Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Ultimate Dilemma for Oil-Dominated Economies

By Peter McKenzie-Brown
Energy security, always a critical mission for any nation, will steadily acquire greater urgency and priority. As it does, international tensions and the risk of conflict will rise, and these growing threats will make it increasingly difficult for governments to focus on longer-term challenges, such as climate or alternative fuels – challenges that are in themselves critical to energy security yet which, paradoxically, will be seen as distractions from the campaign to keep the energy flowing. This is the ultimate dilemma of energy security in the modern energy system. The more obvious it becomes that an oil dominated energy economy is inherently insecure, the harder it becomes to move on to something else.
I am a big fan of Paul Roberts, whose book The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World (from which I copied this passage) is one of the best tomes available about the current energy situation. The book was published in 2004, though. Although Roberts accurately spotted the major trends and concisely explained the issues, the period in which he did his research and writing was one of high optimism compared to the situation today. Sometimes he seems almost na├»ve. The big word today is recession, with fears around the world that the US may already be there, and that Europe and Japan will soon follow. Perhaps the ballyhooed “disconnect” between growth in the developing world and that in the west is nonsense, goes the thinking: growth in China, India and other rapidly developing countries actually will respond to a slowdown in the West. Those fears have raised concerns in the oil markets: Will demand for the commodity decline so much during the recession that surpluses will wash around the world, driving prices down? Fearing a crash in demand, the price of West Texas Intermediate briefly dropped to its lowest level in three months at the end of January. Then, as I suggested elsewhere, reality began to intrude: OPEC doesn’t have a lot more oil (in the sense of productive capacity) they can produce. Geopolitics, rising demand and historically tight supply still govern the price of oil. Traders aren't likely to let oil prices decline from their current lofty levels. (Natural gas prices, by contrast, are likely to rise rather quickly.) Won’t a slowing of oil demand give the world a respite – buy a bit more time during which we can “do something” about the energy mess? Not if the decline in demand is caused by recession. The world’s energy problems need money to be solved. In an era of job loss, declining consumer spending, huge government and trade deficits (in the United States and other western countries), rising inflation, tightening credit and seemingly interminable religious and energy wars around the world, money for energy solutions is increasingly unavailable. Add to these problems the uninspired leadership in the US, Canada and much of the rest of the world (especially in respect to the intimately related issue of carbon emissions) and the outlook seems particularly bleak. How bad can things get? I’ll give the last word to Paul Roberts, who describes a grim worst case in which crude oil production has peaked, followed by “global recession, worldwide unemployment, economic chaos, and, perhaps, a dangerous and escalating competition among the big oil-importing nations over the remaining reserves in the Middle East.” In an afterword to the reissue of his book, Roberts describes an important change in people’s awareness – by which he mostly means that of the American people. He writes,
More people and policymakers now seem to understand that the energy system is in serious and growing trouble and that without a fundamentally new approach we are almost assured of a catastrophic failure. What our new awareness actually means is hard to say. It may be the first tentative step toward building a more sustainable energy economy. Or it may simply mean that when our energy system does begin to fail, and begin to lose everything that energy once supplied, we won’t be so surprised.

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