We did not fix the levees, though we were warned.
– Author William Greider
Around the time of the first oil shock in 1973, columnist Art Buchwald penned a satirical column about what life without cheap oil would be like in the 1990s. One day, a father and son go out for their first drive in weeks because fuel costs $8.50 a gallon. “I feel like a steak,” says the father to his son. And the boy asks, “Dad, what’s a steak?”
Such a scene is leaping from the pages of satire now that the phrase Peak Oil has entered the lexicon. In oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens’ words, that means that oil supply was for years greater than demand but now, “Demand is equivalent to supply, and you can’t get any higher supply than you’re getting right now. Right now means that the world’s oil producers are pumping 80 million barrels a day and demand has begun to exceed that.”
To many Americans, the approaching petroleum calamity remains invisible, but not to my pal John P. Like so many others, he rolled into Arizona from the Midwest a few decades ago bent on fleeing an assortment of ecological and environmental abuses in favor of adventure, clean air, cheap energy and abundant water.
“You might say that I was an environmental refugee,” the steely-eyed, onetime congressional candidate and former big-time river guide said as he sipped some simple black coffee on the outskirts of Sedona not far from his hideaway in Rim Rock.
“I always figured that I’d stay here until the managed-care guys came to take me away.”
But my pal has changed his mind. “See that price?” he said, pointing to a gas station sign advertising fuel for $2.50 a gallon. “There have been warnings galore, but we’ve to fix the energy levees, so to speak. That’s the last time you’ll see it that low; denial about our oil addiction trumps any 12-step program. We are out of here because here in the red rocks and in so many other places, inconvenient facts about energy and water are taboo; oil is headed for $100-a-barrel oil, just the least shock will do it: a tanker blown in the Persian Gulf, a refinery sabotaged.”
So if there is no here for one of grand characters left in red rock rim country anymore, is there really a better there out there somewhere?
John P. is heading for Idaho with his partner, Sultry Susuun, for some low-cost Snake River electricity and a more sustainable lifestyle, more walking, less driving. Says he: “Idaho is the place to be when the Night of the Long Knives comes. Guess you could call us energy refugees.”
When the talking heads on TV prattle on about the meaning of Peak Oil, that is exactly what that term means: The cheap oil party is over, no more big fields are out there, economists of all stripes are beginning to agree. And that means $100-a-barrel oil, unemployment and the collapse of auto tourism.
Observes John P., it’s not just the demise of auto tourism; it’s the demise of suburbia in all its forms. The Verde Valley is, in effect, one large suburb, and Sedona, in particular is a classic rural suburb. All the Verde Valley’s so-called cities and towns are simply classic paradigms of modern suburbia.
When oil is above $100 a barrel, how will all these suburbanites get to and from their jobs, food supplies, medical needs, and – yee-gads – soccer games!
Some conservative oil men even dare to say that world production may have already peaked. Their rationale: Oil production in many once oil-rich nations is declining by 5 percent a year, double the rate a year ago. To say these worries are not widely shared by our elected officials is putting it mildly.
John has been paying attention to Pickens, who says that the “U.S. uses between 20 to 25 percent of all the oil a day in the world, and we have less than 5 percent of the world’s population. The big fields have been found. Probably the best thing to do is raise the price to kill the demand.”
Our petroleum future
And there is another reason to raise the price, too. To most Americans the facts about our petroleum future remain either invisible or plain boring. However, perhaps the attack on the enormous Abqaiq refinery facility that processes about 68 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil for export, 5 million barrels a day, should be regarded as a wake-up call.
The reason that it should is that for all the babble about conservation, U.S. vehicles drink up 9 million barrels a day mostly because when taking the cost of living into account, U.S. gasoline prices are cheaper than their 1981 levels. Any efforts by the past administrations from Nixon to Carter to raise prices through higher taxes have landed proponents on their career’s third rail.
To be fair, our president, whose energy policy ideas until recently offered yesterday’s solutions to tomorrow’s problems, momentarily stopped denying the nation’s plight and shared a fact first discovered by Richard Nixon 33 years ago: America is addicted to oil. Well said, even though his speech writer forgot to include the fact our principle source of oil imports is Canada, with whom relations are chilly.
What he didn’t say was anything about higher fuel efficiency, anything about a crash program to halt our nation’s being swamped by oil imports from friendly and unfriendly nations – 60 percent of our daily demand. What he didn’t say was how the nation must leave the Age of Petroleum behind because of a warming Mother Earth.
James Bishop Jr. lives in Sedona. He is an author and former energy editor for Newsweek.