It used to be that only environmentalists and paranoids warned about running out of oil. Not anymore. As climate change did over the past few years, peak oil seems poised to become the next big idea commanding the attention of governments, businesses and citizens the world over. The arrival of $119-a-barrel crude and $4-a-gallon gasoline this spring are but the most obvious signs that global oil production has or soon will peak. With global demand inexorably rising, a limited supply will bring higher, more volatile prices and eventually shortages that could provoke–to quote the title of the must-see peak oil documentary–the end of suburbia. If the era of cheap, abundant oil is indeed coming to a close, the world’s economy and, paradoxically, the fight against climate change could be in deep trouble.
Though largely unnoticed by the world media, a decisive moment in the peak oil debate came last September, when James Schlesinger declared that the “peakists” were right. You don’t get closer to the American establishment and energy business than Schlesinger, who has served as chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, head of the CIA, Defense Secretary, Energy Secretary and adviser to countless oil companies. In a speech to a conference sponsored by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, Schlesinger said, “It’s no longer the case that we have a few voices crying in the wilderness. The battle is over. The peakists have won.” Schlesinger added that many oil company CEOs privately agree that peak oil is imminent but don’t say so publicly.
One who does is Jeroen van der Veer, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell. Without using the term “peak oil,” van der Veer warned in January, “After 2015, easily accessible supplies of oil and gas probably will no longer keep up with demand.”
Of course, peak oil could arrive sooner than 2015; columnist George Monbiot has claimed in the Guardian that a Citibank report calculates the date at 2012. But even 2015 leaves a very short time in which to prepare, because modern societies were built on cheap, abundant oil.
“The world has never faced a problem like this,” warned a 2005 study funded by George W. Bush’s Energy Department. “Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.”
The United States, with its two-hour commutes, three-car families, atrophied mass transit and petroleum-based food system, is most vulnerable to an oil shock. But similar vulnerabilities exist in most industrial societies, not to mention the roaring economies of China and India, where oil consumption is rising faster even than GDP as newly middle-class consumers buy the cars they have long dreamed of.
At first glance, one might think that peak oil would help the fight against climate change. After all, less available oil should translate into less oil consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions. But modern civilization, to borrow George W. Bush’s term, is addicted to oil. If peak oil arrives before the addiction is treated, the junkie will seek even more dangerous ways to get his fix.