The Peaks and Valleys Of Oil Dependence

Plus the Precautionary Principle Demystified, Cost-Saving Energy Tips and More in the January/February 2006 issue of World Watch

Washington, DC—Although no one knows for sure when oil production will "peak," nearly everyone in the January/February issue of World Watch magazine's Peak Oil Forum agrees that the age of oil will end—and the time to start transitioning to alternatives is now. While industry representatives such as Red Cavaney of the American Petroleum Institute argue that failure to develop "the potentially vast oil and natural gas resources that remain in the world" will have a high economic cost, others, such as Worldwatch Institute's Christopher Flavin, argue that "the current path—continually expanding our use of oil on the assumption that the Earth will yield whatever quantity we need—is irresponsible and reckless."

A lack of transparency in the world oil market makes assessing oil reserves a guessing game, with figures in official oil reports often based as much on politics as geology: nearly three-quarters of the world's oil is controlled by state-owned companies, whose reserve figures are never audited. "We know that oil production will peak within our lifetime, we are pretty sure that market prices will not anticipate this peak, and we know that not having alternatives in place at the time of the peak will have tremendous economic and social consequences," says Robert K. Kaufmann, an energy economist at Boston University. "Doing too little now in the name of economic efficiency will appear in hindsight as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."

While some proponents of "peak oil" like to proffer doomsday scenarios, the Peak Oil Forum participants highlight the opportunity to engage human ingenuity as one resource that won't peak. "Unless we believe, preposterously, that human inventiveness and adaptability will cease the year the world reaches the peak annual output of conventional crude oil, we should see that milestone…as a challenging opportunity rather than as a reason for cult-like worries," says Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba.

While we will never wake up to the headline, "World Runs Out of Oil," says Kaufmann, before production declines to very low levels, the peak will mark a point of no return that will affect every aspect of modern life. "As oil becomes dearer," writes Smil, "we will use it more selectively and more efficiently, and we will intensify a shift that has already begun." Says Flavin: "Roughly $30 billion was invested in advanced biofuels, giant wind farms, solar manufacturing plants, and other technologies in 2004, attracting companies such as General Electric and Shell to the fasting growing segment of the global energy business."

Kjell Aleklett, president of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, recognizes the development quandary posed by peak oil, noting that it may be necessary to double global GDP to "achieve any kind of decent life" in poor countries. But the examples of Sweden and China in the 20th century suggest that doubling GDP will require doubling global oil production—which is unlikely given growing consumer demands and shrinking supplies. "Can this be done?" writes Aleklett. "And can the planet tolerate the increase in CO2 emissions?"

PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE

The precautionary principle is implicit in everyday life, writes Gary Gardner, Worldwatch Institute's Director of Research, in "First, Do No Harm." But no such caution surrounds economic interventions, probably because our planet and its societies have long been viewed as robust enough to absorb the complications of our scientific and business activities. "Because the precautionary principle challenges so many assumptions about how societies ought to advance, it is the target of strong critiques," writes Gardner. Some critics charge that it is anti-science, because it values the views of a non-specialist public that may be influenced more by fears than facts. Other critics ask how it is possible to prevent harmful outcomes which by definition are not known. Still others assert that adherence to the principle will stifle innovation, because it sets such a high bar for safety.

But proponents approach the issue of safety from a different perspective and with a different set of questions, notes Gardner. "If safe alternatives to a product or substance exist, why accept even a small, highly uncertain risk?" Other advocates of precaution note that current regulations are not protecting the public, while still others warn about the consequences of releasing potentially lethal new products or processes into an increasingly crowded and integrated world.

WHAT THE CLIMATE NEEDS: POLITICS

In "Climate Change: What the World Needs Now is…Politics," Eban Goodstein charges that the old solutions to climate change—focus on individual morals and changing attitudes—need to give way to politics. Where environmentalists have focused on lifestyle changes, combined with public education and lobbying—strategies that evolved in the 1970s and 1980s as a response to the gains made in the civil rights struggle—a virulent anti-government ideology in Washington has rendered traditional grassroots pressure tactics ineffective. "We do need to talk about values, but our focus needs to be on right and wrong policies, not right and wrong people," writes Goodstein. "Government—our collective voice—has consistently made the morally wrong choices, subsidizing big fossil fuel producers and failing to support clean energy technologies." Goodstein explains that experiences in his home state of Oregon show how such new approaches are garnering positive outcomes.

CUTTING ENERGY COSTS THIS WINTER

In this month's "Green Guidance," Mindy Pennybacker cites several ways to cut costs this winter, with weather-spiked fuel shortages and rising energy prices giving our wallets the chills this season. Installing energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, laundering your clothes in cold water, and using power strips for home electronics and office machines are just some of the many ways to give your pocketbook a respite. Pennybacker also notes that laptops, which use as little as one-fifth of the energy of a desktop computer, are smart choices for home electronics.

ENVIRONMENTAL INTELLIGENCE: FEATURED TOPICS

Denmark Most "Development-Friendly" Donor Country; Japan Lags

New Imaging Techniques Reveal Greater Amazon Logging

Government Studies Show Health Benefits of Workplace Smoking Bans in Ireland and Norway

IPCC on Carbon Storage: Two Cheers

Nepal Brings Clean Bio-energy to Rural Communities

Nitrogen: Too Much of a Good Thing?

MATTERS OF SCALE

Sun, Oil

World energy production from oil, 2003…….……………………….148 quadrillion Btu*

Energy production from “new” renewable sources (excludes large hydroelectric power plants)…….…………………………6 quadrillion Btu

Energy production from all renewables (includes large hydro), ………………………………………………..….33 quadrillion Btu

* * *

World annual average growth in wind generating capacity, 2000–2004………+28 percent

Annual average growth in solar photovoltaic generating capacity.……………+32 percent

Annual average growth in biofuels (ethanol, biodiesel) production..………….+18 percent

Annual average growth in oil production……………………………………..+1.6 percent

Total increase in oil production, 1970–2003…………………………………..+52 percent

Total increase in renewable energy production (excluding large hydro)…….+269 percent

* * *

Annual government subsidies for renewables

(European Union and United States)………………………………...≈ $10 billion

Annual subsidies for fossil energy (global)……..…………………..….. $150–250 billion

* * *

Estimated number of jobs in new renewable manufacturing, operations,

and maintenance, 2004…………………………………………………1.7 million

Jobs in oil and natural gas extraction (United States only), 2002.……………..…123,000

* British thermal units

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Sources: Production: U.S. Energy Information Administration. Growth: Worldwatch Institute Renewables 2005: Global Status Report (wind); Paul Maycock/PV Energy Systems (solar PV); International Energy Agency (biofuels); BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2005 (oil); Energy Information Administration (oil and renewables). Subsidies: Renewables 2005. Jobs: Renewables 2005 (renewables), U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (oil and gas).

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