Is the world headed for a crude awakening?
At the end of the day on Friday, Aug. 5, crude oil was selling for $62 per barrel, an all-time high. So it was only fitting that that evening, Austin Crude Awakening, a local offshoot of a Meetup.com oil awareness group designed to discuss the theory of "peak oil" the point at which the world's oil production capability and supply begin a permanent decline held its first public town hall meeting. Discussing both the global and local implications of the end of cheap oil, panelists included Austin Energy Research and Development chief Michael Osborne; City Council Member Brewster McCracken; Envision Central Texas Chairman Bill McLellan; uncharacteristically environmental oil man, as well as co-founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, Jim Baldauf; and writer (and former Chronicle scribe) Robert Bryce.
Austin Crude Awakening Director Jeff Brooks pointed out that while a dwindling supply of cheap oil is bad enough for life as we know it, matters are made worse as demand here and abroad continues to grow. "I had no idea about peak oil until Jeff Brooks told me, and I got scared," said McLellan. According to ACA data, 98% of the population hasn't heard of peak oil or its potential effects on world transportation, food production, and economic systems. Crude Awakening predicts that "within the next 5-10 years, there will not be enough crude oil produced to meet the world's needs," because "no new significant oil fields have been discovered in the last 40 years," and "extracting the second half of an existing oil field is exponentially more difficult and expensive."
Opinions on exactly when the peak will come differ among experts worldwide. The same was true among panelists Friday. Optimists typically say we have up to 20-30 years; pessimists claim the peak is already upon us and we're sleepwalking into a global disaster.
As for what to do now, McCracken advocated "electrification of the transportation grid," touting plans the city will roll out this month to make Austin the catalyst for a nationwide movement toward plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. He also called for massive reorganization of communities away from the post-WWII car-centered paradigm. AE's Osborne was probably the most optimistic, especially about tech-savvy Austin, mentioning the hybrid vehicle plan and a host of recent solar innovations. "We don't have an energy crisis. We have a crisis of consciousness. Everything around us is energy," he said. Devoting just a fraction of the $500 billion military budget to harvesting that energy wouldn't hurt, he added.
Bryce, focusing more on the national scene, bluntly called U.S. forces in Iraq "petroleum soldiers" and faulted the recently passed energy bill for oversubsidizing the oil industry while doing little to curb consumption and boost efficiency, all "while Rome burns." Oil man Baldauf, the foremost pessimist on the panel, rebuffed recent reports offering reassurance of long-lasting oil supplies. He instead pointed to assertions by Bush energy adviser and oil investment banker Matthew Simmons that peak oil is here now and worse, that super-producer Saudi Arabia has overstated its reserves and is itself in major production decline. Baldauf joined Austin transportation activist Roger Baker in assailing the proposed toll road plan, citing a stipulation that fuel must remain below $2.50 per gallon for 30 years, and warning that taxpayers would be saddled with the burden of repaying the defaulted bonds.