Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Oil peaking out from beneath the ground ...

The NYTimes had a guest opinion piece yesterday from a Michael Lynch, an “energy consultant”. He suggested that we are nowhere near Peak Oil and that the “natural: price of oil is around $30 a barrel. Peak oil is the halfway point in our oil reserves, the point where, among other things, we have gotten the bulk of the easy to get oil and it becomes more and more expensive to take out of the ground (or convert from oily sand to gasoline). Now, I don’t know who Lynch is, I don’t know if he has an agenda; I suspect the oil companies would have preferred he had forecasted a natural price of oil at a somewhat higher level, like $75 a barrel. But I am willing to accept his statement, and yet I am unconvinced that we should not try to alter our behavior in some ways.

One note here about reality. Just saying the natural price of oil is $30 a barrel means basically nothing. Lynch is dismissive of people who complain about the political situation of some of our suppliers, and yet the price of gas shot up to over $4 a gallon last summer, the highest they had ever been, and the run up was cause by … nothing. There is “nothing” to stop that from happening again. In fact, the oil companies would not mind that happening again, or at least gas staying artificially high (as it is at this particular moment).

Now, we have built an economy and a way of life based on cheap oil that we never have to worry about running of. We drive to work in massive SUV’s, we drive to the store (alone) in the same SUV’s, we have food and everything shipped over massive distances. We use oil for plastic, fertilizer, and a bunch of other things (I admit I don’t know what all else). Truly I don’t care about the current crop of SUV’s as long as there is not another generation next year, and the current crop only lives its natural life span and dies out. I still believe that even if oil is actually relatively plentiful now, we should treat it as scarce and use it frugally. That means changing our lifestyles in some ways and encouraging corporate America to change their methods. That means we need to get over our prejudices about using public transportation and even bikes (powered or acoustic, so to speak). That means we need to go to farmers markets (more than we do now), creating a demand for local foods that will draw in more local farmers. Which in turn will hopefully mean we can send a signal to agribusiness that we are going to reduce our consumption of their products until they stop using petroleum based fertilizers, and start using more labor intensive but also more natural methods. Because we don’t want to have dead zones in coastal areas created by runoff from America’s corn fields.

Now Congress can create CAFÉ standards and perhaps (I hope) tax gas at a high level. Maybe diesel used for transporting goods by rail can be exempted from the tax (and maybe trucks can get a partial exemption) and part of the proceeds of the tax can be put into the EIC (and even perhaps in lowered taxes to us more middle class Americans). But we need, as Americans and most importantly as parents/adults, to force ourselves to make changes in our behavior. We need to ask whether trips to the store are necessary, we need to car pool or take the bus (at least part way) or bike or walk to work. We need to do those things explicitly so our children will see that treating oil as a scarce resource to be available for future generations is something important to us. We need to send that signal to agribusiness as well, to both conserve oil and protect the environment. And it doesn’t have to stop there, we can insulate more in our houses, choose compact fluorescent light bulbs and higher efficiency appliances, treating all energy as something to be used frugally, so that we might have it to power our future cars and bicycles. And that’s even if we get it from solar or wind power.

I suppose some people see that as a horrible way to live. I see it as making respectful, thoughtful choices (that actually save you money). And I can’t see how that could ever be a bad thing.

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