In the current debate about rising gas prices, as expected, the Republicans have politicized it; Obama has made a spirited defense of his policies; and experts have pointed out that there is not much that can be done about it. But no one has cogently touched on what is really at stake here.
In the early 1980’s we had an even greater gas crises, with not only rising prices, but severe shortages as well (and angry lines at gas pumps to boot). The crises passed (because in fact there were decent supplies available, and part of the shortage was contrived). So on we went, with our massive consumption of fossil fuels. Thus, we have arrived at 2012, with precisely the same, and unresolved, concerns we had 30 years ago.
Recently there was the excellent movie on TV: Judgment at Nuremburg. In the most dramatic scene of the movie, Maximilian Schell, playing the defense attorney Herr Rolfe for the accused Nazis, began to violently harass a witness for the prosecution. At which point Burt Lancaster (one of the defendants) rose up in court and stopped Schell, loudly proclaiming: “Are we going to do this again Herr Rolfe”?
The question we as a nation now must ask, after ignoring the warning we got in the 1980’s is: “Are we going to do this again?” That is the true issue here, not the price of gas, today, tomorrow or next week. The fact is, we absolutely cannot “drill” our way out of this situation (as Obama has pointed out) for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the time and expense of bringing new crude to market. But that is not the most important reason – even more significant is the fact that the United States oil reserves (listed at 19 Billion BBLs) are 15th on the list of proven reserves globally. What’s more, that number is declining steadily as we maintain our massive consumption level of about 21 million barrels/day. About 60% is imported oil, and will almost certainly remain that way as it has for years. So even with the vaunted Bakken field (about 4 Billion barrels estimated reserve) and desire to open the Alaskan wildlife area to drilling – these new reserves are not going to help with gas prices today, and only moderately if or when they would come online. To claim they are some sort of energy panacea is not factual. But even worse, such claims are going to inhibit us from the true discussion we should be having as gas prices rise. “Are we going to do this again?”
The reality is that all fossil fuels will have a finite life – whether it be 50 years, 100 years whatever, they are not in our future for the next generations. Moreover, even today, the production of these fuels is getting more expensive, harder to find and in more remote places. The low hanging fruit of crude oil is…gone! Producers now go 15,000 below the ocean floor…fracture rock to get at meager reserves…and process tar sands to meet our needs (a dirty, expensive and water-wasteful process to make the product viable). What we have now is in incredibly valuable “wake up call” to find alternatives and solutions for the generations to come, and time is not on our side. Any such solutions may be decades away, not just the development, but the deployment as well. Yet, the politicians regale us with their ideas to lower gas prices next week, or next month, or next election. That does not serve our country well, and is not only disingenuous, it is mostly dishonest. And that does not even touch on the environmental issues fossil fuels will bring over the next decades.
What are needed now are clear, intelligent, calm voices on how we are going to survive on this planet with less fossil fuels. If we think oil (and resultant gas) is expensive now, it is guaranteed the last barrel of oil removed from earth decades from now will be so expensive, so unique, so precious, it will be enshrined in the Smithsonian – however, unless we get smarter, no one will be able to get there to see it.
So again, we must go back to Judgment at Nuremburg and ask the question Lancaster asked Herr Rolfe: “Are we going to do this again?”