National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: A Speech to the Nation

This was not the speech we were waiting for. The one in which the President goes on national television and says “My fellow citizens – Our nation and indeed the whole industrialized world is about to face one of the greatest challenges to befall mankind for many centuries – the rapid depletion of our supplies of oil and other fossil fuels has begun… very soon you will no longer be able to afford to drive your cars.”

This was not the speech we were waiting for. The one in which the President goes on national television and says “My fellow citizens – Our nation and indeed the whole industrialized world is about to face one of the greatest challenges to befall mankind for many centuries – the rapid depletion of our supplies of oil and other fossil fuels has begun… very soon you will no longer be able to afford to drive your cars.”

Of course, the President can’t say that. The reaction would be totally unpredictable. Equity markets could collapse, there could be a run on gas stations, banks, food stores, or who knows what else. There would be calls for impeachment. It is far safer to break the bad news to us gradually and let people figure out what is about to happen themselves.

The President’s speech on Tuesday night had two objectives – quell the firestorm of criticism over what the federal government should or should not be doing to stop and mitigate the effects of the great Gulf oil spill and, the long term issues, of U.S. energy policy.

The spill will likely have a rather short life span despite the fact that just before the speech it was announced that the well could now be spewing out as much as 60,000 barrels per day. A number of learned oil well specialists have noted that as sand is washed up the well, it opens up wider passages for more oil to escape. The President reported during his speech that new systems to capture most of the oil spill are due within a few weeks. After that it will be anywhere from a few, to many months, before the relief wells seal off the leak permanently.

The core issue, of course, is not the spill, but U.S. and world energy policies in the coming years. In his speech, the President attempted to make a case that the oil spill justifies rapid passage of energy and climate change legislation. This, of course, was immediately met by a storm objections from those maintaining that the Gulf blowout was a once in 40-year event, and given the new sensitivity of the oil industry to the potential costs of runaway wells, this was unlikely to ever happen again.

Despite the fact that temperatures hit 127 degree Fahrenheit in Kuwait earlier this week, (and yes climate and weather are separate issues) there continues to be widespread skepticism that man-induced climate change is real or that serious consequences are imminent. This skepticism is rooted in the widely held perception that costs of reducing emissions will be too great in comparison to the benefits.

After 17 months in office, it now seems clear that the Obama administration, for the reasons given above, is not going to confront the peak oil issue straight on, unless absolutely necessary. Like the Bush administration, the hope remains that gas prices will remain affordable and economy-disabling oil shortages will not develop until after the administration leaves office.

Unlike the Bush administration, that did little more than pay lip service to “oil addiction,” the Obama administration realizes there are serious problems just ahead and is pushing a broad and expensive program to reduce emissions and increase the use of clean energy. The political costs of this effort may be high however. As yet the overwhelming majority of the American people have no appreciation that global oil shortages are close at hand and believe that the consequences of climate change are something for the grandchildren to worry about.

Where does all this leave us? The first presidential nationwide speech may reassure some of those suffering the consequences of the oil spill that the government is doing everything possible to stop the leaking oil reservoir and clean up the mess. It is doubtful, however, that the President convinced the many skeptics that the Gulf oil leak has much of anything to do with the need for clean energy or emissions limits. Prior to the President’s speech a steady stream of cable news guests reiterated time and again, that nothing in America today is as important as maintaining and creating jobs, and keeping energy cheap for the hard-pressed citizenry. Most threatened the President with dire political consequence if he attempted to derive political advantage from the accident.

With the mid-term elections drawing near and costs of bailing out the U.S. financial system running into the trillions, the Congress seems less and less likely to support legislation that could prove expensive to the economy – no matter how worthy the cause. It is looking more and more like we will have to wait for another day and much higher oil prices before America comes to its senses.

 


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