Trust the generals: peak oil is the future and the future is fraught
4 May 2010
In the washup, oil has been the bane of our time, I thought, as I sat in the Brushtail Café sipping a cider, munching on one of Joadja’s vegetarian pides and reading the latest gloomy news about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. The stuff poisons the air and fouls the water, and for a Third World country, finding heaps of black gold under your turf typically leads to social disaster.
“Didja see this about the US Joint Chiefs of Staff saying that oil production is set to go downhill? What the hell is going on?” Tarkis, was waving a newspaper he’d found in the free reading pile on the table.
“It says here ‘The US military has warned that surplus oil production capacity could disappear within two years and there could be serious shortages by 2015 with a significant economic and political impact.
‘The energy crisis outlined in a Joint Operating Environment report from the US Joint Forces Command, comes as the price of petrol in Britain reaches record levels and the cost of crude is predicted to soon top $100 a barrel.”
‘By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day’”.
He looked bewildered.
“Actually, they were being conservative”, I said. “Oil production is already going down. We’re over the peak. It happened in 2008. We’re going gently downhill on a bumpy plateau and The Valley looms before us. Only the generally wonky economic climate is now holding the price down”.
Trust the soldiers, I thought. At least they’re ‘responsible’, in the special and limited sense that they’re always searching the horizon for the next threat. And their minds are particularly focussed by the fact that the tanks, the planes, the warships – the whole goddam war machine – runs on oil … has done since the Second World War. The future of oil is of acute importance to the US army because it’s the world’s biggest single user of petroleum products.
The first prophetic move in that direction came in 1912 when the British Government decided that their next generation of battleships were going to run on oil, rather than coal. A couple of years later they went into the First World War with less than a thousand motor vehicles and a handful of flimsy planes. Four years later they fielded 120,000 motor vehicles and 4000 planes.
When the Second World War rolled around, when you strip away all the high-flown rhetoric, it was fought for, and won by, control of oil resources. That’s why Hitler ordered the lunge across southern Russia – to get to the Russian oilfields. That’s why the Russians fought like tigers at Stalingrad – to stop him getting there. That’s why Hitler lost the war. He had a huge, and sophisticated, coal-to-oil industry, but German synoil was expensive and labour-intensive. Hitler’s back-of-the-envelope calculation was that German casualties in an invasion of the Soviet Union would be no greater than the number of workers tied up in his synoil industry. Grabbing the Soviet supplies looked like a bargain but it turned out to be perhaps the most disastrous decision in history.
“And hey, listen to this”, said Tarkis. I could see he wasn’t going to give up. “‘While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India’”.
“Perhaps? Perhaps? Are they kidding? Did you know that the Chinese are putting their thumb on every source of oil they can find. Why do you think they have something like 20,000 of their troops in Africa, guarding oil wells they own . They badge them as ‘private’ security officers of course, but they’re People Liberation Army, just the same. And the Chinese are outbidding the Yanks in Central Asia too.”
The crazy thing is that the US joint Chiefs of Staff are way ahead of the government energy departments, who keep blindly insisting there’s oceans of oil still to be found, and the politicians, who still don’t want to know about it.