"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."

On peak oil and the media

June 2, 2005

Business Week reported today: “The price of oil gyrated on Thursday after the U.S. government released data that showed a growing domestic supply of gasoline and other fuels, but also rising demand. By midday, July light sweet crude futures traded 45 cents lower at $54.15 on the New York Mercantile Exchange, where prices had risen as high as $55.40 earlier in the day. Oil analyst Marshall Steeves at brokerage Refco Group Inc. in New York said ‘schizophrenic is a very good word’ to describe the energy market's psychology these days. Just a few weeks ago prices had fallen below $47 a barrel on signs of slower economic growth and rising petroleum inventories worldwide. Now traders seem consumed once again by fears of potential supply tightness later in the year.”

As America’s great bard of the 20th century — as well as its greatest guitarist — once said, “There's too much confusion. I can't get no relief.” What’s going on?

What’s going on, we would submit, is that the world is entering into the era of peak oil.

What is peak oil? Peak oil is an expression signifying the moment of maximum world “production” of petroleum (extraction, really — oil cannot be “produced”). The term is commonly associated with M. King Hubbert (1903-1989), the Shell petroleum geologist who, in 1956, analyzed available data and concluded that U.S. production would peak in the early 1970s. Others had predicted such things in the past and most dismissed his prognostication, but Hubbert turned out to be right; as a result, as a contemporary American petroleum geologist has written, “Since 1971, we have been dependent on OPEC” (Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage [Princeton University Press, 2001; revised & updated paperback ed. 2003], p. 5).

Now, the problem of peak oil has been attracting the attention of informed citizens for a number of years. But it has been largely ignored by the mainstream media. As a result, there are a lot of very well educated people who have never heard the phrase. This is starting to change, however.

With little fanfare, ExxonMobil recently published a report entitled “The Outlook for Energy: A 2030 View,” available online. The report contains these remarkable words: “Non-OPEC production is expected to peak in the next 10 years or so.” As Alfred J. Cavallo noted in the May/June 2005 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “No oil company, much less one with so much managerial, scientific, and engineering talent, has ever discussed peak oil production before. Given the profound implications of this forecast, it must have been published only after a thorough review.”

Many of those who have looked behind the mendacious rhetorical screens that the neo-Orwellian Bush administration has deployed to maintain public acquiescence in the illegal violence of the war in Iraq have concluded that the problem of U.S. dependency on imported petroleum is a major factor, and probably the crucial factor, in the hard lurch toward militarism that has characterized American life in the past few years. From this perspective, it’s not difficult to see that the Global War on Terrorism is also a Global War for Oil. As Tom Engelhardt recently noted, one has only to study the pattern of bases under construction by the geostrategists of the U.S. national security state to grasp what is going on: “Plot it all out on a map and what you have is a great infertile crescent of American military garrisons extending from the old Soviet-controlled lands of Eastern Europe to the old Soviet SSRs of Central Asia, reaching from Russia's eastern border right up to the border of China. This is, of course, a map that more or less coincides with the Middle Eastern and Caspian oil heartlands of the planet. . . . This, it seems, is now the American way in the world. . . . Most Americans, knowing next to nothing about our global bases or the Pentagon's basing policies, would undoubtedly be surprised to learn that ours is an empire of bases. In fact, our particular version of military empire is perhaps unique: all ‘gunboats,’ no colonies. Nothing has been of more concern to the Pentagon-centered Bush administration abroad than bases, or of less concern to our media at home. Despite two years of catastrophic setbacks, the ambitions of the Bush White House and the Pentagon evidently remain remarkably unchanged and wildly ambitious — and, I suspect, the rule of inverse media interest still holds.”

About a year ago, writing in In These Times, author Kurt Vonnegut summed up the situation pithily: “We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.”

With the price of oil rising dramatically even after our invasion of oil-rich Iraq, even Americans who pay no attention to the news are noticing that something is going on. For it would be one thing if the oil were out there and U.S. policies — suitably scented, rhetorically, with the three legitimating principles of fighting terrorism, depriving rogue states of nuclear weapons, and spreading freedom and democracy — could guarantee access to it. But the terrible truth is that the oil appears to be running out.

With oil and gas prices rising and even ExxonMobil talking about it, our corporate-owned media seem to feel that they have at last been given permission. On Sunday, May 29, Associated Press published an 1800-word piece by business reporter Matt Crenson. Crenson framed the issue as a debate between Ken Deffeyes and Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research in Winchester, Mass. The AP piece implicitly sides with the pessimists, highlighting in its conclusion a February 2005 report prepared for the U.S. Dept. of Energy by Robert L. Hirsch, an energy analyst at Science Applications International Corp. of Santa Monica, which says "it will take more than a decade for the U.S. economy to adapt to declining oil production." In other words, "it's already too late."

It’s an urgent matter that Americans begin thinking hard about the choices before them. For a start, they can begin contacting the media, both local and national, upon which most citizens depend for their news and demand that these issues be explored fully. Here in Western Washington, for example, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer carried Matt Crenson’s article, but the Seattle Times and the News Tribune (Tacoma, WA) did not. The Washington Post carried the story, but the New York Times did not. The King County (WA) Journal carried the story, the Odessa (TX) American carried it, but thousands of other papers did not. (In fact, a Google News search suggests that fewer than ten mainstream media sources in the United States picked up the story.)

Having indulged in irresponsible energy policies for more than a quarter of a century, Americans had better wake up fast. As the bard said, “Let us not talk falsely now,/The hour is getting late.”


"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."