This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Of all the challenges facing President Barack Obama next January, none is likely to prove as daunting, or important to the future of this nation, as that of energy. After all, energy policy–so totally mishandled by the outgoing Bush-Cheney administration–figures in each of the other major challenges facing the new president, including the economy, the environment, foreign policy and our Middle Eastern wars. Most of all, it will prove a monumental challenge because the United States faces an energy crisis of unprecedented magnitude that is getting worse by the day.
The US needs energy–lots of it. Day in and day out, this country, with only 5 percent of the world’s population, consumes one quarter of the world’s total energy supply. About 40 percent of our energy comes from oil: some twenty million barrels, or 840 million gallons a day. Another 23 percent comes from coal, and a like percentage from natural gas. Providing all this energy to American consumers and businesses, even in an economic downturn, remains a Herculean task, and will only grow more so in the years ahead. Addressing the environmental consequences of consuming fossil fuels at such levels, all emitting climate-altering greenhouse gases, only makes this equation more intimidating.
As President Obama faces our energy problem, he will have to address three overarching challenges:
The United States relies excessively on oil to supply its energy needs at a time when the future availability of petroleum is increasingly in question.
Our most abundant domestic source of fuel, coal, is the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases when consumed in the current manner.
No other source of energy, including natural gas, nuclear power, biofuels, wind power and solar power is currently capable of supplanting our oil and coal consumption, even if a decision is made to reduce their importance in our energy mix.
This, then, is the essence of Obama’s energy dilemma. Let’s take a closer look at each of its key components.
Excessive Reliance on Oil
No other major power relies on getting so much of its energy from oil. Making that 40 percent figure especially daunting is this: the world supply of oil is about to contract. The competition for remaining supplies will then intensify, while most of what remains is located in inherently unstable regions, threatening to lead the US into unceasing oil wars.
Just how much of the world’s untapped oil supply remains to be exploited, and how quickly we will reach a peak of sustainable daily world oil output, are matters of some contention, but recently the scope of debate on this question has narrowed appreciably.
Most energy experts now believe that we have consumed approximately half of the planet’s original petroleum inheritance and are very close to a peak in production. No one knows whether it will arrive in 2010, 2012, 2015, or beyond, but it is certainly near. In addition, most energy professionals now believe that global oil output will peak at far lower levels than only recently imagined — perhaps 90-95 million barrels per day, not the 115-125 million barrels once projected by the US Department of Energy. (Here I’m speaking only of conventional, liquid petroleum; there are some “unconventional” sources of oil–Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, and the like–that may boost these numbers by a few millions of barrels per day, without altering the global energy equation significantly.)