The end of oil: Preparing for an energy-challenged future

Sep 20, 2005 02:00 AM

by Bevin Milavsky

Author and journalist Paul Roberts will present his take on the economics and politics of energy in "The End of Oil: Preparing for an energy-challenged future," at Bucknell University. The talk, which is free and open to the public, will be held in the Forum of the Elaine Langone Centre and is the first in a social science colloquium series, "Sustainability: A 21st-century perspective."
"The End of Oil," Mr Roberts' first book, looks at how the energy economy developed, how it works and at its various components, such as oil, natural gas, electricity and various other fuels. It also delves into the politics of energy. Mr Roberts said energy distribution is determined by two factors, economics and political leverage.

Mr Roberts said talk of the politics of energy raises the question of why doesn't the United States adopt a stricter policy for oil alternatives. As demand for oil grows in countries like China, and the United States remains reliant on a Middle East oil supply, it is evident the situation cannot remain the same.
"Right now, we are able to produce as much oil as we need. No one who wants oil is unable to get it," he said. But he said the spare capacity, which is the supply and demand balance, is narrowing.
"We're just about producing a maximum," he said. "It doesn't leave any slack in the system to handle any sort of accidents or disruption, and it's that lack of cushion that is scaring the market into higher prices."

Mr Roberts said it is immensely difficult to find new oil supplies quickly, so the burden falls on consumers to reduce demand by being more efficient. There are short-term solutions, such as driving less, car pooling and inflating tires. But as Mr Roberts points out, these have a marginal effect, and a more long-term commitment to using less oil needs to be made.
He said this is accomplished through major changes in the automobile sector and developing new non-oil forms of energy. He said there are no viable alternatives to oil right now, but there is potential in biofuels -- growing crops to turn into fuels.

But he acknowledged that to use biofuels on a massive scale would require significant capital funding and political support for research and development. The farm policy would also need to be reconfigured to address how land would be used differently to grow crops for fuel rather than food.
Another problem is that it would not be possible to grow enough food to make a fuel supply equal to the gasoline used today, so consumers would still have to become more fuel efficient.

"If we were aggressive in pursuing these three things: in developing these new fuel crops, in reconfiguring our farm policy to integrate those fuel crops and dramatically increasing automobile efficiency so we were using less of this new fuel, then there are some optimistic scenarios that show us running a large chunk of our transportation sector on biofuels," Mr Roberts said.
"But that's a long-term endeavour, and it requires action today to begin the process, and that's the tough part. You're trying to convince consumers and industries and government at various levels to make commitments to something that isn't going to pay off for a long time."

Aside from increased oil prices, consumers are faced with a growing sense that the energy crisis may not be temporary.
"We're seeing a greater level of anxiety about our energy security," Mr Roberts said. "There's been an assumption that gasoline and oil prices would remain within a range where we could afford them."
Turning to options such as using oil in Alaska would basically maintain the energy status quo.
"It wouldn't increase our oil reliability," he said. "Any instability in markets would cause prices to go up."

The answer is to reduce demand and develop alternatives so the country is not as reliant on foreign oil.
"There's really nothing to prevent another disruption from occurring tomorrow," he said. "We don't really have many other cards to play" Mr Roberts said what is crucial is to begin the dialogue at the highest level and make people realize that the current energy situation is not sustainable. He said it is one thing to talk of rising fuel prices because of Hurricane Katrina or increased demand for oil in China, but nothing can be accomplished without looking at the entire picture.
"We need to have initiatives to do things like come up with transitional fuels," he said.

He said this could be the production of more hybrid cars, which buy the public some time because they use less gasoline and emit fewer emissions. The country could also increase the use of natural gas. He said while natural gas is not perfect, it is clean-burning and versatile.
He said it is important to recognize that energy policy is tied to climate policy because it is unwise to have cheap energy at the cost of more carbon emissions. Mr Roberts said there probably will not be one replacement for oil, but rather a portfolio of energy options. One fuel could be used for light cars and trucks, another for heavier equipment and another for jet airplanes. He said some technology may work better in certain regions, and multiple solutions need to be investigated.

"I think that we're starting to see a lot of interest at the ground level on energy," he said.
"Obviously people are paying more attention at the gas pump, but I do a lot of lectures and I've really been impressed at the turnout, especially on college campuses, but even at the government level."

Source: The Daily Item Publishing Company
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