National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: Has the Media Become the Message?

With every passing month, evidence peak world oil production has either passed or is getting very close becomes stronger. Last week, the world peak oil conference in Ireland, heard that the best available data now suggests there may only be about 250 billion barrels of oil left to find rather than the generally accepted figure of 700 billion barrels put forth by the USCGS in 2000. Keep in mind that 250 billion barrels is only about eight years worth at our current 31 billion barrel per year rate of consumptions and that, should these billions of barrels actually be found, they will be extremely difficult to find and exploit.

Optimists at the peak oil conference believe world oil production can keep growing for perhaps another 15 years, but those who are calculating the likely balance between depletion from existing oil fields, and production from new fields believe that declines will set in within three.

Add to this the phenomenon of falling exports from the major oil producer countries, and we have a situation where problems may be only months away. Last week the CEO of the U.S. Shell Oil Company told an audience in New Orleans the U.S. may be only one hurricane away from an energy crisis.

Unfortunately, public and congressional recognition of this situation remains virtually zero. Progress on energy legislation currently is stalled as the House and Senate attempt to reconcile un-reconcilable bills. From the perspective of appreciating the danger we face, there are probably not more than dozen members of the current Congress who understand the urgency of the situation.

Most in the Congress are advocating legislation they perceive as being good for their constituents or contributors, and scoring rhetorical points for the next election, rather than preparing America for a new age. Thus we have “energy legislation” that is all over the map –- more drilling, more corn-based ethanol, more gasoline from coal, higher fuel economy standards. Nearly all in the Congress aspire to “Energy Independence” which, as the oil industry constantly reminds us, is absolutely ridiculous for a country where oil and product imports are approaching 70 percent of consumption. In short there is a major and, perhaps one day, a devastating disconnect between congressional perceptions and reality.

What will it take close this gap and set the country on a meaningful course towards mitigating the consequences of transitioning out of the oil age of cheap and plentiful oil? The obvious answer is long lines at the gas pumps, accompanied by much higher prices and perhaps restrictions on purchases. A few months of shortages accompanied by unheard of levels of outrage from voters who have little appreciation what is happening to them will certainly get Congressional attention.

For a while we will be in the silly season, with proposals to drain the strategic petroleum reserve, lift all restrictions on drilling, and perhaps invade a hapless oil producer or two.

The key question is can anything happen before the gas lines form to mitigate the damage that is coming? Obviously the President could seize the initiative, lay out the problem in a major address and propose a package of legislation– mostly conservation — that might actually do some good.

At the minute, the prospects for such an initiative do not seem good unless some unforeseeable development makes the situation so obviously perilous that the administration feels impelled to take action as the lesser of two evils.

The third possibility is that the message of imminent peak oil will somehow bubble off the Internet into more of the “mainstream media” who would begin to treat the energy situation with the immediacy and seriousness it deserves. If the information that is available — web sites, blogs and below-the-radar screen publications— were to become a staple of the major TV networks, cable companies, wire services and other perception-forming organizations, it would not be long before the public and their elected representatives began to get the message.

What prevents more news organizations from embracing the notion that peak oil is imminent? First is the uncertainty about when troubles will start. As long as some are saying peak world oil production will come 40 years from now and some are saying 40 weeks, few see it as being worth the trouble to dig into the merits of these opposing assertions.

Next come the apocalyptic implications of rapid oil depletion. Most readers and viewers simply don’t want to hear about such unpleasantness until they really have to. It seems likely they will get their wish.

As many have said before, the real danger in all this is that, unless the Congress starts taking steps to mitigate the consequences, declining world oil production will be much more serious than it needs to be. Currently the U.S. administration, beset by the proverbial sea of troubles, seems unlikely to take on responsibility for mitigating the consequences of peak oil during its last year. Short of a major calamity, it is unlikely that a new administration will be able to get policies together for many months.

Thus we are back to the media. Unless they come to the realization that the peak oil is for real, imminent, and that there is much be gained by moving as quickly and massively as possible then we are going to motor into the great energy crisis of the 21st century completely unprepared.

The analysts of peak oil have done their job. The “when” is becoming clearer and it is mighty close. It is now the job of the media to drive home the point, the dangers, and the need for action. The ball is clearly in the media’s court.