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Le Monde (Paris)
Point of view:
TOWARD THE PETRO-APOCALYPSE
Le Monde (Paris)
March 31, 2004
Le Monde, Paris by Mark K. Jensen, Associate
Professor of French, Chair, Department of Languages
and Literatures, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma,
WA. - Webpage: http//:www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/
In a few years, the global
production of conventional oil will fall, while the
global demand continues to rise. The resulting shock
of this structural oil famine is inevitable, so great
are the dependency of our economies on cheap oil and,
related to the first, our inability to wean ourselves
from this dependency in a short period of time.
We can hope to soften the shock, but only if its imminence
immediately becomes the unique reference point for
a general mobilization of our societies, with, as a
consequence, drastic consequences in every sector.
The alternative is chaos. This prospect is based on
the work of the American geologist King Hubbert, who
predicted in 1956 the peak in US domestic production
of oil in 1970. This occurred exactly as predicted.
Transposing Hubbert's approach
today to other countries has given similar predictive
results: at present, the production of every giant
oilfield -- and only the giant ones matter -- is
in decline, except in the "black
triangle" of Iraq-Iran-Saudi Arabia.
The Hubbert's peak of the oil-producing Middle East
should be reached around 2010, depending on the more
or less rapid recovery of full Iraqi production and
the growth rate of demand in China.
The sectors most affected
by the steady rise in the price of crude oil will be,
first, aviation and intensive agriculture, since the
price of jet fuel for one, and of nitrogenous fertilizer
as well as diesel fuel for the other, are directly
linked to the price of crude oil.
This will occur unless stabilizing policies are used
-- for a time and in some other sectors -- to lower
taxes on oil as prices rise. But afterwards ground
transport, tourism, the petrochemical industry, and
the automotive industry will feel the depressive effects
of a reduction in the quantity of oil (depletion).
To what extent will this situation lead to a general
recession? No one knows, but the blindness of politicians
and the usual panicked overreaction of markets allows
us to fear the worst.
This unavoidable prophecy
is being universally ignored, denied, or underestimated.
Rare are those who realize exactly how close and how
great is its advent. Michael Meacher, formerly UK minister
of the environment (1997-2003), wrote recently in the
Financial Times that unless there is a general awakening
and decisions at the planetary scale to bring radical
change in the domain of energy, "civilization
will confront the most acute and no doubt most violent
upheaval in recent history."
If, in spite of everything, we want to maintain a
bit of humanity in life on Earth in the 2010s, we ought,
as the geologist Colin Campbell has suggested, to call
on the United Nations to agree immediately on the following:
to guarantee that poor countries will still be able
to import a little oil; to forbid oil profiteering;
to encourage saving energy; to promote renewable sources
of energy. In order to attain these objectives, this
universal agreement should impose the following measures:
every State must regulate oil imports and exports;
no oil-exporting country may produce more oil than
its annual depletion, scientifically calculated, allows;
every State must reduce its oil imports to an agreed-upon
global depletion rate.
This necessary priority granted to physical econometrics
will not suit economists and politicians, especially
in America. No government of the United States has
ever accepted questioning the American way of life.
Since the first oil shock of 1973-1974, every American
military intervention can be analyzed in the light
of the fear of running short of cheap oil. It was,
moreover, the American production peak in 1970 that
enabled OPEC to seize the occasion and cause the first
shock, which coincided with the Yom Kippur War. Countries
in the West then attempted to regain control and conjure
away the specter of shortage, less through energy sobriety
than by means of opening oilfields in Alaska and the
North Sea. In 1979, the Iranian revolution and the
second oil shock once again allowed OPEC to regain
preeminence, as Western economies paid dearly for their
thirst for oil through the recession of subsequent
At the beginning of the 1980s, the financing and arming
of Saddam Hussein to fight Iran was part of the American
reconquest of the price and flow of oil, as was the
cooperation obtained from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia
to increase crude oil exports to the West. That allowed
the oil price crash of 1986, a return of Western growth
through unlimited oil abundance, the extension of the
thirst for energy up to the Iraq wars (1991, 2003)
no matter how many died from them (100,000? 300,000?),
no matter how much they cost ($100 billion? $300 billion?),
by no matter what means (annual Dept. of Defense budget:
During these same last fifteen years, the multiple
conflicts in the Balkans had their source and their
resolution in the American desire to keep Russia away
from the oil transport routes from the Black Sea and
the Caspian to the ports on the Adriatic, by way of
Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania. Oil geopolitics authorizes
any pact with Islamist devils, from central Asia to
Bosnia, and all the cynical connivances with terrorists,
right up to Tony Blair's recent trip to Libya to allow
Shell to bring its volume of reserves in return for
several hundred million dollars.
The present American Greater Middle East Initiative
is dressed up in humanitarian and democratic considerations,
but it is nothing but an attempt to get control once
and for all of every source of oil in the region.
More than thirty years
of worrying about oil has not opened the eyes of American
and European leaders concerning the energy crisis that
is looming just before us. Despite what René Dumont
and the ecologists were saying from the 1974 presidential
campaign on, the governments of industrialized countries
have continued and continue to believe in almost
inexhaustible cheap oil -- to the detriment of the
climate and human health, both perturbed by greenhouse
gas emissions -- instead of organizing a reduction
in their economies' reliance on hydrocarbons.
However, the oil shock that promises to strike before
the end of the decade is not like the ones that preceded
it. What is at stake this time is not geopolitical,
but geological. In 1973 and 1979, the shortage had
a political origin in OPEC's decision. Then the supply
Today, it is the wells themselves that are declining.
Even if the United States succeeded in imposing its
hegemony on all the oilfields in the world (outside
of Russia), their army and their technology will not
be able to prevail against the coming depletion of
conventional oil. In any case, there is not enough
time to replace a fluid so cheap to produce, so rich
in energy, so easy to use, store, and transport, with
so many uses (domestic, industrial, fuel, raw material...),
in order to reinvest $100 billion in another source
of abundance that doesn't exist.
Natural gas? It does not have the just-named qualities
of oil and will reach its global production peak in
around 2020 -- about ten years after the other peak.
The only viable path is immediate oil sobriety organized
through an international agreement along the lines
I have sketched out above, authorizing a prompt weaning
from our addiction to black gold.
Without waiting for this delicate international agreement,
our new regional elected officials and our soon-to-be-elected
European representatives should set for themselves
as a top priority the local realization of these objectives
by organizing, on their own territory, an oil shrinkage.
Otherwise, rationing will come from the market through
the coming rise in oil prices, and then be propagated
by inflation, with the shock reaching every sector.
Since the price will soon reach $100 a barrel, this
will no longer be a simple oil shock -- it will be
the end of the world as we know it.
--Yves Cochet (Green)
represents Paris in the National Assembly, and is former
land and environment minister (ministre du territoire
et de l'environnement).