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Double Whammy


("Aramco derrick at Abqaiq. Bedouin caravan to oblivion, [Saudi Arabia, 1947]." The World of Allah, p. 173.  Photo by David Douglas Duncan.  What a gorgeous, evocative shot.)

Two stories from last week passed almost unnoticed, but both have a lot to say about what is going to happen to our country and what kind of life we are going to have beginning less than a decade from now.

The first of these is in an article from the Oil Drum Saudi Arabian oil declines 8% in 2006. This is truly momentous. Now some of this decrease may be voluntary but probably not all. Saudi Arabia means oil to most of us, and if production begins to decline there, then the SUV you have now may be the last you ever will have.

Once an oil field goes into decline the trend is usually both inexorable and rapid. And in the aggregate this appears to be what is happening or near to happening in Saudi Arabia.

This is consistent with other stories that the Saudis have increased the number of drilling rigs they are using. These are not to increase production but are in anticipation of and to slow the process of decline. However, the kicker is that this type of new production comes from smaller, less accessible, more expensive to develop, and shorter-lived fields. In other words, more resources go into producing less oil from fields that are more quickly exhausted.

This does not mean you should sell your SUV tomorrow. The Saudis will not run out of oil to sell us next year or the year after and we will not quickly lose our desire to buy it. Still the era of cheap energy is ending. Oil has been trading recently in the $61-62 per barrel range. Weather, recession, fears of recession, and the occasional speculative play may send the price lower temporarily, but in a few years, $60/bbl will look like a bargain.

Marion Hubbert predicted this back in 1956. Oil is a valuable, finite commodity. There is an incentive to exploit it but at some point the production of cheap, easily extractable oil will begin to decline and attempts to replace it from more expensive sources will not make up the shortfall. Oil production will hit a peak and begin to decline. Hubbert’s timeframe was 50 years. He does not appear to have been far off. Mexico, the North Sea, and now Saudi Arabia are in decline. Iran will likely join them in the next few years. Future Iraqi production will not reverse, although it may slow for a while, the decline.

Technically, peak oil may still be 5 or so years away but that rumbling we can already hear isn’t thunder. So you might start thinking about what your life will be like after the gasoline age because most of you (if you’re planning on being around for the next 30 years) will live to see it.

Now some of you may think that this is good news for global warming. We could simply run out of carbon based fuels before the environment goes completely off the rails. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

The New York Times has an article on the government’s most recent Climate Action Report (the last one was from 2002).

According to the new report, the administration’s climate policy will result in emissions growing 11 percent in 2012 from 2002. In the previous decade, emissions grew at a rate of 11.6 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In other words, the current Administration’s strategy has been and continues to be to do nothing. This is typical but not acceptable. As James Hansen (the NASA climatologist who came to national attention when a 24 year old fundamentalist Bush political appointee George Deutsch tried to restrict his access to the press for his views on climate change) has pointed out here we don’t have the time to mess around with this and hope it all goes away.

we have at most ten years—not ten years to decide upon action, but ten years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions.

Hansen’s argument, like that of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, is that global warming is here. Its effects can mitigated if we act now.

Yet because of the global warming already bound to take place as a result of the continuing long-term effects of greenhouse gases and the energy systems now in use, the two-degree Fahrenheit limit will be exceeded unless a change in direction can begin during the current decade.

The danger with dithering (the Bush plan) is that the environment will reach a tipping point where even major action will have little effect.

The gathering energy crisis and global warming demand decisive, clear headed, farsighted leadership of a kind that has not been seen on the American political scene since the days of FDR. Instead we are looking at 2 more years of one of the most corrupt and incompetent Administrations in our history and a Democratic Party that appears willing to wait them out.

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