Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Reality Of Oil

by Charley Reese

King Features Syndicate (May 01 2006)

High gasoline prices, in the long run, are a good thing. We should worry less about oil-company profits and more about our profligate and unsustainable use of oil-based energy.

According to the American Petroleum Institute, we use twenty million barrels of oil a day, about half in the form of gasoline for our 200 million cars, which travel collectively about seven billion miles per day. We can't keep this up. Domestic oil production peaked a long time ago, and it won't be that long before foreign oil also peaks. In the meantime, more industrializing nations are competing for what's left. That will drive the price up.

It's obvious that neither we nor Congress, in the absence of pain, will get serious about resolving the energy problem. High gasoline prices, which will strike the poorest the hardest, is the only incentive I know that will make people angry enough to build a fire under their politicians. That's why the politicians will try to deflect the anger to the oil companies.

I have no affection for big oil companies, most of which are oil merchants, but the rules of the capitalist game are that if you are selling something and it becomes scarce, then the price is bid up, and it's your good fortune. That's true of every commodity from apples to oil. We're going to pay the same prices at the pump whether any of the big oil executives get bonuses or not.

Some forty cents to fifty cents of the price of a gallon of gasoline are taxes levied by the federal, state and local and city governments. That's a regressive tax if there ever was one, yet the politicians will howl about oil-company profits but not say a word about their bite at the pocketbook. The stench of dishonesty on this subject in Washington is worse than the odor of a refinery.

Nor are there any magic bullets. The president can talk about hydrogen all he wants, but cars that will run on hydrogen are way down the road. He could help, though. He helped talk the price of oil up by threatening Iran. He could talk it down some by saying publicly that the military option is off the table and the issue will be resolved diplomatically. That's what he should say anyway. Iran holds ten percent of the world's oil reserves, and it makes the market nervous when the White House cowboys start talking about a new war.

Moreover, at the present it takes more energy to produce hydrogen than you get from burning it. Ethanol is likewise a wash. It takes as much energy to produce it as you get from burning it, and besides that, we will ruin the land with one-crop, high-fertilizer, high-herbicide tillage. The ethanol solution is just a sop thrown to the big grain monopolies.

The only thing that will really save us is to change our habits. A long time ago, seduced by cheap energy, we allowed our cities to sprawl to the point that mass transit simply isn't workable in many of them, and all too often a car is a necessity. Much of the housing stock was built when you could cook, heat water and run the air conditioner for $30 a month, and those houses often don't have an inch of insulation or, in some cases, even cross ventilation. We've gotten into the habit of buying cars for high-school students. We've gotten into the habit of hopping on airplanes. It was government subsidies of airplanes, trucks and barges that did in the railroads, which are still the most energy-efficient way to move large numbers of people.

The sad truth is that the only way to save energy is to not use it. If we allow ourselves to be beguiled by politicians into believing there is some miracle fuel that's going to appear so that we can keep merrily on squandering energy, then we're in for a shock. There are no miracles on the shelf.

The only real solution is to drive less, fly less, heat less and cool less. I wish it were not so, but I've noticed through the years that wishes affect reality about as much as a gentle breeze blowing against Stone Mountain affects the granite.

We have time. The oil is not going to run out next year or the year after. I think it will get more expensive. We ought to get the best brains in the country to working on the problem of the post-oil world, but we'll have to wait for new leadership in Washington. The current leadership's idea of an energy plan is to subsidize big oil and tell fairy tales about hydrogen cars.

Our grandchildren, and perhaps our children, will live to see the beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel era, commonly called the Industrial Revolution. For those with curiosity, it should at least be exciting and interesting.

Copyright (c) 2006 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Bill Totten


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