When George W. Bush entered the White House in early 2001, the nation was suffering from a severe "energy crisis" brought on by high gasoline prices, regional shortages of natural gas, and rolling blackouts in
The onset of this new energy crisis was first signaled in January 2004, when Royal Dutch/Shell — one of the world’s leading energy firms — revealed that it had overstated its oil and natural gas reserves by about 20%, the net equivalent of 3.9 billion barrels of oil or the total annual consumption of China and Japan combined. Another indication of crisis came only one month later, when the New York Times revealed that prominent American energy analysts now believe
How imminent that peak-oil moment may in fact be has generated considerable debate and disagreement within the specialist community, and the topic has begun to seep into public consciousness. A number of books on peak oil — Out of Gas by David Goodstein, The End of Oil by Paul Roberts, and The Party’s Over by Richard Heinberg, among others — have appeared in recent months, and a related documentary film, The End of Suburbia, has gained a broad underground audience. As if to acknowledge the seriousness of this debate, the Wall Street Journal reported in September that evidence of a global slowdown in petroleum output can no longer be ignored. While no one can say with certainty that recent developments portend the imminent arrival of peak oil output, there can be no question that global supply shortages will prove increasingly common in the future.
Nor is the evidence of a slowdown in oil output the only sign of an unfolding energy crisis. Of no less significance is the dramatic increase in energy demand from newly-industrialized nations — especially
To meet the needs of their older customers and satisfy the rising demand from the developing world, the major oil producers will have to boost production at breakneck speed. According to the DoE, total world petroleum output will have to grow by approximately 44 million barrels per day between now and 2025 — an increase of 57% — to satisfy anticipated world demand. This increase represents a prodigious amount of oil, the equivalent to total world consumption in 1970, and it is very difficult to imagine where it will all come from (especially given indications of a global slowdown in daily output). If, as appears likely, the world’s energy firms prove incapable of satisfying higher levels of international demand, the competition among major consumers for access to the remaining supplies will grow increasingly more severe and stressful.
To further complicate matters, many of the countries the Bush administration considers potential suppliers of additional petroleum, including Angola, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, are torn by ethnic and religious conflict or are buffeted by powerful anti-American currents. Even if these countries possess sufficient untapped reserves to sustain an increase in output, as long as they remain chronically unstable, the desired increases are unlikely to appear. After all, any significant increase in day-to-day energy output requires substantial investment in new infrastructure — investment that is not likely to materialize in countries suffering from perpetual disorder. At best, production in such countries will remain flat or rise sluggishly; at worst, as in
If anything, the potential for conflict in such countries is likely to grow as demand for their petroleum rises. The reason is simple. Increased petroleum output in otherwise impoverished nations tends to widen the gap between haves and have-nots — a divide that often falls along ethnic and religious lines — and to sharpen internal political struggles over the distribution of oil revenues. Because the wealth generated by oil production is so vast, and because few incumbent leaders are willing to abandon their positions of privilege, internal struggles of this sort are prone to trigger violent clashes between competing claimants to national power.
In many cases, these clashes may take the form of attacks on the oil infrastructure itself, further jeopardizing the global availability of energy. As shown in
With oil demand regularly outpacing supply and disorder spreading in major producing areas, global shortages and resulting high prices are likely to become the norm, not the exception. Ideally, the
It is here that the performance of the Bush administration should come in for close scrutiny. In response to the earlier energy crisis of 2001, the President appointed a National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG), headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, to analyze
In a crude attempt to mislead the public about the nature of our oil dependency, the Cheney Report called for increasing
As a result, we are more dependent on foreign oil in 2004 than we were in 2001, and all the indicators suggest that this dependency will only become more pronounced during Bush’s second term. Yes, the administration has proposed modest investment in the development of hydrogen-powered fuel cells and other new energy systems; but, at current rates of development, these new technologies will not prove capable of substituting for oil on a significant scale during the next few decades. This means that we will face our looming energy crisis with no viable fallback measures in sight. We remain trapped in our dependence on imported oil. In the long run, the only conceivable result of this will be sustained crisis and deprivation.
When, and in just what form, the
Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at
Copyright C2004 Michael Klare
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]