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Let us all drive Cadillacs

The Times ran a nice survey of the peak oil problem this weekend (unfortunately locked in the pay section of the site). The article told the now-familiar story of how global demand for oil is nearing the maximum global supply. Sometime in the next few decades we’ll likely hit a peak in production, ushering in a period of oil shocks and economic instability.

Two things struck me while reading the article. The first was a degree of pessimism that anything can be done to avert or even appreciably slow the peak. The economics of the situation just seem too stark. We know with virtual certainty that demand for energy in China and India is going to continue to explode. Anything the U.S. does to lessen our oil consumption will exert downward pressure on oil prices, encouraging consumers elsewhere to pick up the slack.

Keeping down demand in aggregate would take amazing acts of coordination and political will on a global scale. In other words, don’t hold your breath. As one reader wrote in response to the Times article,

I heard once that Edward Abbey, the author/environmentalist, drove a big guzzling Cadillac. Apparently his reasoning was that we might as well get on with it until it is all gone…

Of course, we would still be well-advised to do everything we can do reduce our dependence on oil, if only to prepare a softer landing when the peak does arrive.

Which brings me to the second item that struck me while reading the article: a surprising degree of agreement on policy prescriptions to help ease the transition to a post-peak world. The author claims that three major reports in the last two years all call for the following:

  • Much stronger fuel economy standards
  • Subsidies and tax breaks to the auto industry to aid the development of more fuel-efficient cars
  • Aggressive development of the gasoline substitutes known as cellulosic fuels

Perhaps coincidentally, Senator Barack Obama went public this week with a basically identical set of policy proposals. It’s too soon to know whether the ideas have any legs.

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