National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: A Letter From Baghdad

A couple of weeks back the peak oil community received a letter from an officer serving with our forces in Iraq.

Despite numerous distractions in Iraq these days, this officer is so concerned that peaking world oil production will soon become a serious problem that he began discussing the future of America’s energy supply with soldiers in his unit. What he concluded has a message for us all.


He found that most people have no trouble accepting the premises of peak oil- that there is a finite amount of crude underground, that the easy and cheap to extract oil is nearly gone and that world production will go into an unstoppable decline. The disconnect from reality, however, comes when contemplating the consequences of this event, for nearly all believe there are many obvious alternatives to oil. We know what they are: nuclear, solar, wind, waves, tides, shale, oil sands, coal-to-liquid, biomass, etc., etc. In the mind of most, it is a rather simple matter of switching from oil to any or all of the alternatives so that life-as-we-know-it can continue without missing a beat.

The more likely consequence, that peaking of world oil production will cause severe economic hardships that will take decades to mitigate is simply not a future that most are willing to entertain. Arguments that oil consumption has grown so large in the last 100 years that once depletion starts the development of similar amounts of alternative energy will take a very long time are simply not believed. This micro-survey makes an important point because it mirrors the common sentiment across the land as reflected by the media and political leaders. Even if oil should go into depletion someday — there is simply not a problem.

Our letter-writer believes the reason for this commonly held opinion is the saturation of TV and the print media with the message that our oil companies are hard at work getting ready for the next generation of energy sources. Should we ever need alternatives to oil, all will be in readiness. Millions are spent on a continual drumbeat of such ads each month. They are impossible to avoid and have left most with the impression that all will be well – your oil industry is on the job.

This all-will-be-well message is always bereft of detail. Nowhere is there mention, of the vast amount of oil being consumed around the world each day, anticipated rates of depletion from existing oil fields, nor of the trillions of dollars that will be required to finance the next round of exploiting increasingly more difficult to recover oil. From time to time, the message is punctuated with the word “technology”. Not any particular technology, just the implication that the technology which has brought our civilization this far will be there when we need it.

It comes as no great surprise to discover that American’s perceptions are shaped by advertising and the mainstream media. In most cases, no great harm is done. A lot of advertising may elect a less than optimal candidate to public office or convince people that they really need to buy something. Usually, there is little harm done although from time to time concerted, successful efforts to set public opinion can have lasting and serious repercussions.

The current issue of the Columbia Review of Journalism contains a post mortem of how well the financial press covered the mortgage meltdown which triggered what could be turn out to be a very memorable recession. After reviewing 730 stories written between 2000 and 2007 pertaining to the mortgage industry, the authors concluded that in the main the financial press missed the run-up to the meltdown until it was too late. This left government convinced that it had to step in with trillions of dollars to stem a complete breakdown of the financial system. Although a few lonesome voices saw what was coming, as a society we were clueless until the banks started going under.

Just as millions were lulled by ever increasing home values that could make people rich, the same millions are being lulled by perceptions of a seemingly endless supply of cheap energy that will continue in some form so far into the future that we need not worry.

The heart of the peak oil question today is not whether oil is going to peak sometime soon – it probably already has. The issue is how soon people and their governments recognize that we are going to have to make substantial changes in our lifestyles and bear unprecedented costs in order to hold our civilization together in some recognizable fashion. Changes of this magnitude do not come easily.

Some hint of what is to come was seen last summer when a combination of factors drove gasoline prices in the U.S. to $4-5 a gallon. The initial political reaction was to denounce scapegoats – Arab oil producers, speculators, environmentalists. Fortunately or not our global recession intervened, forcing the demand for oil down by several million barrels per day taking the pressure off prices and delaying important decisions to another day.

For now, the matter rests. The new U.S. administration and congressional majority clearly is dedicated to reducing carbon emissions in a timely fashion and is taking many other steps that eventually could have an impact on oil consumption. However, there is still no official acknowledgement that adequate oil supplies are going to be a major problem in the near future and that hopes for a smooth transition to alternative forms of energy without sacrifices and expense is simply not going to happen.

Like the soldiers surveyed in Baghdad, a critical mass of Americans and their political leaders are simply not ready to accept the consequences of what is about to befall us. We were a lot closer to understanding during the price spike last summer. Now It seems clear that it is going to take much higher energy prices before we as a nation understand the consequences of peak oil.