Oil: The Bad News in the Good News

(Flickr/Mayhem Chaos)

An oil field near Bakerfield, California

On Monday, the International Energy Agency (IEA) came out with a stunner of a projection. The United States will replace Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer of oil by 2020, thanks to the unlocking of massive shale oil reserves. With hydro-fracking technology, the U.S. is riding a boom in natural gas as well. 

Oil production will increase from its current level of about 6 million barrels a day per year to 11 million barrels by 2020. Within a few years, the U.S. will be a net exporter.

Pardon me if I don’t rejoice.

This good news all but guarantees that the United States government, Democrat or Republican, will turn away from efforts to replace carbon fuels with clean, renewable energy. It guarantees another generation of relatively cheap gasoline for motorists—and an increase in the U.S. contribution to global climate change.

Hundreds of thousands of people are still suffering the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy. But Sandy is already yesterday’s news.

Except that Sandy—and more and bigger super-storms and ocean surges—are in fact tomorrow’s news. Even if we redouble our efforts to remedy climate change, we will suffer worsening weird weather. And if cheap oil redoubles our consumption of carbon fuels, we only accelerate the destruction.

Between the aversion of America’s drivers to paying even a modest gas tax; the electoral politics of coal, gas, and oil; and the phony budget crisis, the United States was already far off track in what needed to be done. Even the low-fruit of energy conservation is unimpressive. At Monday’s press conference announcing the new oil projection, the IEA’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, called the lack of progress on conservation an “epic failure.”

With the U.S. wallowing in oil and refusing to tax carbon, it becomes far harder to promote Third World efforts to skip over the West’s dirty industrialization phase and pursue a clean-energy path.

Environmentalists who had been relying on projections of “peak oil” to spur efforts to cut carbon emissions will now need to redouble efforts to educate the public on the fact that we are destroying our habitat. With newly plentiful oil, prices of crude have dropped from a peak of $147.25 a barrel in 2008 to $85.55 today. Prices are down about 13 percent this year, and a future of cheap fuel will only undercut conservation and a shift to cleaner energy.

By the time peak oil truly arrives, late in this century, we will be that much further down the road to climate hell. You wonder how many more Sandys it will take before Americans get the message. Even for those who doubt that climate change is man-made, there is no doubt that the polar ice is melting and the oceans are rising.

Oh, and one more bit of bad news in the good news. All of this new oil production will only increase the political power of the oil industry and the bragging rights of conservatives.

The Wall Street Journal lead editorial on the subject, titled “Saudi America,” gloats that the green-energy revolution is being overtaken by a new boom in fossil fuels. The editorial never once mentions climate change.

“Saudi America” is unintended irony. This country is becoming an oligarchy—make that oilagarchy.

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