While the U.S. has tried to gain control of Iraq's oil, the world's most notorious terrorist, Osama bin Laden, has repeatedly said that his hatred of the West stems, in part, from his disgust over America's consumption of Arab oil. That anger over oil has led him to call for attacks on pipelines, refineries, and other oil-related infrastructure.
And those attacks on oil infrastructure have led some of America's energy isolationists to insist that the best remedy to the problem is to use less foreign oil. In 2004, one of those leading energy isolationists, Gal Luft, a former lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces and now the head of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, wrote that "oil terrorism is now emerging as one of the biggest threats to global economy [sic]." He went on, saying that pipelines, tankers, and other oil infrastructure are "soft targets which can be easily sabotaged by those willing to sacrifice their lives."29
It is not at all clear that oil-related targets are "easily sabotaged." But it is clear that bin Laden has an oil fixation. In a March 1997 interview
March 1, 2006, 4:33 p.m.: U.S. Army private first class Mark Hexum stands guard after an attack on a pipeline near Taji, Iraq.
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense, Petty Officer First Class Michael Larson, U.S. Navy.
March 1, 2006, 4:33 p.m.: U.S. Army private first class Mark Hexum stands guard after an attack on a pipeline near Taji, Iraq.
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense, Petty Officer First Class Michael Larson, U.S. Navy.
with CNN's Peter Arnett, bin Laden said that oil prices were "not realistic" because the Saudi royal family was "playing the role of a U.S. agent," and that the Saudis were "flooding the market that caused a sharp decrease in oil prices."30 He went on to say that the U.S. wants to "occupy our countries, steal our resources."31 The following year, in an interview with al-Jazeera, he again talked about oil, saying that the U.S., Britain, and Israel were on the side of the "global Crusader alliance" and that it was "not acceptable" that they "should attack and enter my land and holy sanctuaries, and plunder Muslims' oil."32
In 2002, in a letter that was posted on the Islamist Web site, al-Qala'h, bin Laden listed the reasons why he and his followers are attacking the U.S. Among them: "You steal our wealth and oil at paltry prices. . . . This theft is indeed the biggest theft ever witnessed by mankind in the history of the world."33
In December 2004, as oil prices began creeping upward, bin Laden said, "The biggest reasons for our enemies' control over our lands is to steal our oil, so give everything you can to stop the greatest theft of oil in history." And he implored his followers to attack energy infrastructure: "So keep on struggling, do not make it easy for them, and focus your operations on it, especially in Iraq and the Gulf, for that will be the death of them."34
Al-Qaeda operatives have heeded bin Laden's calls. In April 2004, three bomb-laden boats attacked both of Iraq's oil terminals in the Persian Gulf. The first boat headed for the terminal known as Khor al-Amaya and was intercepted by a U.S. Navy speedboat. As the sailors on the speedboat approached the insurgents' boat, the suicide bombers blew up their boat, killing two American sailors and wounding four others. Twenty minutes later, and a few miles south, two more boats piloted by suicide bombers attacked Iraq's main oil terminal, Mina al-Bakr. They, too, blew up their boats before they reached their target.
In a statement released right after the bombing, al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi reminded readers of al-Qaeda's October 2000 suicide bombing attack on the USS Cole while the ship was being refueled in Aden, Yemen. That attack killed 17 sailors and injured 39.35 Al-Zarqawi claimed his loyalists "have repeated this attack in a new garb and with stubborn determination by striking vital economic links of the infidel and atheist states."
On February 24, 2006, Saudi security forces thwarted an attack on the world's single most important piece of energy infrastructure: Abqaiq. Located near Dhahran in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, the Abqaiq facilities process about 7 million barrels of crude oil per day— about two-thirds of the country's daily output and around 8 percent of the world's daily consumption. The attackers attempted to drive two explosive-laden vehicles into the Abqaiq compound, but they were stopped when security forces fired on them. The vehicles exploded, killing all of the attackers and three security guards.36 The attackers were later identified as being part of al-Qaeda.37
That attack on Abqaiq came just two months after al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri exhorted his jihadists to attack oil infrastructure. In a December 7, 2005, videotape, al-Zawahiri told his men to focus "attacks on Muslims' stolen oil."38
In April 2007, the Saudis announced that they had arrested 172 men who were allegedly planning to attack various oil installations in the kingdom. The group, reportedly linked to al-Qaeda, had received training in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The arrests of the suspects came just six months after Saudi law enforcement officials rounded up 136 people, all of whom were charged with planning to commit similar attacks.39
Oil infrastructure attacks have become commonplace in Iraq. By March 2007, some 400 attacks on Iraq's pipelines and other infrastructure had been documented.40 And that estimate is undoubtedly far lower than the actual numbers.
The attacks on oil installations are not limited to the Persian Gulf. In fact, it's safe to say that most attacks on oil installations that occur around the world have nothing to do with al-Qaeda. For years, Nigeria's oil output has been hampered by corruption and rebel activity in the Niger Delta, where insurgents and thieves have repeatedly targeted oil infrastructure.
In Colombia, insurgent groups have a favorite target in their war on the federal government: the Caño Limón-to-Coveñas pipeline. The 100,000 barrel-per-day, 480-mile-long pipeline transports crude oil from the Caño Limón oil field (discovered in 1983 by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum) in the northeastern state of Arauca to the coast. Between 1996 and mid-2005, there were some 635 attacks on the pipeline.41 Despite the efforts of the U.S. military to protect the pipeline, the bombings and killings along the pipeline continued into 2006. For instance, in July 2006, the line was bombed. When oil field workers tried to repair the damaged pipeline, they were hit by another bombing, which killed two workers and two soldiers.42 The bombings have been blamed on a rebel group called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.
While all of these attacks are important, they are nothing new. Attacks on oil infrastructure have been occurring for decades.
In the late 1930s, "Arab terrorist bands" were regularly attacking the pipeline that carried Iraqi crude from Mosul to the port at Haifa. Between 1936, when the line opened, and mid-1938, the pipeline had been attacked some 120 times, and according to the Chicago Daily Tribune, "Special police patrols along the line have proved insufficient to cope with the saboteurs."43
During World War II, oil facilities were constantly being attacked by both sides. Early in the war, German submarines had great success targeting American oil tankers. In early 1942, as explained by Robert Goralski and Russell W. Freeburg in their epic book Oil and War, German U-boats "moved from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras with impunity, sinking forty-four unarmed and unescorted merchantmen. More than 70 percent of the tonnage lost was in tankers."44
In 1956, during the Suez crisis, Arab nationalists blew up pumping stations in Syria that pumped Iraqi crude to the Lebanese port of Tripoli.45 In 1967, Israeli soldiers captured the famous piece of Syrian real estate called the Golan Heights. In doing so, they took control of a pumping station on the Tapline, the 1,040-mile-long pipeline that carried crude from Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province to the Lebanese port at Sidon.46 Two years later, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine bombed the Tapline near the Golan Heights.47
During the Vietnam War, both sides were constantly attacking oil-related targets. In 1965, a force consisting of some 200 Viet Cong fighters attacked an air base near Da Nang. The Viet Cong then used mortars to destroy some 2 million gallons of jet fuel stored at the base.48 In mid-1966, Lyndon Johnson's national security adviser, Walter Rostow, sent him a memo that said a "systematic attack on oil would almost certainly kill fewer North Vietnamese civilians than generalized harassment."49
In early 1973, as tensions between the Israelis and the Arab states grew, the Saudi oil minister, Ahmed Zaki Yamani, warned the U.S. that the Saudis' oil fields were highly vulnerable to acts of sabotage by terrorists. The New York Times reported that Yamani told the Nixon administration that "the risk of terrorism could be diminished by progress toward a settlement" of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.50
These days, while it's clear that bin Laden and his jihadis are targeting oil infrastructure, the truth is that they have not been hugely successful. Given the vast amount of oil that is transported around the globe on a daily basis, the surprising thing about oil-related terrorism is that it happens so rarely.
Oil producers around the world must accept the fact that oil infrastructure has become one of the main battlegrounds in the fight against al-Qaeda. The result is the ongoing militarization of oil infrastructure all over the world, from the Shatt al-Arab in the uppermost regions of the Persian Gulf to the Houston Ship Channel. As long as oil is produced, the infrastructure needed to support its production will always be targeted. And while security efforts can help control those attacks, there is no way to ensure that all oil infrastructure will remain free from assault. Oil-related terrorism was a problem in Iraq in 1938. It's still a problem now. And energy independence won't do anything to stop those attacks.
The point is clear: Oil-related terror attacks will continue. And those attacks will likely lead to temporary price increases in the global price of oil. But even if the U.S. were somehow free of imported oil, American consumers would still be buying oil at the global price and would therefore not be immune from the price spikes caused by infrastructure attacks. Why? Well, because the price of oil is set globally. American oil traders are not going to voluntarily sell their domestically produced crude in the U.S. if they can get a substantially higher price in, say, London or Rotterdam. Traders always seek the best price for their commodities. Thus, the U.S. cannot isolate itself from the rest of the global oil market.
Since September 11, 2001, Americans have seen a deluge of books, documentaries, and magazine articles about peak oil—the concept that the world's oil producers have reached the limit of their ability to produce ever larger amounts of crude. Of those many reports, five deserve to be mentioned.
In 2001, just three weeks after September 11, Kenneth Deffeyes, a geologist from Princeton University, published Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. Deffeyes wrote his book by building on the work of M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist who worked for Shell Oil in Houston. Hubbert studied oil production trends in America, and in 1956, using mathematical models, he predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in about 1969. He missed it by a year. Production peaked in 1970.
Deffeyes used Hubbert's models to explain that a peak in global oil production was looming, and that a catastrophe would soon follow. "An unprecedented crisis is just over the horizon," Deffeyes wrote. "There will be chaos in the oil industry, in governments, and in national economies. Even if governments and industries were to recognize the problems, it is too late to reverse the trend. Oil production is going to shrink."51 After his book was published, Deffeyes got enormous amounts of attention from the media. He even was so bold as to predict the actual date when the world would hit peak oil production: Thanksgiving Day, 2005.52
Another book that falls roughly into this category is Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Petroleum Dependency, written by Michael Klare, a professor at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Published in 2004, Klare's book does not address peak oil directly. Instead, it focuses on America's militarization of the Middle East and claims that America's thirst for oil and its reliance on foreign oil are "increasing the risk of turmoil and conflict" in the world's oil-producing countries, locales that, he points out, are, in many cases, already unstable.53 Klare's book offers an excellent primer on the ongoing militarization of the oil sector, from the Middle East to Colombia. Alas, he concludes that the U.S. needs "autonomy" when it comes to energy, and he despairs that mere "lip service is being paid to the need for energy independence."54
The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World, published in 2004 by journalist Paul Roberts, warned that the world was running out of oil and that the West's reliance on Middle Eastern oil has "helped foster a perpetual state of political instability, ethnic conflict, and virulent nationalism in that oil-rich region."55 Roberts's book warns that our current energy system is failing. After more than 300 pages of a mostly clear-eyed survey of the global energy business, he concludes that every year that goes by is "another year in which our unstable energy economy moves so much closer to the point of no return."56 While there is much to recommend in Roberts's book, he fails to provide readers with an understanding of the rapid globalization of the energy business. Instead, he sticks with a U.S.-centric approach, and in doing so, he implies that America holds the keys to the global energy future. That's no longer true.
Another notable book that raised anxiety about future oil production was Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, written by Matthew Simmons, the founder and chairman of the Houston-based investment banking firm Simmons & Co. International. Published in 2005, the book gained particular attention because Simmons is a Republican and was an adviser to George W. Bush on energy issues. Simmons's book claims that Saudi Arabia has been obscuring the problems in its oil fields and that the kingdom will not be able to significantly boost its oil output. Simmons looks at Ghawar and a number of other major oil fields in the kingdom and claims that output from those fields is declining rapidly. Simmons concludes that after those big fields go into decline, "There is nothing remotely resembling them to take their place."57 The book sold well and garnered so much attention that the Saudi embassy in Washington took the unprecedented step of holding a public meeting to counter Simmons's claims.
The most ominous of the we're-running-out-of-energy books is James Howard Kunstler's 2005 tome, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, which predicts that the end of inexpensive oil will lead to a total meltdown of American (and global) society. The jacket flap of the book's hardcover edition breathlessly claims that the U.S. is teetering on the precipice of disaster and that "no combination of alternative fuels will permit us to run things the way we are running them, or even a substantial fraction of them. We will have to downscale every activity of everyday life, from farming, to schooling, to retail trade. ... Epidemic disease and faltering agriculture will synergize with energy scarcities to send nations reeling."58
Kunstler's book is an unrelentingly pessimistic screed that's replete with warnings that Americans must abandon virtually every familiar aspect of their current lives. He claims that the rise in energy prices will mean that the states of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains are "destined to become the most depopulated, unproductive, and desolate places in the nation."59 After 307 pages of dire predictions, doom, and gloom, Kunstler was so depressed that he couldn't be bothered to provide readers with a single source note, a bibliography, or even an index. Worse still, Kunstler, who presents himself as an expert on energy, misspelled the name of the massive Saudi oil complex, Abqaiq. For some reason, Kunstler calls it "Alqaiq."60
Several other books, along with a panoply of articles in magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, as well as numerous Web sites like peakoil.com, theoildrum.com, and hubbertpeak.com, have spotlighted the issue of peak oil.61 The worries about peak oil gained further traction in July 2007 when the National Petroleum Council, an advisory group to the Department of Energy, issued a report concluding that "it's a hard truth that the global supply of oil and natural gas from the conventional sources relied upon historically is unlikely to meet projected 50 to 60 percent growth in demand over the next 25 years."62 That same month, the International Energy Agency predicted that crude oil supplies will tighten in future years, with a "supply crunch" beginning after about 2010 as the world's major oil producers run out of spare production capacity.63
While all of these predictions are sobering, it's important to keep in mind that the idea of declining oil production—and the dire consequences that will follow that decline—is hardly new.
For decades, scientists, politicians, and energy analysts have been predicting that the world will run out of oil, and they generally predict that the decline will begin within a decade or so of the date of their prediction. In 1914, a U.S. government agency, the Bureau of Mines, predicted that world oil supplies would be depleted within 10 years. In 1939, the U.S. Department of the Interior looked at the world's oil reserves and predicted that global oil supplies would be fully depleted in 13 years.64 In 1946, the U.S. State Department predicted that America would be facing an oil shortage in 20 years and that it would have no choice but to rely on increased oil imports from the Middle East.65 In 1951, the Interior Department revised its earlier prediction and said that the oil on the planet would be depleted within another 13 years.66 In 1972, the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, which predicted that the world would be out of oil by 1992 and out of natural gas by 1993.67 In 1974, biologist Paul Ehrlich, who gained fame with his 1968 book The Population Bomb, predicted that "within the next quarter of a century mankind will be looking elsewhere than in oil wells for its main source of energy."68 In the 1980s, Colin Campbell, one of the most vocal of the peak oil theorists, predicted that global oil production would peak in 1989.
Suffice it to say that none of these dire predictions came true. In fact, while Campbell predicted a global peak in 1989, the reality was that, between 1989 and 2005, global production increased by about 23 percent.69
None of this is to suggest that the idea of peak oil is a farce or that global oil production will not peak at some point in the future.70 The quantity of oil on the planet is finite. Further, there is no denying that the number of major new conventional oil discoveries is dwindling and supplies are tightening. At some point, the amount of oil that can be produced from the earth will hit a peak and then begin to decline. Exactly when that will happen no one can say for certain. And that lack of certainty adds anxiety to the world's biggest energy consumers.
Other factors are contributing to that anxiety. For instance, the costs associated with finding and producing oil are rising sharply, particularly for U.S.-based oil companies. In early 2007, analysts from John S. Herold Inc., the highly respected oil research firm, estimated that between 2004 and 2006, the costs of developing new oil reserves for America's biggest energy companies nearly doubled.71
Another factor: lack of personnel. The energy industry in general, and the American oil and gas industry in particular, is desperately short of the technical staff it needs. Many companies are eager to develop various prospects, but their main constraint is their inability to find qualified engineers, geologists, landmen, roughnecks, and other people to work on their projects. In January 2007, the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission released a report that underscored the problems facing an industry with a rapidly aging workforce. Of all the people working in the oil and gas sector, "half are now between the ages of 50 and 60, while only 15 percent are in their early 20s to mid-30s. The average age in the industry is 48, with some major and super major companies reporting an average age in the mid-50s."72 And while many universities are ramping up their engineering programs to provide more professionals, filling the gap between demand and supply could take years, or even decades.
Another problem: a dire shortage of welders. Whether the location is offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, equipment fabricators, or tank builders, the entire energy industry needs more welders. In mid-2007, Michael Harter, the chairman of the Tulsa Welding School, the largest welding school in the U.S., told me that there are "3 to 10 job opportunities" for every welder who graduates from his school.73
The backdrop for all of these challenges is the fact that the industry has little spare production capacity. For watchers of global business, that fact should not be a surprise. The oil industry has simply adopted some of the strategies of other major industries that use just-in-time delivery systems. In every industry, spare capacity of any type (manufacturing, power generation, consumer goods) is expensive. In order to stay competitive, companies are providing only as much production capacity as is needed by their customers at any given time. They meet the demands of their customers and they do it just in time. That's what the global oil business has done. Maintaining extra oil wells or platforms that are not producing to meet immediate oil demand is just too expensive.
But even as all of these factors are restraining new production, advances in technology and rising commodity prices are spurring the development of oil deposits that just a few years ago were viewed as mere fantasy. And that reflects a truism about natural resource development: As prices for a given commodity rise, more people will work to figure out how to find and produce more of it. That means that "difficult" oil like that located in oil shale and tar sands, which is virtually worthless when oil sells for less than about $40 per barrel, becomes more viable when the price of oil is, say, $60 or $80 a barrel.
The innovations in the oil exploration business were clearly illustrated in September 2006 when Chevron, Devon Energy, and Norway's Statoil ASA announced a major discovery with a well called the Jack No. 2. The three companies found a huge oil field in the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico, about 270 miles southwest of New Orleans.74 The Jack well, drilled in 7,000 feet of water, found a major field in a geological area called the lower tertiary trend. That formation may hold up to 15 billion barrels of oil, an amount that could boost America's reserves by 50 percent. The Jack well shows the ingenuity and technical prowess of the global energy business. Drilled to a depth of more than 20,000 feet below the sea floor, the well cost more than $100 million.75
A few years ago, a discovery like Jack was beyond the realm of possibility. In fact, it was just six decades ago, in 1947, that the oil industry drilled its first offshore oil well—the Kermac 16—out of the sight of land.76 Back then, when the Kermac 16 was drilled in just 20 feet of water, the 15 billion barrels of oil that might be found in the lower tertiary may as well have been located on the dark side of the moon.77 The industry simply did not have the technical ability to tap them. With Jack, the oil industry has succeeded in drilling for oil—and finding it—in a location that required the use of submarines, robots, and a host of new technologies. And many of those same technologies are being used to accelerate the development of offshore oil exploration all over the world.
Just as important as the technology employed is the fact that the Jack discovery refutes the entire concept of energy independence.
A few years ago, offshore oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico would often be owned, drilled, and managed by just one company. Today, the energy sector has embraced globalism to an astonishing degree. Proof can be seen in London-based BP, which is now the single biggest crude oil producer in the U.S. That's right, a foreign oil company produces more oil in America than any American company. In 2005, BP produced about 825,000 barrels of crude per day, or about 16 percent of all U.S. crude output.78
Furthermore, Jack provides ample proof of the accelerating globalization of the energy business. The well was drilled by two American companies, Chevron and Devon, along with Statoil, which is based in Stavanger, Norway. Statoil is among a United Nations-sized contingent of energy companies that are investing their capital to help ensure that Americans will have enough fuel for their cars and homes. In early 2007, energy companies from Japan, Italy, Brazil, Australia, Britain, France, and Canada were actively prospecting in the Gulf of Mexico.79 Statoil operates in 35 countries.80 If America really wants energy independence, why not tell all of those foreign companies to leave the Gulf of Mexico? And while the U.S. is telling those foreign companies to leave the Gulf, perhaps it should ask BP to leave as well.
BP, Statoil, and all of the other energy companies on the planet are well aware of the concept of peak oil. But the fact that peak oil looms at some date in the future does not support any of the arguments for energy independence. Instead, it's just the opposite. As peak oil gets closer, the world energy market will become even more tightly integrated as energy producers and energy consumers work to ensure adequate supplies.
A final point about peak oil and energy availability: As world oil supplies grow tighter and demand continues to rise, prices will rise, and that will squeeze the demand coming from the poorer countries.
Of course, it's impossible to forecast just how high oil prices will rise after world oil production hits its peak. But higher energy prices will not necessarily mean disaster for the U.S. and other developed countries. Charley Maxwell, the longtime energy analyst at Weeden & Co., believes that global oil production will likely peak sometime over the next decade. After the peak, Maxwell, who has been active in the energy business for five decades, foresees "rationing by price."81 That is, the wealthier countries of the world will still be able to afford oil at $100 or $150 per barrel. The poorer countries, and poorer citizens, probably will not. Further, as oil prices continue their upward trend, oil demand will eventually start to slow, and the market will eventually reach an equilibrium between supply and demand.
That may seem to be a mercenary outlook on future oil consumption, but the truth about energy supplies is that they have always been rationed by price. The average American can afford to consume the equivalent of nearly 3 gallons of oil products per day because residents of the U.S. are among the wealthiest citizens on the planet. For comparison, the average Pakistani uses just 0.08 gallons of oil per day, not because that Pakistani doesn't want to use more oil; it's that he or she can't afford to.82
Resources—whether they be Rolex watches or diesel fuel—have always been rationed by price. As peak oil approaches, the rationing of oil by price will likely become more pronounced. And while that may cause some disruptions both in the U.S. and elsewhere, it does not necessarily mean that there will be shortages of oil in the industrialized world. Instead, it likely means that the developing countries of the world—and the world's poor—may have to make do with less oil than they would like simply because they cannot afford to use more.
Of all the anxiety-inducing big picture issues now facing the planet, global warming may be the one causing the most angst. Al Gore's 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, brought the climate change debate to mainstream America. And just like peak oil, global warming appears to be an intractable problem that has no easy solutions and no obvious paths to success.
It's not a problem that can easily be observed. Nor is it possible to place the blame for the problem on one specific car, factory, power plant, or airplane. The anxiety caused by the myriad reports about global warming has become a sort of free-floating angst. Every consumer uses fossil fuel of one form or another, and thus, global warming is a problem caused by almost everyone. And yet it can't be solved by any one single person, or one nation, or even a select group of countries. As John Lan-chester wrote in a piece published by the London Review of Books in early 2007, many people are reluctant to even think about global warming because "we're worried that if we start we will have no choice but to think about nothing else."83
There are plenty of slogans about global warming. For instance, Gore claims that he is living a "carbon-neutral lifestyle."84 And he makes that claim even though his home in Tennessee used 221,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2006, or about 20 times as much as the average residence in the U.S.85 Further, Gore and the producers of his documentary claim in their film that "you can even reduce your carbon emissions to zero."86
Gore was the inspiration for Live Earth: The Concerts for a Climate in Crisis. On July 7, 2007, concerts were held in London, New York, Shanghai, and several other cities in order to raise awareness about the issue of global warming and to "help solve the climate crisis."87 Attendees at the events were urged to "answer the call" by pledging to do things like changing "four light bulbs to CFLs [compact fluorescent lightbulbs] at my home" and agreeing to "shop for the most energy efficient electronics and appliances."88
Global warming has been blamed for some of the recent storm events in the U.S., including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Some climate scientists are claiming that more big storms, along with rising sea levels and major shifts in agricultural production, are likely to occur as global warming progresses. There are increasing calls for U.S. politicians to take action on global warming by enacting laws aimed at cutting the amount of carbon dioxide that America emits. But few economists have produced reliable estimates of exactly how much it will cost to slow or reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that the U.S. pumps out every year.
There is talk about the need for carbon sequestration—the process of storing large amounts of carbon dioxide in underground reservoirs, or through some biological or chemical process—but that procedure will likely be extraordinarily expensive. One study released in June 2007 estimated that doing carbon capture and storage on an average coal-fired power plant will cost $35 per ton.89 That may not sound like much, but when you figure that carbon dioxide emissions from coal use in the U.S. in 2005 totaled 2.1 billion metric tons, that means an additional cost of $73.5 billion per year.90 Why is carbon capture and sequestration so expensive? The answer is simple: The volumes of carbon dioxide are daunting. That 2.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide, if collected and compressed, would total some 50 million barrels per day. That's about 2.5 times as much volume as all of the oil consumed in the U.S. per day. Accommodating that enormous volume of gas would require the construction of massive pipelines and the drilling of thousands of wells to pump that gas into the earth.
While Gore and others believe that human-made carbon dioxide is causing irreparable harm to the atmosphere, there continue to be plenty of doubters who are fighting back. They point out that the earth's climate is a massively complex system that is constantly changing and that many factors—including solar activity, methane, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and urbanization—can affect global climatic conditions.
This book is not designed to determine who is right or wrong when it comes to the science of global climate change and the effect of anthropogenic carbon dioxide. Rather, it is meant to make what should be an obvious point: Regardless of a person's individual beliefs about global warming, there's simply no question that fossil fuels will continue to be the dominant source of the world's energy for decades to come. Coal will continue to provide the bulk of our electricity, and oil will continue to provide nearly all of our transportation fuels. Natural gas will become increasingly important for heating and electricity production. And those facts will be true no matter how many Live Earth concerts are held and no matter how many people pledge to change their lightbulbs or buy energy-efficient appliances.
Furthermore, while environmentalists don't like to discuss this fact, it's abundantly clear that fossil fuels will be needed to adapt to any future changes in the globe's climate. If the earth does, in fact, get markedly warmer, consumption of fossil fuels, and coal in particular, will likely increase as the need for refrigeration and air-conditioning increases. Any large-scale attempts at carbon sequestration will also likely have the effect of increasing the amount of fossil fuel consumption. Why? The reason is simple: Moving large quantities of carbon dioxide into underground caverns, or converting that gas into another form that can be stored, will take lots of energy.
Global climate change has clearly ignited much concern. And many governments around the world are eagerly trying to address the issue of carbon dioxide emissions. But the cold, hard, inconvenient truth is that trillions of dollars have been invested in the existing energy infrastructure, which provides consumers with electricity, gasoline, jet fuel, and myriad other commodities. Changing that infrastructure—nearly all of which has been built upon fossil fuels—to a system based on renewable and alternative energy will take decades.
Among the most prominent skeptics about a rapid transition away from fossil fuels is Vaclav Smil, a polymath, author, and distinguished professor of geography at the University of Manitoba. In a 2006 speech delivered at a conference sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, Smil—one of the world's most authoritative writers about energy and the history of technological advances—said that energy transitions are "deliberate, protracted affairs." Today's energy technologies are "still dominated by prime movers and processes invented during the 1880s (steam turbines, internal combustion engines, thermal and hydro electricity generation) or during the 1930s (gas turbines, nuclear fission) and no techniques currently under development," Smil said, will be able to rival those technologies over the next two or three decades. He continued, "Energy transitions span generations and not, microprocessor-like, years or even months: there is no Moore's law for energy systems." (In 1965, Gordon Moore, a cofounder of Intel, noting the rapid progress in the semiconductor industry, estimated that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit was doubling every two years.) Smil continued,
"Keep this in mind when you read yet another of the casually tossedoff claims about a continent to be electrified by wind or fueled by crop-derived ethanol by 2020 or 2025."91
So while Gore and others argue that an immediate, massive change in the world's energy consumption patterns is essential in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the truth is that we are going to be stuck with the system we have for the foreseeable future, which in this context, likely means the next three to five decades. What effects this ongoing use of fossil fuels will have on the global climate, only time will tell.
All of these issues—the Second Iraq War, peak oil, oil infrastructure, and climate change—provide the basis for Americans' worries about energy use. And this obsession gets bolstered by a number of false promises about energy independence. The next chapter discusses those false promises.
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