The Prophecy of Oil

William Rivers Pitt essay on 'peak oil' and argues that even if it's a myth, the world needs to end its oil addiction.

Published: 08-Mar-2005

On August 27, 1859, Edwin Drake's oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania struck a gusher, making him the man credited with drilling the first commercially successful oil well in America. In the time between then and now, the world has burned through about 900 billion barrels of Drake's discovery.

Global daily oil consumption today stands at around 82 million barrels, and many experts believe the emerging mega-industrialization of nations like China and India will cause that daily consumption to reach at least 120 million barrels a day by the year 2030. Not to fear, however; ExxonMobil believes there are some 14 trillion barrels still in the ground, including nonconventional resource fields like the tar sands of Canada and petroleum-rich shale in the western United States.

In the last several years, a theory known as 'Peak Oil' has been working its way into the mainstream. Chief proponent of this theory is Dr. Colin Campbell, a retired oil-industry geologist now living in Ireland. Dr. Campbell, who has been raising warnings about Peak Oil for some 15 years, believes that global consumption of oil is surpassing not only the amount of oil being pulled from the ground, not only the amount of oil left to be found, but is also surpassing the ability of technology to compensate for what he sees as an inevitable and looming shortfall.

The 'peak,' believes Campbell, will come as early as next year, heralding a steady rise in prices and the end of cheap oil as we have known it, causing a seismic shock within the global economy. "The perception of this decline changes the entire world we know," said Dr. Campbell in a September 2004 report from the Wall Street Journal. "Up till now we've been living in a world with the assumption of growth driven by oil. Now we have to face the other side of the mountain."

The oil industry, predictably, considers Campbell to be a doomsaying loony, an espouser of flat-earth economics who totally discounts both the vast amounts of oil yet to be drilled, and the ability of technology to find more. Their argument is not without merit, as claims that the petroleum paradigm is on the edge of extinction are as old as the industry itself. Sixteen years after Drake's well struck oil, for example, Pennsylvania's chief geologist warned it would soon run out. Clearly, this was not the case. Campbell himself has not helped his credibility; the expected date of imminent catastrophe quoted by the doctor has been pushed back with regularity since 1990 as each non-disastrous year passes with the industry still intact.

More and more, however, noted energy analysts are coming to heed Campbell's warnings. The respected Washington-based consulting firm PFC Energy published a report endorsing his theory, noting that the exact date of the catastrophe is less important than the fact that it is coming. PFC was hesitant at first to hang its hat on Dr. Campbell, but came to the conclusion that the decline in global oil discoveries has become so dramatic that it cannot be ignored, and that this decline calls into question whether technology can save the industry before the clock winds down to zero.

Ultimately, the debate over whether 'Peak Oil' is a looming reality or merely Chicken-Littlism is wide of the point the planet must come to address. Posit for the moment that ExxonMobil and the rest of the petroleum industry are correct in their belief that trillions of barrels of oil await discovery and drilling, and that the petroleum paradigm is safe and secure for centuries to come. Even if this assumption is true, the fact remains that the paradigm itself is a suicide ride leading ever downward to danger and, ultimately, disaster.

No one can question the benefits oil has brought to global society. Here in America, millions of homes are heated with oil. Millions of cars make it easier for millions of people to get to work and take care of their business. Millions of trucks and ships have delivered billions of tons of produce to all points on the compass; one could argue that the defining truth of the luxury inherent in Western society is the ability to stand in a snowbank in Maine and enjoy a fresh pineapple from Hawaii. Millions of people can get from New York to Los Angeles in a day, thanks to airplanes. The incomes and livelihoods of millions - workers in industry and agriculture and transportation and food services to name a few - depend upon oil.

All of these benefits, all of these achievements, along with countless others, come from the drilling and processing of petroleum. Oil infuses virtually every aspect of our civilization. It is the basis of the global economy. It is the inescapable ingredient that creates, supports and sustains the Western world as we know it.

Yet even as oil gives generously with one hand, it takes grievously with the other. Even if the petroleum industry is correct and there remain trillions of barrels to be plumbed, that oil is located for the most part in some of the most dangerous and unstable places on the planet. That danger and instability has been created, in no small part, by the fact that oil can be found there.

Oil revenues fund global terrorism. Oil resources motivate wars, and more wars, and more wars. This is the sharp other edge of the sword; if the petroleum industry is correct and oil can be found and drilled for generations to come, that means generations to come will be required to share the death and destruction we endure today in the grubbing for oil. There is no escaping this.

Oil is dirty, and its byproducts are doing demonstrable and ever-increasing damage to the environment which sustains life on Earth. Thanks to tanker spills, dumping and the inevitable leakage of petroleum byproducts from the global shipping industry, every centimeter of ocean on the planet is covered by a microscopically thin skim of oil.

All of the scooters, motorcycles, cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, tanks, troop transports, along with the innumerable smokestacks spewing the byproducts of industry into the air from one side of the globe to the other, are releasing dramatic levels of poison into the atmosphere every minute of every day, with no letup in sight. This is chewing inexorably into planetary stability, melting the ice caps and creating what has become known as the greenhouse effect.

Finally, and most importantly, our planetary addiction to oil, combined with the incomprehensibly huge profits to be made from the development and sale of oil, have led to the establishment of political and economic power combines that are as dominant as petroleum itself. Governments all around the world, most notably here in America but also in places like Saudi Arabia, China and Russia, are either beholden to petroleum power combines or controlled outright by them.

When Vice President Dick Cheney, himself a creation of petroleum combines, memorably stated that it is the God-given right of every American to consume as much cheap gas as they can while driving the largest SUVs they can find, he was speaking the gospel of ascendant power. Neither reasonable argument nor empirical data can shake the faithful from this premise.

So long as there is oil and trillions of dollars to be made from it, this gospel will continue to be preached even as all the attendant problems that come with oil attack the basic underpinnings of life and liberty. The paradigm will be continued by any means necessary so long as the ones made powerful by it reign supreme. This begets a cycle of violence, pollution, corruption, greed and ever-increasing power for the few over the many that has nowhere to go but, inevitably, down.

Only a maniac would hope for the immediate collapse of the petroleum paradigm and the social, economic and military chaos that would ensue. If all the oil in the world disappeared tomorrow morning, millions of people would be dead by sundown, and billions more would follow soon after into the grave. None but the purest of psychopath would look forward to a catastrophe of this magnitude.

Something, however, must be done. If the 'Peak Oil' theory is an accurate prediction of the imminent future, something must be done. If 'Peak Oil' is only a myth, something must still be done. One way or the other, this paradigm is going to destroy itself, and it will take a monstrous number of people with it.

If the powerful few who control the reins of our oil-dependant world are smart, they will invest a considerable chunk of their profits into a crash program to develop a new, sustainable source of energy. This program must dwarf the Manhattan Project in scope, funding and immediacy. Human ingenuity is boundless, and something like cold fusion merely awaits the desire and effort to find it and make it functional.

Those addicted to the power and profits given them by oil can patent this new energy source and slowly but surely use it to supplant petroleum as the dominant truth of the planet. The power and the profits will be there for them in this, and the overhead required to locate, process and distribute oil while killing anyone who might disrupt the flow will cease to exist. Along the way, the air and water we need will lose its gritty, metallic taste. In other words, nothing will change and everything will change. While many will be justifiably outraged by an argument that essentially advocates for the powerful to remain powerful, few other options that do not include a global catastrophe appear to be on the table, and the clock is running.

Will this happen in time? Will it happen at all? It is, unfortunately, doubtful. Among other reasons the powerful have for maintaining this smoggy status quo is the attendant profits to be made from waging wars over oil. The war-making business is a trillion-dollar global industry. If technology were introduced that rendered oil obsolete, the deep well of cash to be made by arming and training armies would become a dry hole.

If a metaphor is needed to cement the final destination of this paradigm, consider again Edwin Drake, who got this ball rolling 146 years ago. Despite being the man to 'discover' petroleum, despite being the father of what grew into a fabulously rich industry, Drake himself went broke as a result of his overextended speculation. He died in 1880 a penniless old man. In Drake we find the prophecy of oil, a resource that gives much but takes more, a resourse that will leave us all sooner or later holding our empty hands up to an empty sky.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.' Join the discussions at his blog forum.

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