Exploring Hydrocarbon Depletion
Page added on March 24, 2012
It is a curious thing when a mindset develops. Thoughts, data interpretation, reactions, and behaviors become solidified into expectations about what is normal and what is to come as that sense of normal changes. It’s an important process of human development, and it is a particularly interesting thing to look at on a national scale — and when it comes to American perspectives on energy, attempting to sort out the present situation requires looking at what ‘we’, the collective USA, have been telling ourselves.
Earlier this week, Michale Spence exclaimed:
A substantial failure of education about non-renewable natural resources lies in the background of current public sentiment. And now, having underinvested in energy efficiency and security when the costs of doing so were lower, America is poorly positioned to face the prospect of rising real prices. – “The Energy Deficit” by Michael Spence | Project Syndicate
I agree on both counts; the failure in education and the allusion to difficulties because of a lack of foresight about energy. It is, of course, not something that was totally unforeseen. The not-as-well-known-as-he-ought-to-be early peak oil predictor, M. King Hubbert, essentially predicted US domestic peak oil production, which occurred in the early 1970s. Global oil also suffered a shock with OPEC‘s embargo in 1973, and later that decade the events in Iran further rattled consumers.
Spence continues with how the events of the 1970s led to a change in consumer behavior, industry production, and government policy. More oil exploration was sought, consumers became wary, and “[i]n terms of policy, there was a promising effort in the late 1970’s. Fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles were legislated, and car producers implemented them. In a more fragmented fashion, states established incentives for energy efficiency in residential and commercial buildings.” He states:
But then oil and gas prices (adjusted for inflation) entered a multi-decade period of decline. Policies targeting energy efficiency and security largely lapsed. Two generations came to think of declining oil prices as normal, which accounts for the current sense of entitlement, the outrage at rising prices, and the search for villains: politicians, oil-producing countries, and oil companies are all targets of scorn in public-opinion surveys.
Those three sentences could be unpacked for days. There underlying questions – why a lack of education, why a lack of concern? What led to groups being vilified as a means of explaining our energy situation? Spence notes other countries have had different approaches to energy policy, offering that “[f]or security and environmental reasons, their energy efficiency increased via a combination of taxes, higher consumer prices, and public education”. Probing a nation’s values regarding environment and security, or any other contributing factors to energy policy, may lead to some valuable insights as the world moves through this century.
Furthermore, Spence appears to imply, although not explicitly state, the bigger, more unruly relative of domestic US peak oil – global peak oil production. Again, experts such as Hubbert predicted a global peak around the first decade of this century, and in general this rings true. The takeaway is that from here on out, traditional production of oil will be in decline. What’s more, the demand for oil has never been greater. The essential juxtaposition is having reached a global maximum in supply output for a desired resource, but global demand for this resource continues to grow exponentially. Thus, there is an inherent cut-off point approaching – and it is very different from the shocks, jolts, and other experiences that formed our current national paradigm of energy and gas prices.
That is the point that I feel needs to be stressed, and it’s lack of emphasis, in my opinion, is the substantial failure of our energy education. Until this realization is made commonplace, the hardships we will endure (are enduring) won’t make sense, and the obstacles in the way of a logistically sustainable future will not have proper context. The world as we know it was built via cheap, easily transportable, and highly dependable fuel, and that fuel is essentially non-renewable in supply. At present, there is no substitute for fossil fuels in this way, as per the actual capacity to supply us with the energy we need to live in the society we do.
It is reasonable to have related questions: what about technology, aren’t we developing a lot of new things, new types of energy? Or perhaps you wonder whether or not society’s needs are too great, maybe running computers and air conditioners all the time, or jet planes all across the world are simply not feasible forever. And of course the questions about the differences in what countries are developing now, and how they develop – is it fair to try to sanction any particular group of countries over another in suggesting they should limit oil use, or regulate their environmental impacts therein? Is it even possible to enforce such regulations? All of these questions are significant, and ones that anyone living right now (and likely to the end of this era) will have to answer.
With all of this in mind, hopefully it inspires curiosity necessary for energy education. I believe America, and the world for that matter, is capable of overcoming any deficit in a lack of understanding or education, no matter how substantial. Dialogue about energy and its many connections to society is not yet mainstream but there are ways to engage it. There is much propaganda from various industries or activist groups about how it is best to support their views, but critical thinking and media literacy is needed to wade through these and make wise choices. Additionally, America has a critical shortage of qualified energy professionals, and progress in cultivating talent is necessary in order to be a global energy leader.
Returning to Spence’s article, and to more concrete present happenings, he tries to frame President Obama’s problematic situation:
The Obama administration is now working to initiate a sensible long-term approach to energy, with new fuel-efficiency standards for motor vehicles, investments in technology, energy-efficiency programs for dwellings, and environmentally sound exploration for additional resources. Doing this in the midst of an arduous post-crisis deleveraging process, a stubbornly slow recovery, the process of building a new, more sustainable growth pattern, is harder – politically and economically – than it might otherwise have been, had the US started earlier.
Still, better late than never. Obama is correctly attempting to explain that effective energy policy, by its very nature, requires long-term goals and steady progress toward achieving them.
It will be interesting to see what historians say about the turn of the century regarding global energy policy and economics. Nevertheless, it is commendable to see an administration attempt to discuss energy policy more openly. Yet even for Obama’s efforts, there were opportunities prior to 2012 to take the discussion to a national level. The amount of advertising about Obama’s All-Of-The-Above energy strategy are ubiquitous, or at least almost as popular as the energy industry’s own expressions. But I still ask – where was that interest two years ago, or six months ago? Constant pressure on ‘talking about energy’ comes in part due to the GOP, even if this primary season only seeks to highlight Obama’s shortcomings rather than generate depth of understanding. So to that end, there still remains a lack of outright leadership in regard to energy in America.
The US political system’s persistently low approval ratings stem in part from the fact that it seems to reward obstructionism rather than constructive bipartisan action. At some point, voters will react against a system that amplifies differences and suppresses shared goals, and policy formation will revert to its more effective pragmatic mode. The question is when.
Spence concludes with comments about America’s political system. Again I agree, and I also add that it seems increasingly apparent that whatever push towards change will be more derived from the people than many may think. Much has been written about public will as a main driver in dealing with today’s major issues, yet this form of engagement does not seem to have caught on much. Perhaps antagonism is building, however; people are angry at the president for gas prices, people are angry at oil companies for environmental problems, people are angry at Wall Street, people are angry at labor unions. TIME’s person of the year for 2011 was “The Protestor”, and perhaps trends will converge towards a populace more involved about energy matters.
Discerning who is to blame for a substantial failure in energy education may not be as important as accepting the responsibility to educate ourselves.
Energy at times is most easily seen through its manifestations or consequences: the environmental impact of the BP oil spill or pending Keystone XL pipeline, or the economic impact of US domestic shale gas production or advanced nanotechnology R&D. Of course, the price of gas, and transportation in general. These can provide a tangible foundation for dialogue, but the broader, inherently global context of America’s energy situation needs its own special attention. Transitioning from a culture of blame and neglect to sober understanding and responsibility is likely not something that can come from an administration, particularly given the current political climate. An understanding that sustainability is not merely some matter of environmental concern, but an imperative of cold facts and impersonal logistics, is necessary. It will take courage and intellectual rigor to move past the conveniences of political rhetoric, finger pointing, and the overshadowing of vital energy issues by more accessible (but more tangential) news trends, but doing so is part of accepting the responsibility that enables choosing the best future – for our country and our planet