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Just How Addicted to Oil Are We?

Considering the permanent energy crisis

| Fri Feb. 10, 2006 3:00 AM EST

Although we cannot hope to foresee all the ways such forces will affect the global human community, the primary vectors of the permanent energy crisis can be identified and charted. Three such vectors, in particular, demand attention: a slowing in the growth of energy supplies at a time of accelerating worldwide demand; rising political instability provoked by geopolitical competition for those supplies; and mounting environmental woes produced by our continuing addiction to oil, natural gas, and coal. Each of these would be cause enough for worry, but it is their intersection that we need to fear above all.

Energy experts have long warned that global oil and gas supplies are not likely to be sufficiently expandable to meet anticipated demand. As far back as the mid-1990s, peak-oil theorists like Kenneth Deffeyes of Princeton University and Colin Campbell of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) insisted that the world was heading for a peak-oil moment and would soon face declining petroleum output. At first, most mainstream experts dismissed these claims as simplistic and erroneous, while government officials and representatives of the big oil companies derided them. Recently, however, a sea-change in elite opinion has been evident. First Matthew Simmons, the chairman of Simmons and Company International of Houston, America's leading energy-industry investment bank, and then David O'Reilly, CEO of Chevron, the country's second largest oil firm, broke ranks with their fellow oil magnates and embraced the peak-oil thesis. O'Reilly has been particularly outspoken, taking full-page ads in the New York Times and other papers to declare, "One thing is clear: the era of easy oil is over."

The exact moment of peak oil's arrival is not as important as the fact that world oil output will almost certainly fall short of global demand, given the fossil-fuel voraciousness of the older industrialized nations, especially the United States, and soaring demand from China, India, and other rapidly growing countries. The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) projects global oil demand to grow by 35% between 2004 and 2025 -- from 82 million to 111 million barrels per day. The DoE predicts that daily oil output will rise by a conveniently similar amount -- from 83 million to 111 million barrels. Voilá! -- the problem of oil sufficiency disappears. But even a cursory glance at the calculations made by the DoE's experts is enough to raise suspicions: Behind such estimates lies the assumption that key oil producers like Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia can double or triple their oil production -- unlikely in the extreme, according to most sober analysts. On top of this, the DoE has been lowering its own oil-production estimates: In 2003, it predicted that global oil output would reach 123 million barrels per day by 2025; by the end of 2005, that number had already dropped by12 million barrels, reflecting a growing pessimism even among the globe's great oil optimists.

This is not to say that oil will disappear in the years ahead: There will still be adequate supplies for well-heeled consumers who can afford higher fuel bills. But much of the world's easy-to-acquire petroleum has already been extracted and significant portions of what remains can only be found in places that present significant drilling challenges like the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico or the iceberg-infested waters of the North Atlantic -- or in perennially conflict-ridden and sabotage-vulnerable areas of Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

No Escape from Scarcity

To make the energy picture grimmer, "spare" or "surge" capacity seems to be disappearing in the major oil-producing regions. At one time, key producers like Saudi Arabia retained an excess production capacity, allowing them to rapidly boost their output in times of potential energy crisis like the 1990-91 Gulf War. But Saudi Arabia, like the other big suppliers, is now producing at full tilt and so possesses zero capacity to increase output. In other words, any politically inspired (or sabotage related) cutoff in oil exports from countries like Russia or Iran will produce instant energy shock on a global scale and send oil prices soaring to, or through, that $100 a barrel barrier.

A chronic shortage of oil would be hard enough for the world community to cope with even if other sources of energy were in great supply. But this is not the case. Natural gas -- the world's second leading source of energy -- is also at risk of future shortages. While there are still major deposits of gas in Russia and Iran (potentially the world's number one and two suppliers) waiting to be tapped, obstacles to their exploitation loom large. The United States is doing everything it can to prevent Iran from exporting its gas (for example, by strong-arming India into abandoning a proposed gas pipeline from Iran), while Moscow has actively discouraged Europe from increasing its reliance on Russian gas through its recent cutoff of supplies to Ukraine and other worrisome actions.

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