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A proposal for a serious energy policy

by Jerome a Paris Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 03:10:54 PM EST

This has been originally written for dKos, but I expect it could interest you guys here as well. Jerome

There have been various diaries outlining plans for the Democrats to recapture power (the most recent and remarkable one being georgia10's recent effort this week-end). All these plans focus, rightly, on the Dems being the party of responsibility and competence, there hardly ever is even a mention of energy policy.

I frankly don't understand this.This is a vital topic, at the heart of many of the failures of the Bush administration, and which will remain in the headlines all the time in the coming months and years (if only via higher gasoline, heating oil and electricity prices).

This is a subject that begs to be reclaimed by the Democrats, and is an easiy way to show what separates us from the bushistas. Remember that the current White House is chock full of people coming  from the energy business, and I think that today's crises have something to do with that.

Let me write again why energy is fundamental, what the issues are, and what needs to be done. I thank all those that have provided some input in my thread yesterday and I will try to credit all of your good ideas below as appropriate.

Cheap energy defines our civilisation

Energy supply, and energy prices have a direct impact on most aspects of how the US economy runs, and of US diplomacy:

  • cheap oil has allowed the whole US civilisation to be built around  the car. Suburbs, McMansions, exurbs have been made possible by the  ubiquity of roads and cars, and make sense ONLY with cheap individual  transport available;

  • the car industry, despite the emergence of new industries and technologies, is still the biggest engine of economic growth, occupying millions of workers and shaping the needs - and prosperity  - of whole sectors (metallurgy, electronics, textile, road  construction, hospitals, police, all the services for each), and of  course the oil industry that feeds it;

  • globalisation has been made possible because it is so cheap to transport goods around (by truck or boat, mostly) and to specialise factories for specific tasks in production chains that span the world  and take advantage of local resources (whether commodities, cheap or  conversely specialised labor or access to markets);

  • US diplomacy nowadays is mostly concerned with pushing that globalisation that US corporates lead, and with protecting the supply of the energy that underpins it. Look at the countries in the news -  they pretty much all have to do with energy. The Middle East  obviously, China, as the biggest global factory and the second largest consumer of oil, Venezuela. Canada - all you hear about  Canada is when there is a trade dispute;

  • A final point to note in that diagnosis (as pointed out by Devilstower) is that the US energy system is really two totally separate systems:  a transportation system, mostly based on oil, and an electricity network powered, in that order, by coal, natural gas and nuclear. Electricity can be produced by many different sources, and needs to play a bigger role in transport; instead, we are currently busy bringing the oil world (and problems) into the grid through a massive increase in gas-fired generation capacity).

Crunch time is coming

The timetable for peak oil is a small number of years. The timetable for peak gas, which will trigger similar spikes in electricity prices until we have found a way to produce more than a smallish fraction of it from renewables, is not much longer. In fact, I would not be surprised if the inevitable energy crisis will come from the natural gas/electricity side before, or jointly with, the oil side.. (I explain why in my first comment in the thread below as it requires too much detail this summary, but it does need to be explained - so see below for further details).

Instead of bringing the network into out transportation policy, we have brought peak oil (in the form of "peak gas") into the electricity sector. Power prices will be set by the high natural gas prices (see why in my comment below). So the market will balance by having demand pay the higher price, or going down significantly to get to lower prices. Thus, demand destruction. It will happen. "Markets" (i.e. physical reality, here) will prevail: the poor will go without heat and without electricity, while others will see their budgets stretched. This is the INEVITABLE outcome of today's trends, and it could come as soon as this winter on both the power side (with a pretty strong probability) and the oil side (with a more uncertain chance - but as  you know, I am betting on it).

One aspect of the need for a comprehensive energy policy is the awareness that we are going towards a wall at high speed. If you do not believe this, and think that "we'll find ways", I suppose that all that I will write below makes little sense to you, and may appear unduly catastrophist and counter-productive. But even the NYT does not really subscribe to this view anymore:

I wish I had the confidence to make my own forecast, but in this case, I don't. What I do know - what we all know - is that oil is a finite resource. Surely, the peakists are right about that. What I also know is historically, the economists have generally been right about how the price of oil has wound up fixing the problem.

As Gary N. Ross, the chief executive of the PIRA Energy Group, puts it: "Price is the only thing that matters. The new threshold of price will do its magic on the supply-and-demand side."

After all, it always has before. And it will again. Until it doesn't.

My suggestion is that Democrats must bring this message forcefully. And what a better opportunity than the time when all energy prices are at record highs and a Republican administration drawn heavily from the ranks of the "business as usual" energy sector is in full control?

Of course, it's not just the Bush administration, but half a century of policies to which the Dems have contributed a lot. But when will there ever be a better occasion to break ranks with the status quo?

Cheap energy is largely an illusion

The fundamental problem is that oil (and natural gas, thus power, is the same) is cheap only because we have decided that we would only consider as its cost the actual cost of digging it out of the ground, plus whatever the locals forced us to add as taxes or royalties. Other costs were not considered:

  • the pollution generated when we burn it, and the corresponding healthcare costs, and the harder to quantify impact on the delicate ecosystems around us;

  • the even harder to quantify cost of using up a non renewable source. The planet has provided us with this treasure, a highly concentrated and convenient form of stored chemical energy, and we've burnt almost half of it (and the easier to find half) to run around, without making any significant effort to find substitutes for the future; How will we keep on functioning when that amazing resource  becomes harder to find, scarcer - and a lot more expensive?

  • the newer threat of global warming, and its unpredictable consequences on our weather and our ability for us to tolerate it (and Katrina shows that we seems to be poorly prepared even for predictable phenomena). The likelihood that our crops and our environment will adapt to the coming changes is unknown;

  • the transformation of our agriculture into a petroleum-based industry, where crops matter less and less and where food is but a by-product of subsidies on top of strange industrial processes (involving millions of animals "living" in horrible conditions) whereby oil-calories are transformed (very inefficiently) into edible products. The additional side effects on our health (obesity,  pollution by pesticides and the like) and our landscapes (the wholesale destruction of arable land, whether by filling it with petroleum-based products or by building on it more buildings, roads and other artefacts of our oil-fuelled civilisation) are shamefully ignored by most.

Energy is not cheap, because we are already paying a very high indirect price. Some of it can be expressed indirectly in monetary terms (good chunks of the healthcare system, the military), but a lot of it cannot be "monetised" - or only when it is too late (all the oil that we waste now and which would be incredibly valuable in post- peak prices). But essentially, we are enjoying our cheap "high" now, and leaving the consequences to our children or their children. As  individuals, that may barely make sense, but as a society, it is incredibly short sighted.

The worst part of it is that we have built a world which can function ONLY with cheap oil. Who would live 50 miles form work when oil is scarce and expensive and public transport is inexistent? Who would drive 4 tone vehicles around to go to school, or grocery shopping or visit friends? Would we rely on fertiliser and pesticides to artificially boost crop yields? Would we get our food only from the nearest non-built land 30 miles away - or from even further away? Would we rely on components coming from many different places, sometimes oceans away, to manufacture the goods we need?

And yet this is the world we live in, and will have to keep on living in even when energy gets more expensive, because you cannot undo in a few years the result of 50 years of distorted incentives on our infrastructrure and living habits.

Why leadership, and a public policy is needed

Cheaper energy is not the solution to today's energy "crisis",  it  is its cause.

That's the first part of the message that needs to get out. Energy is not cheap, simply we pay for it today in indirect - but very real - ways. Making these costs visible is not putting a new burden on us, it is making visible an existing burden in order to better react to it.

We do not have a lot of time to make that clear to everybody. Oh sure, market mechanisms will function. When oil becomes scarce, it will get expensive, and we will accordingly, reducing our consumption and finding alternatives. That'll work, but the consumption "reduction" will come from death or abject poverty - and it's the weakest members of society that will bear the brunt.

You can expect less disruption and pain if you have to find an alternative to 500$ oil in 5 years than if you have to find an alternative to 500$ oil right now. 500$ oil will come, and it should be the role of government to anticipate it and make the transition as easy as possible.

The timetable for peak oil and peak gas is a small number of years. Again, this is the INEVITABLE outcome of today's trends.

When that crisis comes, the Democrats need to be ready with the arguments to blame the Bush administration and with serious alternative solutions. Otherwise, the outcome is likely to be, in the  worst case, another "war of choice" by America against the "profiteering" from nearby shores like Venezuela or further ones like  Iran or, in the best case, calls to relax environmental "shackles" against coal mining and coal-fired plants and against drilling in  various places within the US.

Price signals do work, and market mechanisms do work, so you have to give the markets the right signals - steadily and predictably increasing energy prices (via, yes, taxes or other regulatory constraints). That will  give everybody the incentives needed to reduce demand and find alternatives, and it will provide government with the necessary resources to encourage R&D and to make the transition easier on the weakest members of society.

So, finally, some proposals

The goals must be as follows:

  • we must focus on demand reduction. any energy policy focusing only on providing new supplies (even of the renewable kind) will only lead to protecting the status quo;

  • we must focus on diversity: there is no single miracle solution. We need all options and partial solutions to be used, both on the supply and the demand side of the equation. Diversity means also fewer risks of disruption and fits in the narrative of energy security;

  • indeed, an energy policy is an essential part of a security policy; security from want and security from abject entanglements in unpleasant areas of the world;

  • finally, a smart energy policy is an investment in the future, for a cleaner world, a safer world where our children work in local, high tech, jobs in a preserved environment.

With that in mind, here are some more concrete proposals:

  • conservation must become the new mantra and must be encouraged and incentivised. This will come from regulation (tougher CAFE standards, new building codes making it compulsory to use energy saving techniques in construction) and from targeted tax policies (subsidise local power production with solar panels and the like, tax gas guzzlers). Meteor Blades has long written about this and I explicitly put it as the first point here. Conservation saves money.

  • environmental rules should not be relaxed, quite the opposite, they  should be tightened. Weak environmental rules and lack of planning  for the future is what is killing us (link it to Katrina, it's  easy enough and true enough). Carbon emission quotas should be set -  this will make  the coal industry (which would otherwise make a killing form the  higher prices) really improve its lot or pay for the renewable  investments. Ideally, the USA should join the Kyoto Treaty and push to make it tougher. This could bring Wall Street on board as the markets for carbon are now mostly based in Europe. This would be a chance to bring them back (partly) to the US, thus creating more job opportunities in a high paying sector. Another argument here is "Drill America last" whereby environmental considerations should be reinforced by long term security considerations. (as proposed by TomB);

  • a massive public investment programme in renewable energy - starting with wind, which is already cheaper than gas-fired power, but focusing also on R&D for future sources like solar or  tidal. Governments should either build or tender large scale wind power plants, or guarantee income for projects meeting certain guidelines. In all likelihood, long term power purchase agreements at reasonable guaranteed prices (say 6 cents/kWh would be enough, and would actually allow the government to make money on the power markets which could be used to finance the investments in less mature technologies. I am much less keen on biofuels (the ag sector is already distorted by too many subsidies), but on a reasonable scale it should be part of the mix. But encourage research, provide grants to universities, stipends to students coming into the sector. Reestablish America's technological and industrial leadership in a vital sector.

  • Give targeted encouragements (subsidies, tax breaks, or more innocuous funding for R&D or guaranteed purchases of their output) to manufacturers in the renewable energy sector. This should be justified by two simple arguments:  security (energy independence) and jobs (renewable create  more jobs per kWh than other energy sources):

  • The government should show the example and commit to lower its own energy consumption in measurable ways. It should also switch its complete vehicle fleet to plug in vehicles. Make it a highly public competitive bid with a deadline that makes it possible for Detroit to compete - and win.

  • the poor will suffer the most from the higher energy prices. They must be helped. That means tax breaks for cheap and fuel efficient cars, and a real effort to provide public transportation to them. A massive investment programme in light rail transportation - together will an equally massive plan to rehabilitate run down city centers (but keeping them accessible to low income people by helping them gain access to decent housing). Otherwise, other programmes supporting the weaker members of society should be reinforced - and made part of the energy plan.

  • Getting transportation on the grid should be a general theme. Light rail is ideal in that respect, but individual transport should move that way, via the encouragement (if necessary by regulatory fiat) to switch to plug-in hybrids (another Devilstower suggestion). Similarly, telecommuting should be encouraged and facilitated explicitly (a suggestion by George);

  • throughout, the message should be that energy policy is vital and  cannot be let in the hands only of the energy lobby led by Cheney & co. They are enjoying the windfall profits; they have not planned for the future, they are the cause for today's situation, and only a real break from the past, making them pay, can have a chance  of success.

  • ideally, the plan should come as a steadily increasing gasoline tax, but I know that  this is a politically sensitive topic. As part of a "Marshall Plan"  for energy, including real help for the most affected, and asking all to sacrifice for a better future, it might be sold. Remember the argument: prices will increase - better have the money go the federal (or local) governments than to Halliburton or to the Saudis. The likely degradation of the federal budget deficit following Katrina and then the inevitable economic slowdown will make tax hikes appear more reasonable and necessary. As red clay dem posted, the "grander" the plan, the more chances it has to work and to be taken seriously.

This fits with the theme that Democrats propose RESPONSIBLE policies, and that they care for all Americans, and for the future, not just for a select few today.. The political conditions for such a message, with a discredited administration internally and externally, the coming price hikes, and the likelihood of economic and financial difficulties for many, could not be better. Fate favors the bold - and the prepared.

Further credits to mateosf, Catriana, Knut Wicksell, LondonYank, moonfall, Doolittle Sothere, ignorant bystander, and to all the regulat contributors to my energy threads who have provided materials and ideas which I have tried to absorb and bring out. If you feel forgotten, please tell me and I will correct it. This is not the work of one person, and we should certainly work together to make something ambitious out of it.

It will be "interesting" to see how the parties on the left respond to your proposal. Until now, at least, they are no better--and possibly worse--than the right on this issue. With one exception, the Green Party.

The Democratic party in the U.S., on their official web site, calls for lower fuel prices as an essential part of the strategy FOR THE ENVIRONMENT. That is, the party is going in entirely in the opposite direction you propose!

In France, the latest news on this front is that major suppliers BP and Total have been pressured by Finance Minister Thierry Breton  to reduce fuel prices in order to avoid a proposed tax penalty based on the windfall profits theory--NOT on a basis of encouraging conservation.

In Britain, Chancellor Gordon Brown blames the high price of fuel on OPEC, saying that they simply need to increase production. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat shadow chancellor Vince Cable said that "The government has done the one thing it can do to deal with the short term effects of Hurricane Katrina on petrol prices, which is to release stocks from the strategic reserves."

Poland has just cut fuel taxes.

What organized political parties support the proposal for a "serious energy policy?" I suspect only one: The Green Party.

by asdf on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 10:04:13 AM EST
Incidently, here's a quote from a position paper published recently by the National Association of Evangelicals, aka "The Christian Right." This is still a matter of some controversy in the evangelical community, but you know how these things work: First there's an internal debate, then a position paper, then lobbyist activity, then legislation.

"Human beings have responsibility for creation in a variety of ways. We urge Christians to
shape their personal lives in creation-friendly ways: practicing effective recycling,
conserving resources, and experiencing the joy of contact with nature. We urge
government to encourage fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, encourage sustainable use of
natural resources, and provide for the proper care of wildlife and their natural habitats."

The way things are going over here right now, the conservative evangelicals are ahead of the Democrats on this issue...

by asdf on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 10:28:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Jerome, you wrote
Would we get our food only from the nearest non-built land 30 miles away - or from even further away?

In the US, the average item on a grocery store shelf traveled an unbelievable 1500 miles to get there.

by corncam on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 12:29:56 PM EST
Yes, i know, but the point here was that you now need to drive really far to find the first piece of land where you could actually grow anything, considering everything has been built in between. Thus you cannot eve nswitch back to local production all that easily - or not everywhere anyway.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 04:30:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem is staples. You can tuck the greens and fruit in almost anywhere so long as it isn't too polluted. The staples - cereals, bulk veg - are much harder to fit in.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 05:06:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
but bulk items can go back on the rails.  Less convenient but more energy efficient.  Not to mention it's pretty easy to electrify rr's or go back to dirty old coal.

Food transport isn't the big problem.  It's people having to get back and forth to their jobs.  

by HiD on Tue Sep 13th, 2005 at 02:36:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]

As always, an extremely good, thoughtful, educational, etc ... posting.

An area of concern relates to: "conservation must become the new mantra and must be encouraged and incentivised."

In the American political world, "conservation" is viewed almost entirely as a 'negative', a la Jimmy Carter "lower the temperature and wear a sweater" response to the oil crisis.  Now, it might be the right thing (no, actually, one of the right things) to do, but it is not a 'winner' politically.

As well, you put under conservation many things that are not "conservation" but relate to less environmentally damaging energy production ("subsidise local power production with solar panels").  This should not be put into conservation as (a) it is not conservation and (b) weakens the argument.  We should be able to frame something about 'giving every American the path toward generating their own power without giving their children asthma'.  (Okay, NOT a great framing line -- but concept ain't so bad ...)

Conservation actually can have better meanings but, rather than using this term which has too many negative political connotations, perhaps we should argue for "efficiency" in our energy policies.  I believe that "efficiency" is a term that would frame / poll better than conservation.  This, then, places the burden on those 'faceless' corporations to build / design well so that consumers don't inadvertently waste energy.

Let us leave 'conservation' as a desired good but not as a central pillar to a Democratic Party policy re energy. And, in your conservation are elements that could be pillars:

A -- Efficiency and 'effective' power generation and use

B -- Empowering the individual American to be their own power producer

C -- ???

by BesiegedByBush (BesiegedByBushATyahooDOTcom) on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 01:56:21 PM EST
...is that too many modern Americans just don't have the stomach for sacrifice, and conservation has been framed by the right and the energy industry as something that will lower their energy standards, which, of course, makes proposing conservation as conservation the kiss of death.

Whatever you call it, however, conservation makes sense, not just environmentally, but economically. The cheapest energy there is comes from the kind you don't have to produce. THAT is a message we need to get across, whether you call it efficiency or something else.

The second thing Ronald Reagan did in energy policy - after ordering the solar panels taken off the White House roof - in 1981, was eviscerate the budget at the Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory). The biggest cut - and the one which took away my job - was made on the  "soft" side of the institute, which included programs directed toward using existing technology so that people could save energy or produce it themselves.

One of these was the federal SUN program, four regional outreach centers around the nation that provided information to homeowners, renters and small businesses regarding how they could better conserve energy.

These days, many states - though definitely not all - have fairly extensive energy departments that could (or already) provide consumer assistance in obtaining green energy, administering subsidies (for installing solar panels and the like) and teaching people a whole range of techniques in how best to conserve energy.

A solid federal energy program should rejuvenate the SUN program - working together with state energy departments to build on what they have learned - to establish active consumer-oriented outreach programs. Thus, whether you live in Fargo, N.D, Atlanta or San Diego, you'd have a local resource that could assist you in determining how best to reduce the amount of energy you consume, whether that's putting PVs on your roof, choosing an energy-stingy air conditioner or siting a new house to take best advantage of natural conditions that enhance conservation.

by Meteor Blades (Meteor Blades) on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 02:46:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...is that too many modern Americans just don't have the stomach for sacrifice, and conservation has been framed by the right and the energy industry as something that will lower their energy (living???) standards

The USA is in denial on energy use.  Most people really think it will get better soon and gas will go back to $1.50.  Until the pain of conserving becomes less than the pain of paying for gas, we're not going to do jack shit as a people.

Any politician running on Jerome's sensible platform will get his ass handed to him in the red and purple states...and some of the blue ones too.

by HiD on Tue Sep 13th, 2005 at 02:43:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There was a comment in the dKos diary which stated that conservation was getting less for less, whereas efficiency was getting more for less. (I'd say efficiency is getting the same for less, but the point is valid).

So let's focus on the "positive" concept of efficiency.

The most potent argument will be, in any case, that prices will soon be high enough that you will be saving a lot of money by conserving, thus justifying it any way you need...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 04:38:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, Jerome, I am waiting for your proposals for a European energy policy.
by Greco on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 02:31:00 PM EST
Wouldn't it be mostly the same thing?

Keep on increasing energy taxes, and spend on public transportation.
Keep on building wind power plants, and spend on R&D on solar and tidal
Tighten carbon credits

blame Brussels or OPEC. Or Bush's adventures.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 04:32:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, I don't think that America's needs and solutions are the same with these of Western Europe and Japan. I think that the US is a generation behind the latter regarding energy efficiency.

For example, Europeans and Japanese must start using light electric urban vehicles. The Americans must overcome first their phobias about small cars, like C3, Nissan Micra or Ford Ka.

by Greco on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 06:16:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
America is a generation behind most of the rest of the world in simply accepting the idea of Limits -- limits to the size of housing, the size of cars, the consumption of energy and other resources.  A fundamental element of the national mythos of America is limitlessness, the idea of infinite opportunity, infinite wealth, infinite "frontier" open space to be settled, infinite natural resources.

Hence the repeated denials, on this thread and everywhere else where such matters are discussed, that "conservation" can be made politically/ideologically palatable to Americans.  It runs counter to one of the fundamental emotional assumptions of the national identity.  "Freedom" as defined in US culture post-WWII  is bound up intimately with limitlessness -- the freedom to consume, to 'better oneself,' to improve one's material fortunes infinitely.  Even if it means being a wage slave until age 65, or working 60 hour weeks, or carrying a mountain of personal debt.

This may explain to puzzled Euros why Americans are content to work more hours than other industrialised populations (having less freedom, in other words), or why they consent so meekly to having fundamental Constitutional liberties revoked;  the "freedom" to which most Americans now aspire, and in which they believe, is not necessarily the same "freedom" envisaged by earlier immigrants, or by the Founders, or by various theorists along the way.

Large numbers of Americans feel more threatened by environmentalists than they do by PATRIOT Acts and the FBI spying on their library records, or by violations of posse comitatus, etc.  Why?  because environmentalists threaten the primary American definition of freedom -- freedom to believe in the fantasy of limitlessness.  Enviros, the anti-enviro pundits (and lumpenproles) will tell you, "Want To Take Away Our...[fill in the blank]" -- our SUVs, our air conditioners, our freeways, our cheap air travel, our cheap groceries, our fast food joints, our wide screen TVs, our flush toilets.  But what they mostly take away is a cherished belief.  Enviros are Grinches, stealing Christmas, taking away a childish faith in Santa Claus.  And as such they are deeply resented by millions.

Enviros are seen as thieves, or as oppressors, curtailing the rights of ordinary people, "taking things away" -- not as people trying to give back things that have been taken away by reckless industrial and fiscal policy, like clean water, healthy food, clean air, etc..  This has been a spectacular PR success on the part of the Rethug party, the Filth Industries, etc. -- to paint enviros working for the common good as a lot of elitist commissars, power-mad and yearning to deprive Joe Sixpack of his inalienable rights.  Plenty of Americans are far more hostile and alarmed about the prospect of carbon rationing than they are upset about Abu Ghraib.

The usual response to this situation is as described here -- and has been for years:  to make limits, the very concept of demand reduction and limits to consumption, a tabu subject and try (a) to come up with miracle technologies that will permit infinite consumption within finite resources, or (b) to sugar coat the idea of conservation -- treating the American public like sulky children who will throw a tantrum if  they hear any harsh truths -- by calling it other things or presenting it slyly, or (c) avoiding the confrontation altogether and trusting that the free market with its brutal price-setting response to scarcity will solve the problem in the end.

None of the above, imho, will work to soften the impact with the brick wall of energy scarcity.  I think it is time we stopped accepting the excuse that conservation and demand reduction are "politically impossible," or "hard to sell," and focussed on getting the unpalatable truth out as widely as possible.

One unfortunate side effect of making Americans truly conscious of limited resources, however, is the NOLA syndrome:  the privileged will tend to think not of how to contract and converge, but how to starve out all competitors for energy so that they can maintain their consumer lifestyle at any cost.  Making Americans truly conscious of the end of cheap energy might actually boost support for American imperial aggressions in the oil-rich areas of the world, produce more NOLAs as the poor are left to freeze/swelter/starve/die during energy shortages, etc.

It is hard to come up with a good scenario for a nation whose social capital and governmental infrastructure are as badly eroded as they are in the US, which at the same moment in history has to face a significant resource dearth such as drought, famine, or energy shortages.  A crash repair job on the social fabric would be needed before one could get a sensible or communitarian response to the dearth...

Needless to say I endorse Jerome's synopsis of the situation, 100 percent.  I agree with the basic prescription also.  What I am not sure of is how we can get the patient to hold his/her nose and take the dose.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 11:24:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Making Americans truly conscious of the end of cheap energy might actually boost support for American imperial aggressions in the oil-rich areas of the world, produce more NOLAs as the poor are left to freeze/swelter/starve/die during energy shortages, etc.

Where on earth do you find the optimism to temper that sentence by a conditional "might"? Might is not right, here...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Sep 13th, 2005 at 04:09:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm probably going to get in trouble again, but it seems to me that the "imperial aggression" argument might apply more to Europe than to the U.S. The U.S. has two or three advantages over Europe in the energy area.

First, there's lots of energy available in the U.S. in the form of coal. If there was a complete and utter shutdown of the middle east, the goal industry could be ramped up to meet the electricity need for quite some time. (There would be a bit of a side effect on the environment.) There's also quite a bit of expensive oil in the ground, and gas.

Second, BECAUSE of our wasteful habits, we have a lot of margin to move down in the use of energy. Simply taking the steps of car pooling and communting by bus, as was done in the 1970s, could offer a significant reduction in our demand for oil.

Third, America is, in fact, "flexible." People here are so caught up in the self reliance thing that a challenge like "ok, there's no oil, now what?" is something that resonates with the idea of how America is strong, can cope with problems, blah, blah. My father-in-law, the nastiest reactionary diehard Republican you ever saw, is completely into the whole self-sufficiency and conservation thing. Reason: "Those furriners are out to get us." Americans will go through all sorts of contortions to prove that they're independent, and this would be an interesting situation to test.

I'm not sure that Europe has these options, and when things start getting tight, the lashing out might come from Europe at least as soon as from America.

by asdf on Tue Sep 13th, 2005 at 08:16:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I found this interview with Emmanuel Todd (from Le Figaro, here reprinted in English) relevant to our discussion here.  Am tempted to paste in almost all of it -- but that would be poor blogiquette.
American industry has been bled dry and it's the industrial decline that above all explains the negligence of a nation confronted with a crisis situation: to manage a natural catastrophe, you don't need sophisticated financial techniques, call options that fall due on such and such a date, tax consultants, or lawyers specialized in funds extortion at a global level, but you do need materiel, engineers, and technicians, as well as a feeling of collective solidarity. A natural catastrophe on national territory confronts a country with its deepest identity, with its capacities for technical and social response. [...] The storm has shown the limits of a virtual economy that identifies the world as a vast video game.
The sacking of supermarkets is only a repetition at the lower echelons of society of the predation scheme that is at the heart of the American social system today. [emphasis mine -- DeA]

This social system no longer rests on the Founding Fathers' Calvinist work ethic and taste for saving - but, on the contrary, on a new ideal (I don't dare speak of ethics or morals): the quest for the biggest payoff for the least effort. Money speedily acquired, by speculation and why not theft. The gang of black unemployed who loot a supermarket and the group of oligarchs who try to organize the "heist" of the century of Iraq's hydrocarbon reserves have a common principle of action: predation. The dysfunctions in New Orleans reflect certain central elements of present American culture.
American neo-conservatism is not alone to blame. What seems to me more striking is the way this America that incarnates the absolute opposite of the Soviet Union is on the point of producing the same catastrophe by the opposite route. Communism, in its madness, supposed that society was everything and that the individual was nothing, an ideological basis that caused its own ruin. Today, the United States assures us, with a blind faith as intense as Stalin's, that the individual is everything, that the market is enough and that the state is hateful. The intensity of the ideological fixation is altogether comparable to the Communist delirium. This individualist and inequalitarian posture disorganizes American capacity for action. The real mystery to me is situated there: how can a society renounce common sense and pragmatism to such an extent and enter into such a process of ideological self-destruction? It's a historical aporia to which I have no answer and the problem with which cannot be abstracted from the present administration's policies alone. It's all of American society that seems to be launched into a scorpion policy, a sick system that ends up injecting itself with its own venom. Such behavior is not rational, but it does not all the same contradict the logic of history. The post-war generations have lost acquaintance with the tragic and with the spectacle of self-destroying systems. But the empirical reality of human history is that it is not rational.

This failure of empiricism and deliberate erosion of the real-world skills needed to address a resource dearth are related to my comments above.  So is the unfortunate confluence of an "ethic" (an anti-ethic?) of predation and a time of tightening resources.

Or (I muse) is the burgeoning ethic of predation a consequence of subliminal perceptions of the tightening of resources?  did the ugliness of Reaganomics and Thatcherism gain traction because of the oil shocks of the 70's and Carter's well-meaning attempts to promote conservation?  did affluent America get a whiff of scarcity on the wind and decide that the time for generosity or commensalism was past, and that it was now a case of sauve qui peut?  is the gated whitefolks' enclave a cultural response to the cultural meme of Mad Max films and their ilk, a shudder going through the herd as the realisation of hungry days ahead starts to sink in?

chicken, egg, chicken, egg...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Sep 13th, 2005 at 08:01:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Reading your long comments always makes me miss a rating of 5.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Sep 13th, 2005 at 05:22:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This discussion may be academic.  Matt Simmons in an interview indicates that he believes that an oil shock may be in the making.


Simmons also suggests that Saudi production is very near its peak. But the feedback he has received from technical people who have read the book, leads him now to believe that Saudi Arabia has "actually exceeded sustainable peak production already."

"And I think at the current rates they are producing these old fields, each of the fields risks entering into a rapid production collapse," he said.

Meanwhile, as the world's thirst for oil grows, Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries will be unable to keep pace. Some analysts say Saudi Arabia is capable of producing 20 million to 25 million bpd, but Simmons says that level of production is "impossible."

"And I also believe that -- Ghawar, for instance, which is really the whole nine yards, because that is 60 percent of their production -- that North Ghawar, which is the top 20 percent of the field, has a productivity index that is about 25 times the productivity index of the rest of Ghawar, and that's the area that is almost depleted now," Simmons observed. "And when that drops, you could basically see Ghawar go from 5 million down to 2 million bpd in a very short period of time."

In the original article, they used the word "imminent" in a subheading.  I don't know if those were Simmon's actual words or not.  In any event, it is misleading - imminent to me implies a timescale on the order of hours or days.  My guess (and it is only a guess) is that if such a production collapse were to occur it would be on the timescale of a few months.

by ericy on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 05:09:28 PM EST
Simmons gave a very long interview on Financial Sense last month, which I discussed here on ET and here on dKos.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Sep 13th, 2005 at 04:09:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Indeed, but what is new is that Simmons now claims that since the book came out that he has heard from technical people that the Saudis are in fact overproducing Ghawar right now...
by ericy on Tue Sep 13th, 2005 at 09:21:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
An excellent summary.  From a US perspective, I'm wondering if Katrina will turn out to be even more of a pivotal event than those who see it mostly in terms of party politics. A key question will be energy, as it relates to all you've stated, especially the element that Katrina particularly adds: climate.

It will depend largely on what kind of leadership emerges to challenge the Bush point of view.  Perhaps it's been lost to history, but the US oil shock of the 1970s and Jimmy Carter's response--the call for conservation, the energy-saving measures taken--resulted in real change, though many of the gains have gradually been eroded since.  For awhile there were more fuel efficient cars (and the 55 mph speed limit, which was enacted to save gasoline)and energy-saving appliances, etc.  In a little known fact, US production of greenhouse gases actually fell for several years as a result.    

"The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis." H.G. Wells "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Bob Dylan

by Captain Future (captainfuture is at sbcglobal dot net) on Mon Sep 12th, 2005 at 08:49:41 PM EST

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