National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: A Breakthrough?

In the years since it became widely recognized that world oil production would likely go into irretrievable decline early in the 21st century, no national government has yet to officially recognize that a major paradigm shift is in the offing and begin planning for it.

Those governments that respond to questions on the subject usually pointed to International Energy Agency projections indicating that all would be well for many years. Even as the evidence mounted that another 40 years of increasing oil production and economic growth probably was not the cards, no major political leader has stepped up to face reality.

For a major political leader to publicly acknowledge that world oil production is soon going into an unstoppable decline is a very dangerous undertaking for the implications are unpalatable to most. If a politician were to take the next step and start talking about remedies for falling oil supplies – conservation, fuel-efficient cars, mass transit, perhaps even rationing – it would be almost certain political suicide. Given our recent experience with global warming, in which a majority of the of the U.S. population now doubts that it is being caused by excessive burning of fossil fuels, one can only imagine the reaction if someone proposed taking serious and expensive steps to deal with peak oil.

Given the political environment, which admittedly is worse in the U.S. than in Europe, it came as a surprise that last weekend Britain’s Energy Minister summoned a meeting of business leaders to discuss the government’s response to a decline in global oil production should it actually be imminent. Just last summer, a UK government formally rejected the notion that the demand for oil would soon overtake available supplies leading to much higher prices and global economic disruptions.

The new initiative came as a result of a report that was published last month by the UK Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security entitled “The Oil Crunch: a Wake-up Call for the UK Economy.” The report was well publicized in the British media, but received little coverage on this side of the Atlantic. Britain of course will have parliamentary elections in May and the report’s authors took care to note that the next government, which could serve a five year term, is likely to be dealing with declining oil production which is likely to start by 2014. Given that the election will be a hard fought one and given the publicity surrounding the report, Her Majesty’s government decided it was politically safer to recognize and agree to study peak oil rather than ignoring the issue yet one more time.

There are major downsides that would come with official recognition that imminent peak oil is real

With an election only weeks away, nothing is likely to happen concerning the matter until after the party and strength of the new government is known.

Under a parliamentary system, a government with a safe majority is relatively free to implement any policies it sees fit. Unlike in the United States, a British prime minister could decide that declining oil production is an imminent threat and immediately begin to implement policies to deal with it.

Does an admission by a British government, that there might be something to this peak oil business after all, really have any significance? This will have to wait until after the election. The UK at the minute is faced with very severe economic problems including dire warnings that the country may be facing its most severe crisis since the Normans invaded in 1066. Just where the threat of peak oil fits in the firmament that faces the next British government is hard to say. In present day Britain even the likelihood that oil imports will start dropping in a few years could pale in comparison to the possibility that the nation’s debt might default or the monetary system could collapse even sooner.

Should the British conclude that major revisions are needed to the nation’s energy policies prior to the next oil-shortage-induced price spike, the question remains whether this will have any effect on the United States where most are wedded to their cars and public transit is anathema to many. Obviously there will be an element of setting a good example and should the UK and other European countries publicly acknowledge that oil depletion is an imminent danger it will all most certainly be noted in the U.S. media and Congress.

Recent political history in the U.S., however, does not bode well for official recognition of peak oil or major governmental action to mitigate the effects of some sort of major and prolonged increase in oil prices. While the current U.S. administration is implementing many policies to establish sources of renewable energy in the U.S., this is publicly advertised as efforts to combat global warming and wean the U.S. off of foreign oil. Most of these efforts have a time horizon of years or decades rather than the months a realistic acceptance of peak oil would demand.

There are major downsides that would come with official recognition that imminent peak oil is real and that the country must prepare. First is simply being believed. The debate over whether the decline in global oil production is 4 or 40 years away has been going on for over a decade – and the battle lines are already drawn. As we have seen in the debate over climate change, there are well financed special interests waiting to tell people what they want to hear – which is that peak oil will come in somebody else’s lifetime.

The second problem that nobody wants to hear is that mitigating peak oil will cost and cost and keep on costing. In the current economic environment the chances that the U.S. Congress would take expensive, painful, and disruptive action to mitigate peak oil currently is close to zero.

Given these political realities there is little to do but wait. While the events in London this week offer a glimpse of what will happen some day, that day is likely to be some years away.


Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.