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Oil Depletion Denial

I was having dinner the other night with my partner's mother who recently turned 90. We were talking about the hot news - the end of oil. She was stunned by the discussion. Here was a woman who had grown up with the beginning of the oil-based economy, and now she was seeing its end. I was stunned to put it in that context as well. In one person's lifetime, we have moved from oil as a virtually untapped resource to its practical extinction. In that time, we have also moved from diversified economies to a global economy dependent on a resource that is dramatically in decline. An analogy might be Ireland whose diet became based on the potato (a South American discovery). Then came the potato blight and the ensuing starvation, death, and flight of immigrants.

We have recreated an analogous scenario on a global scale. We have created a global import-export economy dependent on oil. We have dramatically increased the yield of agricultural crops through "modern" agriculture. It is an agriculture that depends on oil to plant the crops, to grow the crops, to harvest and process the crops, and to transport them. Richard Manning wrote an excellent article published in Harpers (7/23/04) called The Oil We Eat - Following the food chain back to Iraq (permanent link). Manning states that we replace the fertility we have stripped from the land by using oil in the form of fertilizer. He states that in the U.S. alone: "On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year's worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land - in 1997 we burned through more than 400 years' worth of ancient fossilized productivity, most of it from someplace else." In other words, with the end of oil comes the end of abundant food (in some parts of the world), and the end of mass crop production all over the world. Call it an oil blight.

In the United States, most do not want to think that there may be an overall, permanent, loss of oil. Most people have rested obliviously in the faith that there is an endless supply of oil and the dramatic increases in cost over the last five years are a "temporary" spike, or those "greedy Arabs" are holding us "over a barrel." This has created some support for the Bush energy policy of opening all of our national lands (including ANWR and off shore areas) to oil exploration and drilling. The problem is therefore not an oil resource problem, but a dependence on foreign oil. Increasingly, people have placed their faith in "alternative" fuel sources - particularly for private transportation. We will "invent" our way out of (take your pick) foreign oil dependence or oil depletion. They point to the Bush push for alternative fuel research - particularly hydrogen and fuel cells. But it is interesting to examine the underbelly of the Bush energy policy.

On the 4/15/05 edition of NOW, there was a discussion of the Bush White House (the "government") going to court to fight California's attempts to strengthen their clean air standards. The Bush government's argument in these court cases is that California is attempting to regulate mileage standards, and that mileage standards are the domain of the federal government - not the states. The fed position is that there is no way to further reduce greenhouse gases (tail pipe emissions in this case) without increasing gas mileage. In other words, decrease the amount of fuel burned. In taking this stand, the Bush government is essentially arguing that they will not stand for reduced gas consumption. Now what kind of an energy plan refuses to allow decreased consumption, and in light of that, purportedly promotes an "alternative" energy future?

I believe that concern about oil availability is starting to spread - despite efforts to quiet that fear. People know that something is going on, but the nature of the true emergency is being played down. The message is that there is more oil out there - lots more oil. We just have to get to it. Hence the so-called energy policy aimed at destroying what protected areas still exist.

While it is obvious that you can't keep this totally out of the public view, you can bury it. You acknowledge rising gas prices in the front section of the paper and run polls asking "How high does the price of gas have to get before you change your driving habits?" Meanwhile in the Business section you throw in a piece now and then that hits a bit closer oil speculation news. As Julian Darley notes in an interview with Petroleum Review

"You see if we really thought there was no spare (oil) capacity and there was nothing we could do then I suspect we'd all start to get a bit panicky. It therefore seems quite important to either maintain the the belief in the reality that there is a little bit of slack in the system."(Global Public Media 4/12/05)

Panicky indeed! That explains why a report from Analyst Don Coxe, from the Bank of Montreal, stating that the largest Saudi oil field (Gharwar) is in decline shows up in Al Jazeera, but not on the front pages of any news paper (and is largely excluded from the business section of virtually every major newspaper). Of course, you did not hear about this on the evening news either. Instead, we get the "reassuring" news that OPEC will increase production.

Keeping the real problem and its implications out of the news also makes the spin on the expansion of permanent military bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kyrgyztan seem reasonable in the "war on terrorism." It allows the spin in building the case for "regime change" in Iran seem one of "national security" issues and protecting the friend of the U.S. - Israel - from possible attack. As Michael Klare points out in his article in Mother Jones, - Oil, Geopolitics, and the Coming War with Iran - Iran has the second largest oil reserves - after Saudi Arabia (Iraq is third). Forty percent of global oil exports pass through Iran via the Strait of Hormuz. Further, "Iran is becoming a major supplier of oil and natural gas to China, India, and Japan, thereby giving Tehran additional clout in world affairs." He continues, that Iran is believed to be second (behind Russia) in natural gas reserves.

No, we wouldn't want people thinking about that, or about the end of oil at all.

4/12/05 Chris Skrebowski interview with Julian Darley, Global Public Media Bank says Saudi's top field in decline

4/12/05 Al Jazeera, Bank says Saudi's top field in decline

4/11/05 Klare, Mother Jones, Oil, Geopolitics, and the Coming War with Iran

4/15/05 NOW, California's Auto Emissions Laws

Rowan Wolf is a columnist for Project for the Old American Century, 
and the editor of 
Uncommon Thought Journal and Radical Noesis. 
Her email is [email protected]


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