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October 2004 • Vol 4, No. 9 •

The End of Easy Oil

By Malcolm G. Scully

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist or a Michael Moore enthusiast to think that Donald Rumsfeld and his colleagues in the Bush administration are being disingenuous when they declare that the war in Iraq is not about oil.

In fact, according to the authors of two new books, most foreign-policy and many domestic decisions made by the current administration—and by its predecessors going back to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt—have been shaped, overtly or covertly, by a desire to assure a secure supply of cheap petroleum for America’s economic and military needs. And, the authors of the books conclude, maintaining that “energy security” will become more difficult, more dangerous, and more likely to produce violence in the years ahead.

Our petroleum habit will have growing influence on both geopolitical and economic issues, according to Paul Roberts in “The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World,” published by Houghton Mifflin, and Michael T. Klare, in “Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Petroleum Dependency,” published by Metropolitan Books.

As Roberts, a writer who focuses on economic and environmental issues, says: “Although we will not run out of oil tomorrow, we are nearing the end of what might be called easy oil. Even in the best of circumstances, the oil that remains will be more costly to find and produce and less dependable than the oil we are using today.”

Klare, a professor of peace and world-security studies at Hampshire College and defense correspondent for The Nation, suggests that the United States has never resolved the inherent tension between our need for assured supplies of petroleum to keep the economy cooking and our growing reliance on overseas sources of that oil, especially from areas, like the Persian Gulf, that have a long and continuing history of instability.

Rather than develop a sustained strategy for reducing our reliance on such sources, he says, American leaders “have chosen to securitize oil—that is, to cast its continued availability as a matter of ‘national security,’ and thus something that can be safeguarded through the use of military force.”

Klare argues that our demands for energy and those of other major powers will require the petroleum-rich Gulf states to “boost their combined oil output by 85 percent between now and 2020. ... Left to themselves, the Gulf countries are unlikely to succeed; it will take continued American intervention and the sacrifice of more and more American blood to come even close. The Bush administration has chosen to preserve America’s existing energy posture by tying its fortunes to Persian Gulf oil.”

Even more worrisome, Klare says, is the intense and growing competition among countries such as the United States, China, India, and those in the European Community over petroleum supplies. “This competition is already aggravating tensions in several areas, including the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea basins,” he writes. “And although the great powers will no doubt seek to avoid clashing directly, their deepening entanglement in local disputes is bound to fan the flames of regional conflicts and increase the potential for major conflagrations.”

That’s pretty alarming stuff, and some people may be tempted to dismiss Roberts’s and Klare’s analyses as anti-Bush, anti-oil rhetoric. But the questions they raise transcend approval or disapproval of any one administration, and go to the core of whether any country can—purposefully and without vast disruptions—make the transition from an economy dependent on one finite resource to an economy based on renewable, nonpolluting resources.

The authors argue that such a transition would be difficult in the best of times, and that these are not the best of times.

Roberts notes, for instance, that the development of renewable alternatives to petroleum, such as biofuels, solar power, clean coal, and hydrogen, has not been as rapid or as simple as their promoters had hoped. And even if those alternatives had been developed more fully, he adds, “many of the new fuels and technologies lack high power density and simply will not be able to deliver the same energy punch as the hydrocarbons they replace.”

What that means, he says, is that the new technologies must be accompanied by sharp increases in energy efficiency. He is not sanguine about achieving such gains. “In spite of high energy prices and rising concerns about energy security, consumers and policymakers alike have all but stopped talking about the ways we use energy, how much we waste, and what might be changed.”

Klare writes that President Bush’s choice of Vice President Dick Cheney to conduct a major review of energy policy preordained an antiefficiency outcome. When the National Energy Policy Development Group began its work, in February 2001, he writes, the United States “stood at a crossroads.” It could “continue consuming more and more petroleum and sinking deeper and deeper into its dependence on imports,” or “it could choose an alternative route, enforcing strict energy conservation, encouraging the use of fuel-efficient vehicles, and promoting the development of renewable energy sources.”

While the group’s report—National Energy Policy—gave lip service to the concepts of conservation and energy self-sufficiency, he says, a close reading “reveals something radically different.” The policy “never envisions any reduction in our use of petroleum,” Klare writes. “Instead it proposes steps that would increase consumption while making token efforts to slow, but not halt, our dependence on foreign providers.”

Given the Bush administration’s close ties to the oil-and-gas industry, such an outcome may have been inevitable, Klare says. But even an administration without such links would find it politically risky to move to a radically different energy policy. Like his predecessors, he notes, President Bush “understood that shifting to other sources of energy would entail a change in lifestyle that the American public might not easily accept.... And so he chose the path of least resistance.”

Roberts, who focuses on the question of total energy supply more than on the geopolitical consequences of relying on foreign oil, finds little cause for optimism in our current strategy. The longer we put off the transition to a post-petroleum era, the harder that transition will be, he says, and the more unrest and violence we will encounter.

As oil supplies dwindle, “energy security, always a critical mission for any nation, will steadily acquire greater urgency and priority,” he writes. “As it does, international tensions and the risk of conflict will rise, and these growing threats will make it increasingly difficult for governments to focus on longer-term challenges, such as climate or alternative fuels—challenges that are in themselves critical to energy security, yet which, paradoxically, will be seen as distractions from the campaign to keep energy flowing.... The more obvious it becomes that an oil-dominated energy economy is inherently insecure, the harder it becomes to move on to something else.”

In the meantime, Klare argues, the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, the impulse of its neo-conservative supporters to spread “democracy” to the Middle East, and our desperate need for stable supplies of oil have merged into a single strategy—one that will commit us to maintaining military forces in many parts of the world and to using those forces to protect oil fields and supply routes.

“It is getting hard,” he writes, “to distinguish U.S. military operations designed to fight terrorism from those designed to protect energy assets.”

Many of the authors’ arguments and conclusions have been advanced before, and both men fall into the category of “energy pessimists,” who do not believe that we will be able to maintain our current levels of oil consumption for as long as agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey and Europe’s International Energy Agency predict. Such agencies, Roberts says, “are under intense political pressure to err on the side of wild optimism.”

But regardless of whether Klare and Roberts err on the side of pessimism, their message is unsettling: We are headed into uncharted territory, led by a government that seems prepared to use force, when necessary, to preserve the current system. We face growing competition from other countries for a finite resource at a time of growing animosity toward the United States.

It is a message that is moving beyond academic and environmental circles. In a recent “midyear outlook” report, Wachovia Securities, a large investment company, examines the impact of “the end of cheap oil” for investors. “We neither expect, nor wish to dwell on, worst-case scenarios—but the market knows it is foolhardy to ignore the possibilities,” the report says. It warns that with record-high oil prices and many domestic refineries operating at or near capacity, “a disruption somewhere in the production chain could have a greater than normal effect on energy markets.”

The war on terror, it adds, “raises the risk that such a disruption would not be an accident.”

Malcolm G. Scully is The Chronicle of Higher Education’s editor at large.

—Chronicle of Higher Education, October 1, 2004





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