[From Washington DC to Caltech, the question is: what will it take for Americans to wake up to Peak Oil? Only a sharp decrease in consumption can cushion the coming economic fall, and that will happen through some combination of individual lifestyle choice, price hikes, dramatic consumer inconvenience, and sheer scarcity. It may also be imposed through rationing, either with FDR’s coupons or Carter’s even and odd license plates or some other system. And for several years FTW has been observing trends that suggest a large-scale pattern of economic sabotage from inside the American economy. That will slow demand. But what if demand rages ahead here in the most wasteful nation on Earth? Well, it’s always possible to organize another “catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.” –JAH]
“THERE HAS TO BE A BIG CRISIS”
Senate Acknowledges Coming Energy Crisis
Both Houses of Congress Recognize Peak Oil
Still No Talk Addressing Unsustainable Lifestyle
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“Maybe the answer is… there has to be some crisis, a big crisis. And I think the margins of error today in the world are so much different than they were when you (James R. Schlesinger) were Secretary of Energy, to recover from such a crisis that it is a very frightening prospect if we don't get serious about this. And I think both political parties, the Congress, and the President have this as its [sic] greatest responsibility.” [emphasis added]
— Senator Chuck Hagel speaking about the looming American energy crisis.
December 5, 2005 0900 PST (FTW): On November 16, 2005, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on Peak Oil and the coming American energy crisis that is too close for comfort: so close, in fact, that the Senators and witnesses present repeatedly called such a crisis both unavoidable and necessary. This came on the heels of an announcement that a Congressional Peak Oil Caucus had been formed within the House of Representatives.
Thus far there is still no talk on Capitol Hill addressing the unsustainable nature of “the American way of life.”
The hearing, chaired by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), was titled The High Costs of Crude: The New Currency of Foreign Policy. Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE), John Sununu (R-NH) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) were also present to hear testimony from former CIA Directors James R. Schlesinger and James R. Woolsey.1 Schlesinger was also the first head of the Department of Energy (DOE) created by Jimmy Carter in 1977. This is a position Woolsey seems to be on track to hold if a Democratic Administration takes office in 2008.
Schlesinger’s testimony locked in on Peak Oil and never let go. He stated what those following the subject have long known: that world discovery of oil peaked four decades ago; that high oil prices may lead to a worldwide recession; and that economic shock and political unrest are likely on the horizon. He also added that Peak Oil could prevent our military from maintaining world dominance if the oil supplies needed to advance the war machine could not be secured.
The catch phrase of “energy independence” was dismissed by Schlesinger as an impossible achievement. “ We shall not end dependence on imported oil nor -- what is the hope of some -- end dependence on the volatile Middle East, with all the political and economic consequences that flow from that troublesome reality,” said Schlesinger. “Instead of energy security, we shall have to acknowledge and to live with various degrees of insecurity.”
Woolsey’s testimony dealt with currently available technologies that could cut the transportation sector’s reliance on fossil fuels. He completely rejected hydrogen fuel cells as a viable option.
“We should forget about 95 percent of our effort on hydrogen fuel cells for transportation,” said Woolsey. “We found on the National Energy Policy Commission that, quote, ‘Hydrogen offers little to no potential to improve oil security and reduce climate change risks in the next 20 years.’… Hydrogen fuel cells for transportation in the near term are, in my judgment, a snare and a delusion and we should stop spending the kind of money on them that we are spending now.”
Woolsey focused on the use of biodiesel, corn-based ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, hybrid technology, and plug-in capabilities for cars to power-up on grid electricity. He also referenced the use of carbon composite materials – currently used in race cars – that are stronger than steel yet ultra-lightweight; a lighter vehicle has less inertia to overcome, so it requires less energy to drive. If all these technologies were utilized in unison to perfection, Woolsey says, cars could be getting up to 1,000 mpg of petroleum product. If that number seems absurd, the absurdity lies in the sociology, not the physics: plug-in cars would use plenty of natural gas from the power plant, and with 85% ethanol fuel they’d be drawing-down huge inputs of NG-derived fertilizer, petro-pesticides, arable land acrage, and transportation costs. Woolsey was candid about this, urging that if we can get 300 to 500 mpg of petroleum product per car that would be far better than the current state of vehicle efficiency.
There is still the issue of how quickly the technology will be implemented, and how quickly a new fleet of cars could replace the current fleet. That turnover rate is generally between ten and twelve years in this country, and car production itself expends an enormous amount of energy — by some estimates, up to 12% of all the hydrocarbon energy the vehicle will use in its lifetime is needed just to make the vehicle. Passenger cars now have a life expectancy of 20 years. That’s about 25,000 gallons just to make each new vehicle. In a new fuel infrastructure with newly designed cars, that equation would have to be expressed in terms of energy rather than fuel, but if Peak Oil is to be mitigated, the figure of 12% will have to decrease. So will the number of cars: there are more than 120 million internal combustion vehicles in the US right now. Time will tell whether efforts to replace and reduce that giant fleet will save significant amounts of energy.
According to the findings of the National Energy Policy Commission, Woolsey said, within 20 years we can increase the efficiency of our transportation sector to average 40 mpg per vehicle (equivalent to the current European average) utilizing half the gasoline we currently consume. However Woolsey admitted those findings are contested by other studies which show the land requirements for growing crops dedicated to producing biofuels to be too large for implementation on the necessary scale. The studies conflict because each one is conducted with its own set of assumptions. Now that Peak Oil is “out of the closet,” we begin a race against time that will ultimately determine which set of assumptions applies in the real world.
Woolsey suggested that plug-in capabilities would allow car owners to take advantage of cheap, off-peak electricity by fueling up at night. But he ignores the consequence that if such technology was widespread, nighttime consumption of electricity would skyrocket.
Both Woolsey and Schlesinger held that we do not have a long term energy problem in America but rather a long term liquid fuels problem (this emphasis on liquid fuels is consistent with the Hirsh Report). If we can integrate the transportation and electricity sectors, they argue, we will be able to mitigate that problem. This does not fully take into account aging infrastructure, the current need for grid expansion (even without plug-in hybrid cars), or the coming decline in North American natural gas production.
INSISTING ON CRISIS
When asked how to address these issues to the American public Schlesinger and Woolsey each acknowledged that it is not an easy task. Woolsey said the solutions must be made “as palatable as possible,” and mentioned that Senator Coleman was now introducing legislation to implement his recommendations.2 There was absolutely no talk of lifestyle change: the focus was entirely on making an unsustainable way of life – what Dick Cheney calls “the American way of life” – more efficient. This is precisely why legislative efforts are unlikely to produce any significant hedge against either Peak Oil or Climate Crash.
The Senators all agreed that any major change will require a crisis, and that a crisis is indeed coming. Senator Hagel stated as much with absolute clarity when he said:
“…therehas to be some crisis, a big crisis.”
“Does [the recently passed energy bill, of which Hagel approved] start to address at all what we must deal with here and the decisions we're going to have to make in order to avert, I think, an international catastrophe that's headed straight at this country?”[emphasis added] 3
Senator Lugar asked:
“Now, I ask the two of you, what sort of shock value is required so that we understand the world in which we live, and so that these modest suggestions have some hearing, some legislation?” [emphasis added]
Senator Nelson asked:
“And as a result of [implementing Woolsey’s suggestions immediately], we would be – if at the end of that period of time, however long it is, we would be almost not dependent on foreign oil, and the question is, are we going to be well on our way to that goal or achieving that goal before the crisis comes that you mentioned, Senator Hagel? Because the crisis is coming. We just don't know how it's going to come. It may be that a terrorist sinks a supertanker in the Strait of Hormuz, or they blow up a refinery or some other – maybe another major hurricane. And why we can't get the American public and the American leadership focused on this is beyond me.” [emphasis added]
Woolsey and Schlesinger had few answers outside of a general agreement that a necessary crisis was approaching. Schlesinger recognized that it was not popular for a politician to start “talking like Jimmy Carter.” One issue brought up by both the Senators and the witnesses was the lack of presidential leadership regarding energy.
It is clear that George W. Bush’s attempt at military procurement of resources is failing miserably to address the crisis that will soon fall upon this nation. Indeed, it is only making the situation much worse, as FTW predicted from the outset. It should be noted that the Senators quoted above were all instrumental in giving Bush the authority to occupy Iraq, including Democratic Senator Bill Nelson.
Peak Oil can no longer be ignored. One has to wonder whether these Senators really give a damn, whether perhaps they are making a last ditch effort to save face, desperately trying to get up to speed on the facts and figures. Is this a PR ploy, like when David J. O’Reilly, the Chairman and CEO of Chevron, published a two-page ad in major newspapers across the country where he effectively acknowledged Peak Oil? Imagine what would happen if an economic and energy crash were to befall the United States before Congress had even acknowledged the urgency of the problem. That is certainly no way to assure reelection.
The question still remains as to when the “R” word will finally make its way into American public discourse: rationing. The debate on rationing will likely be entirely avoided until the last possible moment – probably after significant death, the likes of which England has had to deal with for some time now.
For the upcoming winter, analysts are saying there is enough supply to meet demand unless it is unusually cold, in which case there will be major stress on the supply of natural gas. If the winter is 6% colder than normal, industrial usage of natural gas will need to be curtailed and redirected to businesses and homes. In January of 2004, Massachusetts had to implement such measures when the state came dangerously close to falling short on supply.
But thus far it appears there is no plan ready for implementation by federal or state agencies beyond the mere curtailment of industrial consumption to deal with supply shortages. FTW is now investigating what efforts cities, towns, counties, and public utilities are implementing on their own to address residential needs if bitter cold days induce fuel shortages. And the lingering damage from the Gulf hurricanes may make curtailments necessary even if weather is normal.
Senator Lugar ended this landmark hearing by saying, “You know, this committee is declaring intellectual independence, even if we can't declare energy independence.” That received a hardy chuckle from those in attendance. Soon we shall see whether the Senate intends to take a leadership role in addressing the most pressing issue the human race has ever faced, or to squander the remaining opportunities for Peak Oil mitigation for the sake of short-term investor confidence in the stock market. As an example of the massive inertia such efforts face, consider this astonishingly stupid remark from Senator Charles Grassley:
You know, what--what makes our economy grow is energy. And, and Americans are used to going to the gas tank [sic], and when they put that hose in their, uh, tank, and when I do it, I wanna get gas out of it. And when I turn the light switch on, I want the lights to go on, and I don't want somebody to tell me I gotta change my way of living to satisfy them. Because this is America, and this is something we've worked our way into, and the American people are entitled to it, and if we're going improve [sic] our standard of living, you have to consume more energy." — Charles Grassley on NPR
1 Membership of Senate Committee on Foreign Relations:
James Woolsey’s written testimony:
James Schlesinger’s written testimony:
The hearing can be seen in full on Real Player at the following link:
or go here: http://foreign.senate.gov/hearings/2005/hrg051116a.html, and click on High Costs of Crude: The New Currency of Foreign Policy
2 Vehicle and Fuel Choices for American Security Act of 2005: Setting America Free:
3 Hagel voted to pass the recent energy bill just four months ago. Why does he have to ask if the bill addresses the coming crisis? If he didn’t read the bill, did his staff? Was he briefed? It’s not as if this is just any bill; it’s one that directly affects a committee of which he is a member. You would think he might be familiar with the only energy bill presented to Congress in the past thirteen years, and whether or not it addresses an energy crisis that Hagel says is inevitable. This is not a promising sign.
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