The Oil Shortage: Is There A Real Solution?

You’ve seen those post-apocalyptic movies. A complete breakdown of society has occurred, usually from a war of some kind that has wiped out most of the population along with the vegetation. Dingy desert for as far as the eye can see. Straggly, smelly people living in rusted out shacks. Everybody killing each other for little scraps of nothing that has value today. And everybody riding around in vehicles of some kind. Motorcycles with sidecars, big ugly buses, military transports. That kind of thing. And they all run on oil and gas.

What’s wrong with this picture? Is it the apocalypse itself or society’s breakdown or the lack of soap and toothbrushes? No, it’s the plentiful oil and gas because the most likely cause of an apocalypse in the near term is the exhaustion of fossil fuels. And water, of course, but that’s the subject of another blog. The current dramatic rise in prices at the pump has focused public emotion on the energy issue, although it’s never far from the headlines. And we haven’t seen the highest prices yet. The Department of Energy projects that pump prices will continue to rise through this spring and remain high until the end of summer. Prices peaking with vacation time.

The principal solutions for the price squeeze include opening the U.S. oil and gas reserves for production and accelerating the development of alternative fuel sources. How realistic are these ideas? The problem with more oil and gas production is the temporary nature of the relief while hastening the end of a finite supply. As for alternative energy sources, the hard question is whether they will ever produce energy in sufficient quantities to replace fossil fuel.

Despite our best intentions, we just can’t seem to get a grip on the fact that our planet has a limited supply of fossil fuels. The limit is pretty big, but not big enough to meet our growing needs indefinitely unless we’re definitely incinerated by an asteroid along the way. Let’s face it, we consume oil like it will never run out. In 2010, world crude oil consumption grew by the second largest margin in 30 years. The increase wiped out the reduction in use of the preceding two years. Non-OPEC countries, mainly China and Brazil, are escalating their production but by less than 1/10 of the globe’s annual increase in consumption.

How much of today’s energy expenditure can be replaced by alternative sources? Experts disagree, but the calculations are dim. Western economies are based on oil and gas. In no place is that more true that the U.S. Fossil fuels feed not only our individual transportation and home heating appetites, but also sustain our manufacturing centers and our distributed economy. To get a small idea of how distributed the economy is, stroll through your local grocery super store. How many of the products on the shelves are produced locally versus nationally and internationally? Ditto for toy stores, clothing stores, pet food stores, etc. If food, for example, wasn’t shipped via boat or rail, or driven to us, we’d either starve or take up community gardening in a hurry. Even at that, our tables would be missing most of the items we happily chow down today.

Not that we’ve given up on the fossil fuel problem. There are proffered solutions that fall between increased oil production and total reliance on alternative sources. Most are a combination of gas and alternative energy, at least for individual transportation needs. Some suggestions are much more ambitious, like dismantling the current national economy and creating regional economies that serve local needs.

One thing’s for certain. Unless we start making a serious dent in the fossil fuel problem today, there won’t be time tomorrow. Maybe there’s no single answer to the predicament. No “one and done”. Maybe it will take a lot of smaller solutions that attack pieces of the problem and work together to provide the necessary impact. Regardless, we need to keep dogging our leaders until we run a solution to ground. If this kind of persistence is difficult to sustain, just slip a Mad Max disc into the DVD player every now and then. That should keep you focused.

See you in the mirror.