World Environment News

FEATURE - The oil-consumption party is over, author warns

Date: 13-May-03
Country: USA
Author: Manuela Badawy

In "The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies," author Richard Heinberg argues global oil output will peak in three to 12 years, and if an aggressive shift to include new energy sources, like wind, solar or fuel cells in the mix doesn't happen by then, grim consequences will result.

It's no surprise the United States, which consumes a quarter of the world's oil and imports more than half of the 20 million barrels of oil it now uses every day, is at the top of Heinberg's list of offending countries.

But the author stresses high growth rates in oil-thirsty countries like China or India heighten the chances of calamity by increasing competition among nations for oil and therefore requiring the shift to alternatives to be even more decisive.

"The party, which is the past 200 years of fossil fuels use, is coming to an end, and we have the choice as to how to bring that party to an end," Heinberg told Reuters. "Either we do it voluntarily or it will be thrust upon us."

While Heinberg has his share of detractors, even among those who agree that the world may well face some sort of crisis when oil production begins to tail off for good, his worst-case scenario is certainly attention-grabbing.

He predicts a less global world where cities shrink into towns as people move closer to food and water supplies, where currencies will be local, electrical power delivered by cooperatives and bicycles and walking widespread once again.

"We are going to have to run the movie of globalization in reverse," said Heinberg, an ecology professor at the New College of California, in Santa Rosa north of San Francisco.

He also reckons many U.S. citizens would be willing to trade in their energy-intensive lifestyles in exchange for assurances militants halfway around the world would drop America off their target list.

Heinberg's views stand in stark contrast to those who believe that the transition from petroleum to alternative fuels will be smooth, even if new energy sources cost more.

"(An alternative to oil) is presumably going to cost more, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it will be catastrophic and it doesn't mean that the change is going to be abrupt, it could be a smooth transition," said Ron Minsk, economist and special assistant for economic policy to former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

A SIMPLE CHOICE

To avoid catastrophe, Heinberg stresses that the United States must immediately reduce its dependency on petroleum and work on downsizing its resource-intensive way of life with a view toward conservation and developing renewable energy.

In his book, Heinberg quotes Colin Campbell - a geologist and author known for his forecasts that world oil production is likely to peak within a decade - to help make the case that time is of the essence to avoid disaster.

But Campbell's claim that: "We now find one barrel of oil for every four we consume," is dismissed by people like Minsk as scaremongering.

Heinberg's detractors acknowledge that oil will obviously run out one day, but generally say that if oil prices rise as supplies begin to tighten, market forces will kick in to avert a global disaster.

"Since the 1950's people have been predicting that oil production will peak 10 years later, and we are now in the 2000's and people are still predicting that production will peak in a decade," Minsk said.

Minsk said higher oil prices might hurt the economy in the near term, but would also increase the economic incentive to explore and develop oil and alternative energy sources that may have previously been too expensive to develop before.

Oil prices reached $40 a barrel this year in the weeks before U.S.-led forces attacked oil-rich Iraq on fears that widespread destruction of oil fields there could shock the world economy. Prices have since settled back to around $26.

Heinberg considers the latest conflict in Iraq not as an attempt to get rid of weapons of mass destruction but as a

Reuters
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