The era of oil is over. We’ve known it for a while now, so it’s no surprise for anyone. The Gulf Oil Disaster we’re currently watching is just the latest evidence that our dependence on oil is nearing an important tipping point…when the costs and consequences of our actions make it clear that a dramatic change is essential and inevitable. This perspective then should be an initial premise for our deliberative conversations about energy research and policy. I’m certainly not expecting a groundswell of support for this position, but it seems the only logical, long-term direction for public policy and economic visioning. For some interesting thoughts on the political angles on the current Gulf Oil Disaster, read this recent New York Times Op-Ed column by Thomas Friedman:
I know there’s lots of disagreement on this topic. Of course, we don’t want to change our fundamental patterns, and we certainly don’t want the expense of a dramatic change in direction…so it’s natural we’d have voices in opposition to any change. But…the era of oil is over, because all the ‘easy oil’ is gone. ‘Easy oil’ was high quality…cheap to find, pump and process…low risk to the environment. There is no more ‘easy oil’…and that means the cost-benefit balance is changing. When we factor in the devastating consequences of the current Gulf Oil Disaster, it’s obvious that the era of oil is over. In order to make money in oil, companies have to use more sophisticated techniques in more remote locations, and they’re tempted to take shortcuts with their own self-identified safety measures. Unfortunately, the same inattention to regulatory diligence that gave us our recent financial meltdown has also led to some significant environmental hazards in the oil industry. The era of oil is over.
When we start our deliberative conversations from the premise that the era of oil is over, we find it’s necessary to pretty much rethink everything else in our culture and in the global economy. We’re highly mobile with ‘easy oil’…how can we replace oil for the mobility we hope will continue? Most of us need our cars for everything…getting to work, shopping for groceries, seeing the doctor, visiting friends and relatives, etc. We depend on trucks, trains and ships to transport the products we need and want, because we produce very little for local markets. We have to maintain a massive infrastructure of highways, bridges, refineries and distribution centers. Our economy and our national lifestyle were shaped by ‘easy oil’…but now that means the domino effect of change will be deep and painful.
We’re way overdue for a reassessment of our energy profile. Even with the numerous wake-up calls we’ve had, we still don’t spend near enough on research and development to replace oil as our primary energy source. It’s in our national self-interest to find viable alternatives, but our addiction to oil is strong and our oil companies are very persuasive in lobbying for favorable treatment in public policy. Again…when we start our deliberative conversations from the premise that the era of oil is over, we’ll take the alternatives seriously…until then, we’ll simply see them as supportive of oil. Maybe then, we’ll be willing to either invest more in alternative energy sources, or decide to reduce our dependence on all energy needs through increased efficiency or less use…or both.
The era of oil is over. We need a serious public conversation about our energy future…not more partisan bickering, or wishful thinking, or denial that a problem exists. The pioneer days are past…we now have to recognize that we have limited land, limited water and limited energy. These are new conversations for us…we’ve never really had to deal with the natural limits in resources before now. It’s a scary and exciting time to be alive. So…let’s start talking about the next energy era.