Pat Butler: Oil usage + declining supply = real concerns |

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Pat Butler: Oil usage + declining supply = real concerns

A presentation I saw this week has me thinking that a traffic solution might be just around the corner.

Our worldwide dependence on fossil fuels is starting to raise red flags. Even President Bush and our own Rep. John Doolittle are concerned about fuel shortages, which is why they are calling for more drilling off our coasts and at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Heck, it only takes a radar echo of a possible hurricane and our energy prices can jump 20 or 30 percent at the pump or the meter.

PG&E, meanwhile, has informed its captive clientele that energy bills will skyrocket this winter, no doubt fueled by the laws of supply and demand as they apply in this case to natural gas, once considered an abundant and inexpensive fuel.

So the concerns about a dwindling energy supply are real. On Tuesday night, a couple of hundred people learned how dire the situation could become in a relatively short time. The bottom line is that we are using fossil fuels at a far faster rate than we are finding new energy sources, which are getting increasingly expensive to develop or extract.

Tuesday’s speaker on the topic of peak oil did not appear to be a granola-munching vegan. He wasn’t wearing a hemp shirt or walking around in bare feet with a guitar strapped to his back. Instead, he wore a sports jacket and tie, had a neat haircut and used a power-point presentation to deliver this message: It’s only a matter of time before we have an energy crisis that won’t go away in our lifetimes.

A Department of Energy report titled “Peaking of World Oil Production,” puts it this way:

“The problems associated with world oil production peaking will not be temporary, and past ‘energy crisis’ experience will provide relatively little guidance. The challenge of oil peaking deserves immediate, serious attention if risks are to be fully understood and mitigation begun on a timely basis.”

In other words, we’re probably not going to drill our way out of a hole that keeps getting deeper every day unless we make some lifestyle changes ” as in consuming and driving less. And then that will only slow it down because China and India are developing an appetite for oil that rivals ours and those countries have much larger populations.

Richard Heinberg, who has written six books, teaches at New College in Santa Rosa and speaks to groups around the country about our impending energy crisis, was Tuesday’s speaker. APPLE, or the Alliance for a Post-Petroleum Local Economy, brought him to Center for the Arts in Grass Valley.

Heinberg defines peak oil as the point when global oil production peaks, which is followed by the inevitable decline. If that decline started tomorrow, it would happen while our worldwide appetite for oil is surging at an alarming rate. Some experts say we could reach the peak oil point as soon as 2007; while others say it might take 20 years. All, Heinberg says, agree that it will happen someday.

In any case, we don’t have a viable Plan B thanks to the politicians whose campaign warchests have been deluged by an oil industry that’s going to look out for number one. As we all should know, our alternative energy efforts represent just a drop in the barrel when compared to fossil fuels.

Now, according to Heinberg, we’re 40 or 50 years away from being able to depend upon any other primary source of energy. And don’t be reassured that Big Oil, Big Business or Big Politicians are even at this moment tackling the problem. They’re all too worried about the next election or quarterly profits statement.

They should have started looking at the problem years ago.

According to Heinberg, the U.S. reached its peak oil production in 1970. Now, the most powerful nation in the world gets 65 percent of its oil from other countries. The world, meanwhile, consumes four barrels of oil for every one discovered. Future potential sources of oil include the arctic refuge, the tar sands of Canada and offshore sites, all sources that will take a considerable investment in time and energy before any substantial benefits are realized.

What happens when the supply dwindles to the point where simple economics won’t correct it? That’s when the stakes get real high. Heinberg even suggested that nations might go to war over oil. And before you say that’s liberal fear-mongering, think about what would happen if Bin Laden and his grisly band of terrorists were able to overthrow the Saudi royal family and cut off those oil supplies to the United States.

So what can we do in Nevada County? Afterall, we have to drive and use all the oil-based products that make our lives more comfortable.

First, we can begin by using less energy, which would require adjustments in our daily routines. Secondly, we can explore alternative energy on a local level so we aren’t so dependent on others. Finally, we can demand that our politicians pull their heads out of the oil wells and start getting serious about making America energy independent. That includes making a serious commitment to alternative energy sources and conservation.

If you want to learn more about want you can do locally, APPLE can be contacted by calling 265-3014 or by e-mailing

But if we all decide to ignore this problem or turn it into a left versus right issue, we can probably look forward to a day when we won’t be able to afford to drive very often and that will take care of our local traffic headaches.

Pat Butler is the editor of The Union. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 477-4235.