Thursday, June 02, 2005

Is Energy Crisis Looming?

Remember when the price of gas was less than a dollar a gallon? It really hasn’t been that long ago.

Since the mid-1980s, gasoline prices have peaked and then retreated several times. Not long after the first Gulf War, when gas prices had been high and everyone thought that cheap gas prices were a thing of the past, they suddenly dropped to as low as 79 cents a gallon.

Actually, even now, gasoline prices are not much higher than they’ve been for much of the twentieth century, adjusted for inflation that is. They just seem higher now because they were unusually low during much of the 1990s.

I’m no oil analyst, but I can safely bet that gas prices will never be as low as a dollar per gallon again. In fact, we’re probably lucky they aren’t any higher than they are.

According to many oil industry observers, including some geologists who should know about oil reserves, the world’s oil production will peak sometime between now and 2010. Depending on who you ask, it could peak later this year, next year, or anytime up to about 2009.

By “peak,” I mean that oil production in the world will start falling, something it has never done before. But the demand for petroleum will continue to grow, at least for awhile.

So what does that mean?

Basically, it means very high gasoline prices, at least five dollars per gallon, and the increasing likelihood of energy shortages. Brownouts and blackouts will become more common.

The predicted energy shortages shouldn’t come as any surprise. Dr. Richard C. Duncan, a scientist and statistician, postulated in 1989 that world oil production would peak during the first decade of the 21st century. It was based on a statistical analysis of oil usage since 1901. He called it the Olduvai Theory, after the famous Olduvai Gorge, because humans seem to be metaphorically running off the edge of an energy cliff.

The consensus of the oil industry itself is that economic factors will work to balance supply and demand at new levels, resulting in higher prices but more production. But geologist point out that Mother Nature will not put more oil into the ground just because somebody throws money at it. Once whatever is there is pumped out, that’s it.

New sources of energy are needed. And there are several alternatives on the drawing boards, including hydrogen fuel cells, microwave energy from orbiting satellites, and coal liquefaction. There is also a need for increased conservation.

But conservation alone will not be enough. And the new sources of energy are not here yet. It will take more than a decade for new energy sources to make much of a difference. It seems we’re too late.

Duncan predicts that by 2030 the world will have entered a new stone age. Most of the pessimistic views are not quite that pessimistic. But whoever is correct, it looks as though we’re in for a bumpy ride.

So pack up the motor home and head out for the wide open spaces this summer while gas prices are relatively low. By next year, or the year after, we may be longing for the good old days when gas prices were a mere two bucks a gallon.

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