National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: Parsing Obama’s Remarks

On Monday President-elect Obama introduced the folks that will lead the nation’s energy and environmental policies for the next four or possibly eight years.

These are the people who must develop, and more importantly sell to Congress and the nation, the programs that will cope with the end of cheap, abundant oil, and increasing global temperatures.

The contrasts between the old and new administrations are striking. The environmental credentials of the President-elect’s selections are so strong that the League of Conservation Voters immediately dubbed them “the green dream team.” In introducing his appointees, President-elect Obama outlined his views on the environment and energy and in effect charged his team with their energy and environmental goals for the next four years.

In his first paragraph of his remarks, the President-elect got right to his key point; “the future of our economy and national security is inextricably linked to one challenge: energy.” He then said “All of us know the problems rooted in our addiction to foreign oil – it constrains our economy, shifts wealth to hostile regimes, and leaves us dependent on unstable regions. These urgent dangers are eclipsed only by the long-term threat of climate change, which – unless we act – will lead to drought and famine abroad, devastating weather patterns and terrible storms on our shores, and the disappearance of our coastline at home.”

These are words that the peak oil and environmental communities have been waiting for many years to hear. Not only did the President-elect finger the vast quantities of imported oil that keeps American running, he said it is urgent we do something. The juxtaposition of need to reduce imported energy with the longer term, but potentially more serious, threat of climate change shows that the new administration understands both the relative urgency and long-term importance of these key issues.

For now, it is asking too much for the next President to declare that peak oil has arrived and that switching to alternative forms of energy is no longer just a nice thing to do, but is vital if the nation, along with the rest of the world, does not want to regress into the 19th century. Instead, Mr. Obama used a more circuitous formulation; “yet our dependence on foreign oil has only grown, even as the world’s resources are disappearing.” Getting the words “oil” and “disappearing resources” into the same line is a perfectly acceptable way to acknowledge peak oil — at least for now.

After noting that America has been trying to do something about imported oil for the last 35 years without much success, the President-elect said we must develop new forms of energy and new ways of using it – wind, solar, new crops and new technologies. The administration’s forth-coming plan hopes to put millions of Americans to work building wind farms, solar panels, fuel, efficient cars, energy efficient buildings and modernizing the electric grid.

Even more heartening for those concerned that the world’s climate is currently going over a ‘tipping point”, was Mr. Obama’s recognition that reducing emissions is a worldwide problem. “We must “forge international solutions.” Hopefully our next President is aware that China, now the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is going to keep increasing its emissions until it either runs out of fossil fuels or the developed countries concede that emissions should be measured and controlled on a per capita and not a per nation basis. Beijing seems perfectly willing to fry the whole earth if it is necessary to get an American leader to concede and take action on this point.

The new administration’s plans make a lot of sense once one grasps the notion that liquid fuel shortages are imminent, and that the planet’s climate is deteriorating at an alarming rate. The key question is will the next President, even with the best will in the world, a good plan and talented, willing helpers be able to bring about sufficient change in time to reverse or at least mitigate the deteriorating situations.

The President-elect will face three challenges: fiscal reality, political will and time. While environmentalists are dancing in the aisles over the pending ascension of the green team to positions of power, many in America are still not sure there is a serious global warming crisis. The same people are also convinced that a little more drilling around the land (without environmental restrictions) will be enough to keep us swimming in cheap gasoline for decades.

The best ally the President-elect will have is a new Congress with more members likely to understand these problems. Having said this, however, the changes in mind set that will be needed is massive. For the last 60 years, American civilization has rested on ubiquitous cars, wider roads and cheap energy. Implicit in what President-elect Obama is saying is that all this must change radically.

If emissions are to be reduced enough to make a difference, then far smaller quantities of fossil fuels will have to be burned or very expensive and as yet unproved techniques to remove carbon from the remaining fossil fuels must be implemented. One way or another, energy will no longer be cheap. Left unsaid in Mr. Obama’s speeches so far is that we are looking at trillions of dollars and many decades of dedicated efforts to effect the necessary changes.

The nation is currently running a trillion dollar deficit and if financed by borrowing abroad. America has now had a run of 70 good years without the undue economic hardships many other nations have faced. At first there will be major resistance to the administration’s proposals from the established interests, who do not yet understand what is happening and that there really is no other choice but make changes. While, eventually changes will come, the key question is how much worse things have to get before a critical mass forms that is willing to give in to the inevitable.