The Corner

More Peak Oil

Mr. Patrick Deneen, Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown, blogged this in reaction to my post on peak oil:

A person named Jim Manzi over at NRO’s The Corner is quite irritated by Peak Oil “hysteria,”…

…It amazes me that anyone with half a brain – and I’m not able to conclude on this evidence alone that has less or more than half, of course – could be so obtuse about the nature of the situation, once one has really given it any thought. Manzi, and others like him, doesn’t deny that we are facing a future of energy constraints – he simply says we don’t know when this will take place, so there’s nothing we can nor should do about it. However, implicitly he and others like him recognizes that it WILL happen, so the “don’t worry, drive happy” stance is tantamount to child neglect. It’s saying, let the future worry about our irresponsibility. It’s hard to think of a civilization that has been based on such an infantile premise.

“…It seems kind of beside the point whether Peak Oil is upon us now or twenty years in the future. There is a fundamental logic there that shouldn’t be shrugged off.” [Approvingly quoting a commenter responding to my post]

… As Manzi’s commentator points out, we will wait until energy is constrained to begin changing our behavior. However, if Europe is to be our future exemplary living arrangement (one that closely resembles the vision of “the urban transect” advanced by New Urbanists and some Catholic natural law thinkers such as Philip Bess), we should note 1. Europe has kept prices “artificially” high for years – since the gas shocks of the 1970s – through higher taxation, which it uses to fund an excellent public transportation system, among other things; and more importantly, 2., Europe never changed its basic living patterns as a result (along with smart zoning regulations that permit mixed use areas as well as limit building outside town and city limits).

Manzi suggests that we can wait until the last possible moment … However, if we KNOW it will be upon us at some point – and many reputable geologists believe it will be soon, soon, but regardless, it will come – then shouldn’t we use whatever energy bounty we have now to prepare for that eventuality? We will need to begin a rather significant project of infill of existing living arrangements, particularly the suburbs, to achieve the necessary population density to justify public transportation. We will need to build high speed trains between the more far-flung cities of the U.S., in anticipation of the demise of the airline industry (if Manzi doesn’t think they are done for, then he hasn’t been reading the papers.) We will need to encourage more local forms of economic activity, particularly agriculture. Not only will it be more expensive to drive, but even maintaining our current huge investments in the automobile infrastructure will prove increasingly untenable. For instance, the cost of paving our millions of miles of petroleum-based asphalt roads will prove unaffordable.

So here are some things that Professor Deneen knows:

1. That our forecast for when we will reach peak oil should have no impact on what we should do. 

2. That because we will at some future date achieve peak oil production, we should force changes now (through raising taxes on oil or other, I assume, more coercive means) to the consumption choices of the American population.

3. That Americans must have a spatial distribution for living and working that looks more like Western Europe, and that we need to begin “a rather significant project of infill of existing living arrangements, particularly the suburbs, to achieve the necessary population density to justify public transportation.”

4. That the U.S. airline industry will die, and in anticipation of this, we “will need to build high speed trains between the more far-flung cities of the U.S.”.

5. That the U.S. agriculture industry needs to be restructured, and that people can no longer work so far from home, so we “will need to encourage more local forms of economic activity, particularly agriculture.”

6. That the U.S. highway system will be unaffordable.

I would love to be smart enough to know all of those things. 

I suppose, though, that it’s possible that Professor Deneen means the predicted timing of peak oil doesn’t matter because the possible range of outcomes indicates that we will hit peak oil in 20 years at the most.  Since I am not a petroleum geologist, I decided to check in with those morons who have actually studied this question. Apparently, Professor Deneen did not bother to read the links I provided to the forecasts from the DOE (estimates peak oil sometime in the “middle of the current century”), the International Energy Agency (only forecasts out to 2030, with rising production through that date) or OPEC (only forecasts out to 2030, with rising production through that date).  So, what if we thought we would reach peak in 2050 (42 years from now), would that change what we should do?  How about 2100?

What if we had reacted to the predictions throughout the 1970s and 80s that we would reach peak oil in about 2000?  Do you think that some of these proposed changes would have slowed economic growth and prevented the world from being in the current position of paying an ever-dwindling share of total output for oil?  What other difficult-to-anticipate changes might some these interventions have had?  Could the idea of purposely restructuring the transportation, housing, and agricultural sectors of the U.S. economy based on a prediction for an event that we have proven to be very bad at predicting – and for which the world’s leading experts refuse to provide anything other than very broad guidance –  induce a sense of humility?  It does in me.

Jim Manzi is CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT), an applied artificial intelligence software company.

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