National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: The First Rule of Holes

America has dug itself into the deepest hole it has been in since 1860 when the dispute over slavery reached its zenith.

That hole took five years of war and 150 years of social discord before we could start climbing out. The current hole, reliance on fossil fuels for nearly everything, will also take many decades of hardships to work itself out.

For now however, digging our hole deeper continues everywhere. Oversized gas-guzzling automobiles continue to be built and sold by the millions. New generations of kerosene-guzzling airliners are being readied for the market. Houses and all sorts of buildings requiring excessive amounts of energy to be habitable continue to be built. Roads are being widened and lengthened. Our great national hole deepens every day.

Getting out of this hole will not be painless.

At the top of the national agenda this week is what to do with the automobile industry which employs millions, is burning through billions each month, and will be utterly bankrupt by New Years. The Democrats in Congress and the President-elect seem inclined to overturn a decision by the Bush administration and loan many billions to the manufacturers on the grounds that we can’t stand by and watch millions being thrown out of work. Implicit in this loan is the assumption that Detroit will be able to heal itself someday. If, as seems likely, car sales remain close to or less than current rates for the next 6 to 12 months, then Detroit soon will be bankrupt again and the U.S. taxpayers will owe foreign central banks another $25 or $50 billion dollars.

Another place where we are digging ourselves in deeper and deeper is road building. All indications are that there is going to be much less driving in the very near future, due to a combination of a contracting economy, lower incomes, more unemployment, fewer cars, and less gas. To build or widen another mile of highway in the face of this likelihood is absurd.

Building new generations of aircraft – both civilian and military is likewise ridiculous. Air travel is already shrinking; planes are being grounded by the hundreds. While newer aircraft may reduce fuel consumption a little, there is nothing is on the horizon that will give the automotive equivalent of 100 mpg. Air travel has to be completely rethought for the nearly fuel-less 21st century.

The current versions of houses, stores, apartments and office buildings continue to be built by the millions. A tiny portion make an effort at being more fuel efficient than required by building codes, but the rest can only function in an era of cheap energy that is about to draw to a close.

Keeping America’s deep hole from getting still deeper, however, is easy and need not cost very much. Simply stop building whatever is not a lot more energy efficient or soon will leave us with nearly useless devices and edifices that require large amounts of cheap energy to keep functioning.

Let’s start with Detroit. If we are going to make a last and likely futile effort to bail them out, then they should simply stop building vehicles of ridiculously low efficiency right now. Take a holiday. No more SUV’s, V-8 engines, large pickup trucks, RV’s, recreational motor boats, ATV’s etc. Should anyone still want or really need one of these dinosaurs anymore then they can readily buy them from massive current inventories that have already been built. The country should not put another ounce of resources or effort into building more of these devices which soon will only be fit for crushing.

What should Detroit do then with all the taxpayer money we are likely to be loaning them? Stop building large low efficiency vehicles; continue to build only the highest mileage vehicles they can currently produce. Redesign these vehicles for much better mileage with smaller more efficient motors. Start crash programs to build cars capable of 100 to 300 mpg — probably some version of small plug-in hybrids. They are already out there. If Detroit can’t design them fast enough, then they can license the designs from somebody – the Japanese, Chinese, entrepreneurs who already have them in the pipeline.

Set Detroit’s engineers and a factory or two loose on building efficiency modification kits for the millions of recent vintage cars still on the road. Rather than scrap these machines – most have many years of useful life, let’s see if we can get the mileage up so they can remain useful on a fraction of current fuel consumption. Kill the performance engines; change the gear ratios, and whatever else it takes to make them as fuel efficient as physics will allow.

The aircraft industry needs a radical overhaul. Military aircraft should get rid of the pilots which should double the performance and cut the fuel consumption markedly. Civilian aircraft designers should think lighter-than-air to get fuel consumption down to a level that might be sustainable with biofuels.

Buildings are easy – design, build and rebuild for whatever it takes to get down to zero net energy. Lots and lots of insulation, solar panels, wind generators, earth exchange heat pumps – whatever is appropriate to the locale. The national goal should be zero fossil fuel consumed in buildings. We already know how to do this. All it takes is a stroke of the federal pen to ban further construction of energy consuming buildings. If the Inuit can survive in the Arctic for millennia living at 50 below zero in igloos heated by body heat and the flame of a tiny whale oil lamp, the rest of us can figure something out too.

Well, there is a first cut at doing something about the great hole we are all in. For now, however, there is one gigantic problem. The vast majority of us, including our leaders, are not as yet willing to recognize publicly that we are in a deep, deep hole which we are digging deeper and deeper.

Be of good cheer, things are moving so fast that reality can not be far away, whether it be a plunging economy or falling oil production, the catalyst of change is coming as will the day we stop digging.