Whatever you may imagine, "peak oil" has not been discredited as a concept, a statement no less true for "peak fossil fuels." Think of them instead as postponed. We are, after all, on a finite planet that, by definition, holds a finite amount of oil, natural gas, and coal. Sooner or later, as such deposits get used up (no matter the new techniques that might be invented to extract more of the ever tougher stuff from the earth), we will reach a "peak" of production from which it will be all downhill.
That's a simple fact to which, as it happens, there's a catch. Here, according to the New York Times, is the key finding from the latest leaked 127-page draft report of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which manages to use the word "risk" 351 times, "vulnerable" or "vulnerability" 61 times, and "irreversible" 48 times: "The report found that companies and governments had identified reserves of these [fossil] fuels at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level."
In other words, while "peak oil" may be a perfectly on-target concept, "peak existence" turns out to precede it by decades and from that far more consequential "peak" we are, unlike "peak oil," already on the downhill slide. The scientists who produced the IPCC's draft report expect the average global temperature to increase by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century and at least 6.7 degrees by its end, which will leave humanity on a staggeringly less habitable planet.
The damage, including the melting of the Greenland ice shield, which alone could raise global sea levels by an average of 23 feet, will be irreversible (at least on a historical -- that is, human -- timescale). Faced with this relatively straightforward reality, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, the author of The Race for What's Left, reports today, oil companies are using remarkable ingenuity and spending billions of dollars to reach ever deeper, ever more difficult to extract, and ever more environmentally treacherous deposits of fossil fuels. No less strikingly, the Obama administration has been working energetically to pave the way for them to do so -- to, that is, make real headway in removing those deposits four times larger than will be even faintly comfortable for our future. Not only is it doing so in a thoroughly drill-baby-drill spirit of cooperation with the globe's largest and most avaricious energy outfits, but it's bragging about it, too.
In my childhood, I remember ads that fascinated me. I'm not sure what they were selling or promoting, but they showed scenes of multiple error, including, if I remember rightly, five-legged cows floating through clouds. They were always tagged with some question like: What's wrong with this picture? Today, as in those ads, Klare offers us a picture filled with the energy exploitation and global-warming equivalent of those five-legged cows in the clouds and asks the same question. Tom
Oil Is Back!
A Global Warming President Presides Over a Drill-Baby-Drill America
By Michael T. Klare
Considering all the talk about global warming, peak oil, carbon divestment, and renewable energy, you'd think that oil consumption in the United States would be on a downward path. By now, we should certainly be witnessing real progress toward a post-petroleum economy. As it happens, the opposite is occurring. U.S. oil consumption is on an upward trajectory, climbing by 400,000 barrels per day in 2013 alone -- and, if current trends persist, it should rise again both this year and next.- Advertisement -
In other words, oil is back. Big time. Signs of its resurgence abound. Despite what you may think, Americans, on average, are driving more miles every day, not fewer, filling ever more fuel tanks with ever more gasoline, and evidently feeling ever less bad about it. The stigma of buying new gas-guzzling SUVs, for instance, seems to have vanished; according to CNN Money, nearly one out of three vehicles sold today is an SUV. As a result of all this, America's demand for oil grew more than China's in 2013, the first time that's happened since 1999.
Accompanying all this is a little noticed but crucial shift in White House rhetoric. While President Obama once spoke of the necessity of eliminating our reliance on petroleum as a major source of energy, he now brags about rising U.S. oil output and touts his efforts to further boost production.
Just five years ago, few would have foreseen such a dramatic oil rebound. Many energy experts were then predicting an imminent "peak" in global oil production, followed by an irreversible decline in output. With supplies constantly shrinking, it was said, oil prices would skyrocket and consumers would turn to hybrid vehicles, electric cars, biofuels, and various transportation alternatives. New government policies would be devised to facilitate this shift, providing tax breaks and other incentives for making the switch to renewables.
At that time, a growing concern over climate change and the prospect of further warming due to increased emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels seemed to dim the long-term prospects for petroleum. After all, oil combustion is this country's single largest source of carbon emissions. This, in turn, clearly meant that any significant attempt to reduce emissions -- whether through a carbon tax, a carbon cap-and-trade program, or other such measures -- would naturally have to incorporate significant impediments to oil use. President Obama entered the White House promising to enact such a measure, and the House of Representatives passed a modified cap-and-trade bill in 2009. (It failed in the Senate and so never became law.)
The 2008 financial crisis and global economic meltdown only put oil's future in further doubt. Suddenly cash-conscious Americans began trading in their gas-guzzlers for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, with the Obama administration adding its encouragement. When agreeing to the bailout of General Motors, for instance, the White House insisted that the reorganized company focus on the production of such vehicles. In a similar spirit, the administration's $787 billion stimulus package favored investment in electric cars, biofuels, high-speed rail, and other petroleum alternatives.- Advertisement -
The president's comments at the time clearly reflected a belief that oil was an "old" form of energy facing inevitable decline. "The United States of America cannot afford to bet our long-term prosperity, our long-term security on a resource that will eventually run out, and even before it runs out will get more expensive to extract from the ground," he declared in 2011. "We can't afford it when the costs to our economy, our country, and our planet are so high." Not only did the country need to lessen its dangerous reliance on imported oil, he insisted, but on oil altogether. "The only way for America's energy supply to be truly secure is by permanently reducing our dependence on oil."
Obama's Turnaround on Oil
That was then and this is now, and Obama ain't talking that way no more. Instead, he regularly boasts of America's soaring oil output and points to all he's done and is still doing to further increase domestic production. Thanks to the sort of heightened investment in domestic output his administration has sponsored, he told a cheering Congress in January, "more oil [was] produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world -- the first time that's happened in nearly twenty years." Although still offering his usual bow to the dangers of climate change, Obama did not hesitate to promise to facilitate further gains in domestic output.