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The GAO Sounds the Alarm on "Peak Oil"

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DUMMERSTON, Vt. — The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) generally doesn't go too far out on a limb when it comes to predictions.

So when the GAO issues a report stating that worldwide crude oil production will eventually dwindle to nothing and that the United States has no strategy at all to deal that scenario, it's worth paying attention to.

The material in the GAO's report, "Crude Oil — Uncertainty About Future Oil Supply Makes It Important to Develop a Strategy for Addressing a Peak and Decline in Oil Production," is familiar to anyone who has been following what's become known as peak oil — when the available reserves of petroleum are outstripped by demand for more oil.

However, what makes the GAO report interesting is that this is the first time that any responsible party in the federal government has acknowledged that something might be wrong.

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The report acknowledges these factors:

• More than 60 percent of world oil reserves lie in countries that are hostile to the United States (such as Iran and Venezuela, for example) or are so politically unstable (such as Nigeria and Iraq) that oil production is constrained.

• There hasn't been any new significant oil field discovery in years, and the expected life span of current oil fields is highly suspect, since few nations have honestly accounted for their reserves.

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• In 2005, worldwide oil consumption approached 85 billion barrels a day. By 2030, consumption is expected to reach 118 billion barrels a day, with China and India accounting for 40 percent of that figure.

• Depending on whose estimate you believe, we are either at peak oil, or will be within the next decade or two. Current world oil production stands at about 85 billion barrels a day, or roughly equal with current consumption.

Even if one doesn’t factor in the effects of global warming on the U.S. economy, all this adds up to a major crisis for a nation that has grown accustomed to a ready supply of cheap energy and has done little to plan for a probable post-petroleum future.

The GAO report urges the Department of Energy and other relevant federal agencies to create and implement a plan to deal with peak oil. It suggests greater and immediate investment in alternative fuels, such as ethanol, biodiesel or liquified coal, for running our vehicles.

That sounds good, but most who are familiar with the subject will that there is no technology now available or on the horizon that will allow us to keep driving our cars as we do now. There is no magic formula that will allow the United States to continue living in the style it has grown accustomed to since the end of World War II.

The level of delusional thinking at every level of government is astounding. It is what gave us suburban sprawl, 10-lane superhighways, big box stores, fast foot restaurants and all the other accouterments of a car-centered culture. Yet few of our leaders question the long-term sustainability of a car-centered culture once the cheap energy it runs on disappears.

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As Upton Sinclair once observed, "It's difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon him not understanding it."

The GAO report may meet the same fate as other attempts to draw attention to issues no one wants to face and be stuffed in a file cabinet and forgotten. Or we can take this information as the starting point toward creating a new economy that's not organized around automobiles and suburbia.

James Howard Kunstler, author of the book, "The Long Emergency," and one of the leading experts on peak oil, recently spelled out what needs to happen next.

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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com.

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