Running on Empty

Running on Empty

The era of cheap, plentiful oil is just about over. Now what?


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.

Indeed, this is already happening. In Canada, energy companies are mining so-called tar sands–a mix of sand, water and heavy crude oil that can be refined into usable petroleum. But burning tar sands is about the worst thing to do if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change because the resulting petroleum has a much greater carbon footprint than conventional oil. Currently, a dozen such projects are under way; projects awaiting approval would quadruple the emissions those projects generate. One encouraging sign: in response to a lawsuit filed by Ecojustice, the top federal court in Canada has temporarily blocked a tar sands project proposed by an ExxonMobil subsidiary on climate change grounds. “This is something which will clearly apply to every single oil-sands project that comes before environmental assessment of any kind,” said Sean Nixon, a lawyer for Ecojustice Canada.

More encouragement: some high-level government officials recognize the danger of peak oil and may be contemplating action. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband wants his country to consider creating “a post-oil economy.” New York Governor David Paterson has spoken in detail about the imminence of peak oil and what government can do about it: invest in greater energy efficiency in the short term and new low-carbon energy sources in the medium to long term. Plug-in hybrid cars, for example, can get more than 100 miles per gallon–double that of today’s generation of hybrids. And if the plug-in hybrids rely on electricity generated by solar, wind or other green energy sources, they fight climate change and peak oil at the same time.

Finally, activists in scores of towns and cities around the world are trying to prepare their communities for the transition to a post-oil economy. Rather than wait for national governments and multinational corporations to save them, these ordinary citizens are examining how their communities can produce their own energy, food, buildings and other essentials using local resources rather than materials that arrive from afar via oil-based transport. “Economic relocalization will be one of the inevitable impacts of the end of cheap transportation fuels,” argues peak oil theorist Richard Heinberg. In Britain this movement has taken the form of “transition towns,” which seek, in the words of organizer Rob Hopkins, “to design a conscious pathway down from the oil peak.” Drawing on the experience of his hometown of Totnes, in Devon, Hopkins has just published The Transition Handbook, which explains how other towns can also begin preparing for the post-oil future.

Some of the transition movement’s ideas–printing local currency, forming solar buying clubs, building “cob” houses made of mud–may seem quaint, inconvenient or naïve. But nothing is more naïve than assuming that the endless oil that modern societies grew addicted to over the past fifty years will last forever. The day of reckoning appears imminent, and as Hopkins says, “it is better to plan for it than be taken by surprise.”

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy