Scraping the Barrel: Oil and Reality

Some facts: The U.S. military is the world’s biggest individual purchaser of oil in the world. Only 35 countries in the world consume more oil than the U.S. military. They don’t measure consumption in miles-per-gallon as we do, but instead work in gallons-per-mile. In World War II, the average fuel consumption per soldier was 1.67 gallons per day. In Iraq, the figure is (not was, as they’d like you to believe) more like 27-28 gallons. In 2006 the U.S. Airforce consumed 2.6 billion gallons of jet fuel, roughly the same as was consumed through all of World War II.

However, the U.S. military is the biggest purchaser of renewable energy in the U.S., and plans to raise that to 25% of its energy needs by 2025. The airforce will have its entire fleet certified to fly on biofuels by 2011 (albeit a conventional oil/biofuels blend). Confused?

One missing link consists of those pesky Pakistani “taliban”, picking off the easy target of military oil tankers and resulting in an elevated cost of delivery. The other is peak oil, the point at which the maximum rate of oil extraction is reached, after which availability declines and supply is constricted. Oil discovery in fact peaked in the 1960s, supply (the important variable) may have already peaked according to some experts, if it hasn’t already, and we’re turning to ever more desperate ways to feed our dependence on it. Heard of the Alberta tar sands lately? How about Deepwater Horizon?

Indeed, the optimists (or denialists) maintain it isn’t oil we are addicted to, but energy. All we have to do is find new sources of renewable energy, no problem! Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), it isn’t quite that simple for a plethora of reasons. Firstly, oil isn’t just our source of energy, but we use oil to make other oil-derived objects e.g. plastics. Look around you and try to find 3 objects which don’t have oil as some kind of key ingredient. I’m guessing, you struggled. Also, renewables are a  great concept but also dependent on massive oil-intense industry for their production, and aren’t as renewable as our politicians would have you believe. Neodymium, lanthanum and other metals necessary for their production are in relatively short supply, as the UK Department for Transport recently found out.

The reality is that even western governments, those whose economies are entirely subsidised by, and dependent on, the burning of uniquely decomposed dead plants and animals (oil) have thus far failed to truly take the threat seriously. They remain effectively wedded to the idea that the markets will solve our future (or current?) problems, along with that mythological economic principle of substitutability.

This failure to plan for a post-cheap oil world, or to even acknowledge inevitable future difficulties, will “lead to expensive and potentially catastrophic consequences” according,  not to extremist environmentalists or doomsayers, but in fact to London’s massive Lloyd’s insurance market and Chatham House, the highly-regarded Royal Institute for International Affairs.

Let us not be complacent here, this can and will have a massive impact in Ireland. We may not be the U.S. military but it doesn’t take much to figure out just how entwined our whole way of life is with oil derivatives. In fact, we’re one of the most vulnerable to supply shocks, being a massive importer of energy, having one of the highest oil consumed per capita figures in the world, being a car-dependent society partly due to the building of poorly planned suburbs over the last few decades, being stuck in the Atlantic at the end of the fossil fuel supply chain, being an effectively bankrupt state, relying on a lot of imports e.g. food, the list could go on.

However, we shouldn’t feel helpless. It’s very possible to reassess our lifestyles in an attempt to heighten our resilience to the discomforts increasingly expensive and scarce oil will bring. The large impacts are being anticipated, not just as challenges and threats but as opportunities.

For example, the first oil well was tapped only 150 years ago and the planetary destruction such economically cheap energy has facilitated in the meantime has been stark. Groups such as the rapidly-expanding Transition Network (www.transitionnetwork.org) of hundreds of communities worldwide, including one in Cork City itself, are looking at how a transition to a post-cheap oil lifestyle could in fact lead to a more ecologically, personally, and economically viable societal model.

The post-oil revolution is just starting and isn’t something we can just ignore on an individual level for someone else to deal with. When you eat, you eat oil far more calories of oil than you consume in food calories. When you shop, your whole world depends on a finite resource. Maybe it’s time we started to face reality and actually talk about it.

Search online for Transition Cork City’s Facebook page or visit www.aspoireland.org for more info.

- Tom Smith

Originally appeared in the November 2010 edition of Motley

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