposals
- wise though they were - sank his presidency.
Left-wingers are famous for hand wringing and lamentations. I think we are better at it than right-wing evangelicals, although they are catching up. I agree with all of the major issues presented by Jerome a Paris and The Oil Drum with two important exceptions. First, I believe that "Peak Oil" is a little further away than Jerome and others. Close like a ship visible on the horizon, not like a semi barreling down on you on the highway. Second, I believe that it is essential that progressives frame this issue carefully so as not to alienate the American electorate. There may indeed be a fire in the theater, but yelling "Fire!" will just produce a stampede and no one will survive.
Recent actions taken by Sen. Reid, Sen. Schumer, Rep. Pelosi - taken together - are a good start - politically and policy-wise. The Democrats are our only chance for a rational energy policy - and they have to regain the majority to do anything. Of course, all of this presupposes that there is some rationality to world governments, the world economy, and to multinational corporations. After the past 5 years of the Bush administration, that point is debatable.
Just so that I don't get hammered as an apologist for gas guzzlers, let me say that I find American energy use obscene. I remember Carter's speech and thought it was damn good. I was alternative transportation in the 1970s. I am alternative transportation now. I am dismayed how we have abandoned our inner cities and small towns. We are a throw-away society in every meaning of the term - from Coke cans to old people to entire cities. I cannot believe that here I am in 2006 struggling to make arguments that were accepted fact in 1976. But I am. And if we are going to have any chance of success, I have to forego all nostalgia and what ifs.
So, here are my concerns with regards to the ongoing energy argument:
A. Peak Oil
Marion King Hubbert's "Peak Oil" theory is the darling child of this and many other blogs today. The general premise is undeniable. There is a finite quantity of oil on the planet and it will run out one day. The devil is in the details. Here are Hubbert's estimates on oil from 1956:
If you look at land-ownership maps of Alaska, California, and Wyoming you will notice there are these places called Naval Petroleum Reserves. They were created in the early 1900s. Why? Because our battleships were converted from coal to oil and the admirals and politicians were afraid that oil might be running out back then. If you define "Peak Oil" as oil recoverable by traditional drilling techniques, then we are there now. But as the oil price spike in the late 1970s demonstrated, significantly higher prices bring new reserves and techniques to the market. Within the field of fossil fuels alone, there are three areas with the potential to place huge new reserves on the market - - albeit at a higher price. Tar sands, oil shales, and coal liquefaction. The technology is already in place. The environmental consequences will be huge. But if there is price and demand, they will come on the market.
B. Market Shifts
With the exception of nuclear, hydro, and wind power - we are basically doing what cavemen did. Lighting a fire. We just have a larger range of choices of what to burn. And we have a lot of coal. Estimates indicate that provable coal reserves would last 200 to 300 years. Here are Hubbert's estimates on coal from 1956:
Skeptics such as Gregson Vaux, who predicts peak coal in 2050, use accelerated consumption models, but they do not take into consideration expansion of recovery techniques and reserves. Coalbed methane has emerged as a new fuel technology only in the past 10 years. As oil prices increase, utilities and major industrial users will switch to coal derivatives. Many utilities already have newer plants that are convertible. There is a "New Nuclear" movement afoot. France is highly nuclear and Britain is discussing new nuclear plants. Worldwide, efforts to preserve pristine rivers will face increasing challenges due to hydroelectric generating potential. These shifts away from oil will be the equivalent of expanding production in that they will release large amounts of oil back into the market.
I looked in the political dictionary for this term. It was removed in 1981. Conservation comes in two flavors - personal and societal. Personal conservation in the U.S. will be largely pocketbook-driven. Reduced driving is a first response. Replacing older windows and doors and adding insulation in homes will have rapid payoffs - but only for home owners. Here's where governmental policy comes in. A national speed limit is a likely response - maybe 65 m.p.h. rather than 55 m.p.h. If strictly enforced, this would put an immediate dent into consumption. Most vehicles have a 15% to 20% savings in this 10 m.p.h. range:
This is a relatively economically and politically painless step that offers politicians the appearance of action. In addition, tax write-offs for energy-efficient remodeling will help the home building industry through a forecast slump in the near future and provide incentives for landlord conversions.
However, if the inflationary pressures of high oil prices threaten the framework of the American economy - - as if it is not threatened enough, already - - a political response from Washington and from other national governments is nearly certain. These measures such as world allocation, rationing, mandatory conversions, and use restrictions - more draconian in nature - would entail far more political risk; thus, they would be adopted only as a last resort.
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To repeat - I believe that American energy use is absolutely unsustainable at current levels, but I believe that there is a bit more wiggle-room than the "Peak Oilers" suggest. This wiggle-room can be burnt up in our SUVs going 80 m.p.h. on the freeway or it can be used to transition to a new economy that is less energy wasteful. Such a transition will take decades given the current infrastructure of the United States.
If progressives adopt a cautiously optimistic position on energy, then we have the potential to garner widespread political support. If progressives adopt a harping, didactic approach, then we will be soundly rejected. This involves a degree of intellectual caution in exchange for political opportunity - not political opportunism. If one believes that the American people are unable to act rationally in this matter, then that only strengthens the Bushite argument for unrestricted state power. Such a view is the major shortcoming of authors such as William Ophuls in Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity.
And the last, last resort - or in the case of the current administration, the first resort - is war. At the outset, I stated that all of my discussion presumes some rationality remains. But then again, perhaps it doesn't.