George W. Bush and Peak Oil: Beyond Incompetence
It is part of the job of leaders to foresee problems and either steer around them or prepare for them. A head of state is analogous to the captain of a ship, who is responsible not only for keeping his vessel on course but also for avoiding hazards such as storms and icebergs. Some problems are not foreseeable; others are. A ship’s captain who loses his vessel to a freak “perfect storm” may be blameless, but one who steers his passenger liner directly into a foggy ice field, having no sonar or radar, is worse than a fool: he is criminally negligent.
Peak Oil is foreseeable. The consequences are also foreseeable and are likely to be ruinous.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences...describes the situation this way: In the last 10–15 years, two-thirds of the increases in reserves of conventional oil have been based on increased estimates of recovery from existing fields and only one-third on discovery of new fields. In this way, a balance has been achieved between growth in reserves and production. This can’t continue. 50% of the present oil production comes from giant fields and very few such fields have been found in recent years." The 100 or so giant and super-giant fields that are collectively responsible for about half of current world production were all discovered in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s and most are now going into decline.
Ford Motor Company Executive Vice President Mark Fields, in his keynote address in October, 2005 at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ “Global Leadership Conference at the Greenbrier,” noted the seven most serious challenges to his industry, one of which was that “oil production is peaking. Volvo motor company has for several years acknowledged in its company literature that a global oil production peak is likely by 2015.7
Dutch Shell Chief Executive Jeroen Van Der Veer has said, “My view is that ‘easy’ oil has probably passed its peak.
On March 1, 2006 The New York Times published an editorial by Robert Semple, Associate Editor of the Editorial Page for the Times since 1998, in which he wrote, “The concept of peak oil has not been widely written about. But people are talking about it now. It deserves a careful look—largely because it is almost certainly correct.”
The Bush administration has been repeatedly warned.
First of all, agencies within the government clearly understand the problem, and therefore relevant information must be readily available to the chief executive if he wishes to have it.
In a 1999 speech Cheney pointed out: "By some estimates there will be an average of two per cent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead along with conservatively a three per cent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a day." This is a fair statement of the depletion dilemma: 50 million barrels per day is almost five times the current output of Saudi Arabia.
...A paper prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers...includes the following tidbit: "The supply of oil will remain fairly stable in the very near term, but oil prices will steadily increase as world production approaches its peak. The doubling of oil prices in the past couple of years is not an anomaly, but a picture of the future. Peak oil is at hand..."
And then there is the 2005 Hirsch Report, “Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management,” commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy,
Then there is the following from the U.S. Department of Energy: "The disparity between increasing production and declining reserves can have only one outcome: a practical supply limit will be reached and future supply to meet conventional oil demand will not be available. The question is when peak production will occur and what will be its ramifications. Whether the peak occurs sooner or later is a matter of relative urgency..."
Actions could be taken to reduce the impact, but the longer those actions are delayed, the worse the impact will be.
Responsible and competent people who have studied the problem of Peak Oil, (including Robert Hirsch and his colleagues) agree that efforts will be needed to create alternative sources of energy, to reduce demand for oil through heightened energy efficiency, and to redesign entire systems (including both cities and the rural agricultural economy) to operate with less petroleum.
The Hirsch Report’s methodology involved the examination of three scenarios:
Scenario I assumed that action is not initiated until peaking occurs.
Scenario II assumed that action is initiated 10 years before peaking.
Scenario III assumed action is initiated 20 years before peaking.
In all three scenarios, the Hirsch study assumed a “crash program” scale of effort (that is, all the resources of government and industry are marshalled to the tasks of creating supplies of alternative fuels and reducing demand through efficiency measures). The study found that, due to the time required to start efforts and the scale of mitigation required, Scenario I will result in at least 20 years of fuel shortfalls. With 10 years of preparation, a 10-year shortfall is likely. And with 20 years of advance mitigation effort, there is “the possibility” of averting fuel shortages altogether. The Report also concludes that “Early mitigation will almost certainly be less expensive than delayed mitigation.”
The administration, rather than taking steps to mitigate these looming catastrophic impacts, has instead done things that can only worsen them.
Before examining what Bush and Cheney have done (and not done), we should in fairness note that previous administrations are far from blameless. During the Clinton–Gore years, imports of oil increased while CAFE standards languished. However, in a court of law the incompetence or even criminality of others is seldom a viable defense for one’s own culpable actions.
First of all, the administration effectively buried the Hirsch Report. For many months it was available only on a high school web site, then on the Project Censored site; only toward the end of 2005 did it appear on a Department of Energy site. There has been no public mention whatever of the Report by any official in the Executive Branch. Thus the administration has sought not to respond to warnings of approaching crisis, but simply to muffle the warnings.
During the past six years, funding for renewable energy programs and for energy efficiency has not increased substantially. Meanwhile the administration has consistently sought to remove subsidies for the nation’s passenger rail system, Amtrak, while continuing to support immense subsidies for highways.
In his 2006 State of the Union address, Bush said that the U.S. is “addicted to oil,” and put forward the goal of reducing oil imports from the Middle East. The next day his staff backpedaled, saying that this goal was only an “example.”
Given all this, how will impeachment help? While it would be justified as a punishment for ineptitude or criminality, impeachment will not materially assist the nation to deal with Peak Oil unless current officials are replaced with ones who understand the problem and who are prepared to implement policies that radically shift America’s priorities in terms of energy, transportation, urban infrastructure, and agriculture.