National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: ‘Peak Oil Crisis’ Is Alive & Well

This month marks the fourth anniversary of now-globally famous commentator Tom Whipple’s “Peak Oil Crisis” column that originated with and has been published weekly exclusively in the Falls Church News-Press, the Washington D.C. area’s most progressive newspaper.

As the owner and editor of the News-Press, this writer invited Whipple to expound his views on the “peak oil” crisis following a lengthy discussion with him on the subject over lunch. On April 28, 2005, he wrote what was supposed to be the first of a two-part series on the matter, entitled, “Why the World Will Never Be the Same.”

Needless to say, the series was extended beyond two, and is up to 193 this week and going strong. In the meantime, Whipple has gained notoriety worldwide for his compelling arguments made in his column about the problems the fossil-fuel dependent human race is starting to encounter, and will ferociously going forward as the ability to extract increasingly scarce “liquid gold” from the ground becomes more and more difficult, costly and futile.

Whipple has been invited to speak at conferences far and wide, and to contribute to and edit newsletters and other missives on the topic. He is an incredible human processor of information, which led to his primary career choice from which he is now retired. In addition to his “peak oil” column, he compiles and edits a daily digest of relevant articles from all the newspapers in his home state of Virginia, something which has proven incredibly valuable to politicians, journalists and policymakers alike.

(Whipple’s is the third original national affairs column spawned by the News-Press, the other two being my own, begun in 1997, and, starting in 2004, Wayne Besen’s “Anything But Straight” that deals every week with gay and lesbian issues).

One might ask why now, with oil demand down and the price per barrel having plummeted from last summer’s peak above $140 a barrel, the issue of “peak oil” is still valid or relevant. Are not theories of a rapidly maxing-out oil supply the least of our problems in the midst of the worst global economic meltdown in 100 years?

Hardly, the prophetic Whipple insists. Whipple’s spouse, State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, a leader of the Democratic Party in Virginia, can hardly be pleased that her husband may be less than optimistic about the best efforts of the new Obama administration to fix the economy.

This writer found, speaking with Tom Whipple at a black tie function last weekend, that while he supports Obama’s efforts, and admires him for being aggressive in tackling economic problems, he thinks bailing out the automobile industry would be an exercise in futility, doomed to fail.

There are 240 million cars on the road in America now, he said, and 190 million drivers. In this economy, who needs a new car?

For the workers affected by the demise of the industry, the solution is to retool as rapidly as possible for production of non-fossil fuel dependent vehicles and other products.

But what about the prospects for an economic recovery right around the corner? It won’t happen, Whipple believes, if only because once the global economy starts to pick up steam, the same old pressures brought on by the “peak oil crisis” will immediately become evident again and grind it back down.

In other words, a revival of demand for oil will cause the price to shoot up quickly to levels even higher than last summer’s, quashing the revival beneath the burden of exorbitant costs and outright shortages.

Whipple’s sobering insights have steadily gained credibility and acceptance in various corridors of power, although few are willing to embrace their fullest consequences. Even with the best of intentions, the ability of government to turn the ship of state swiftly enough to avoid colliding with the “peak oil crisis” is doubtful.

But breaking the grip of dependence on fossil fuels is not just a nice ideal addressed by modest self-aggrandizing individual conservation efforts. It is rapidly becoming the human species’ gravest challenge to prevent escalating wars, vast social dislocations and other related threats to just plain survival.