Oil prices this week went over $134 per barrel while our community remains highly vulnerable and largely unaware of the magnitude of the crisis we face.
Yes, there is much concern about the cost of electricity and gasoline, and even recognition of the impact of oil prices on food costs and other commodities. However, proposed solutions are moving in slow increments and continue to focus almost entirely on new sources of energy, as opposed to identifying the root cause of our self-imposed crisis.
Political leaders struggle with the difficulty of being the bearers of bad news. While some progress is occurring, we often instead look for Band-Aid solutions such as massively subsidizing poor alternatives like ethanol, or worse, cutting taxes on gasoline or jet fuel. Such policy decisions perpetuate continued consumption and in effect, move us further from solving our real problems.
On a subject that might be considered closer to home, the airline industry, the lynchpin of Kaua‘i’s tourist economy, has already begun to falter. First Aloha Airlines and ATA folded. Now, all major airlines are reducing service in cities across the country, with some smaller airports losing air traffic altogether as airlines look for a way to survive the impossible squeeze of today’s oil prices. Although Congress is looking at another attempted bailout, the futility of such a move seems quite clear.
American Airlines CEO Gerald Arpey recently stated, “The U.S. airline industry as it is constituted today was not built for $125 or $130 oil.” This news in the context of other events such as the ever-growing mortgage crisis, the global food shortage, and accelerating climate change offer a veritable neon sign calling for the need to embrace the fundamental changes that are headed our way. It is time to rise to the challenges of transitioning away from our high-energy lifestyles while we still have the resources to do so.
Although oil prices have been on a consistent and steep incline since 2000, it is often misunderstood as simply another commodity. Apollo Kaua‘i and other community groups have been discussing rising energy costs at considerable length for the past several years.
Peak oil, as it is termed in the industry, is defined as the point at which world oil production reaches its maximum output and thereafter declines. The concept of peak oil was first described by M. King Hubbard in the 1950s. Hubbard accurately predicted peak production in oil in the lower 48 States of the U.S., which occurred in the early 1970s.
Although there is much debate about the timing of such an event on a global scale, it is perhaps less necessary to try to understand exactly when we have hit a peak, and more appropriate to focus on the cause and implications of an oil-constrained world. For expediency, here is a list of some of the issues:
• Oil is a fundamental and necessary component of our society and economy as currently defined. Because oil was historically so cheap, we have developed systems that rely on it for everything imaginable. On Kaua‘i, we depend on oil not only for gasoline and electricity, but also for water, food, health, economy, education, entertainment, agriculture, travel and almost everything else we need or desire, including even taro.
• Oil, although historically quite plentiful, is finite in terms of human history. The oil that we consume today was created over hundreds of millions of years, and cannot be replaced during a timescale at all relevant to human civilization.
• As a general rule, our society has exploited the easiest energy to find and extract first. Extraction of easy oil started in the United States, as it was and remains the global epicenter of oil consumption. Today, U.S. and multinational oil corporations drill more than a mile down or refine tar sands from massive open pits, or with the assistance of the U.S. government, demonize countries who dare to maintain control of their own resources so that we may sustain the flow of oil that preserves our enormous wealth.
In spite of our most aggressive efforts, however, oil prices are rising out of control as a result of the increasing energy required to obtain it, increasing worldwide demand, and rapidly declining discovery of new fields.
Other nations have come to understand the U.S. strategy of global energy dominance and have begun to replicate it. Although some people seem to infer that the energy crisis is the fault of countries like China and India, we must recognize that they are simply emulating the model of consumption that we have perfected over decades in the U.S.
Now, thanks to our short-term success over the last century, there’s simply not enough oil to go around.
Many people, including President George Bush, point to available resources in protected areas as necessary solutions to the oil crisis. The most popular citation is ANWAR, or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where it is documented that there is possibly as much as 10 billion barrels of oil in the ground. Although this is a potentially valuable resource, it needs to be recognized that it really is not that much oil. The U.S. alone consumes over 20 million barrels of oil every day. That means that 1 billion barrels represents a supply of 50 days, and the entire ANWR reserve, at most, represents enough to fuel America for a year and a half. Not exactly a long-term strategy or a solution for our oil addiction.
Many Americans rely on a false comfort in market forces and expect someone from government or the private sector to provide solutions to our impending energy crisis. Here are two important facts that underline the danger of these misgivings:
• Liquid fuels derived from oil have no viable alternative at the scale of our current usage. Heavily subsidized attempts to replace a small fraction of our oil consumption with corn ethanol and biodiesel have been, by all accounts, disastrous, both economically and environmentally.
• Any further scaling of these efforts would bleed the economy, impinge even more on world food supplies and exacerbate — and perhaps propel — climate change into an irreversible disaster.
Other cleaner renewable energies such as wind, solar, hydro or geothermal do offer significant potential, but they continue to be perceived as ‘solutions’ to our growing crisis. One only has to look at the relative scale of energy from oil, versus all of these sources combined to understand that they currently account for only a tiny fraction of all the energy consumed in the U.S. The well-documented challenges associated with making a transition away from oil are both technical, economical and, most fundamentally, a function of time. That is to say, the very oil that we are losing access to is the key ingredient in the industrial and economic functions necessary as part of our transformation away from oil dependence.
This brief summary, at its core, is an attempt to illicit response from our community on what the author sees as the most urgent issue facing Kaua‘i today. Much more open and constructive dialogue is needed on this critical subject.
The assertion herein is that the motives that we currently identify with related to community actions are likely about to change substantially, and that such changes are reasonable to infer. For example, widespread community efforts are currently focused on stemming overdevelopment. Historically, this has been a real concern and an important area for community focus. However, it is conceivable, and perhaps even reasonably inferable that overdevelopment may no longer be an issue given the effect of a continuing energy-induced recession on the already dismal real estate market.
Further, details of a stable society such as “should dogs be allowed on the bike path” might be considered on a scale of relative urgency, and perhaps set aside temporarily while we address more pressing issues.
What are our greatest liabilities related to oil dependence? What will be the impacts on tourism? What other critical needs and functions are currently dependent on oil? Can we depend on continued imports for 80 percent of our food supply? Can we continue to afford our SUVs, or should we vigorously stimulate alternative transportation networks? How can we guarantee the function of our municipal water and wastewater systems without oil-based energy inputs? Do we currently have fuel reserves adequate to assure police and emergency vehicle operation in the event of a major protracted fuel shortage?
It would serve us to immediately identify our greatest liabilities specific to oil dependence in our community, and begin the systematic process of reducing those liabilities.
Major cities including San Francisco, Portland, Denver, and Austin, along with a host of smaller cities around the country are doing just that. By forming peak oil task forces, developing strategic energy plans and other activities, these cities are working to protect the well-being of their citizens as energy costs continue to wreak havoc on our global economic system.
There is much we can do to prepare for these changes, and perhaps even substantial opportunities in what at first look might be considered a bleak situation. Great advantage exists in being prepared for this foreseeable risk. However, the first step is in identifying the problem and facing it squarely and facing it together.
Please give this some consideration, and if you are compelled to, take action for the sake of our community. We can not continue to rely on someone else to safeguard Kaua‘i’s future, but we can and should rely on ourselves.
• Ben Sullivan is a longtime resident, husband, and father of three who lives in Lawa‘i. He is the former chair of Apollo Kaua‘i, a renewable energy advocacy group started on-island in 2005.