Now’s the time to plan

What’s a gallon of gasoline these days—$2.45, $2.50? It’s not killing me yet. So I zip around. I think nothing of driving across town to buy organic free-range soy tofu products at Trader Joe’s.

Electricity? I use plenty of juice. Heat? I enjoy a toasty 67-degree house. And though I slapped a “Plastic Bags Blow” bumper sticker on my car, I occasionally forget my canvas bags when shopping. Plastic bags—like computer chips, dishwashing liquid, deodorant, contact lenses, perfume, ballpoint pens, carpet, credit cards and candles, are all made from oil. Can we survive without the greasy stuff? Not comfortably.

In his new book, The Oil Depletion Protocol, Richard Heinberg suggests visualizing the energy in a gallon of gas. Imagine, he says, having to push your vehicle 20 miles. It could take a month of hard labor for one human to push a Dodge Durango from Reno to Washoe Valley.

“So magical are the benefits of oil that it was inevitable that we would find more and more uses for it,” Heinberg writes. “And so we have built an entire way of life around it.”

Heinberg’s past books include The Party’s Over and Power Down. It’s hard to argue with his assumption that oil supplies are decreasing. Let’s see … oil. We can’t grow it. We’re using billions of barrels annually. Hmm.

The good news: We won’t “run out” of oil in the near future. But we’ll likely be hearing more about diminishing oil resources and worldwide “peak oil” the moment the available supply of oil peaks and then begins to decline. Peak oil has already happened in the United States. It happened in 1970 when U.S. oil extraction reached its all-time high. Today, we import two-thirds of our oil.

The current debate is when global peak oil will occur. It could happen this year or in three decades, depending on whom you talk to.

Either way, Heinberg proposes that nations begin now—while resources are still relatively plentiful—to enter a multinational accord, an “Oil Depletion Protocol.” (Remember the Kyoto Protocol? Like that. Only with the United States as a signatory.) Nations would agree to decrease oil production and exports by a tiny percentage each year—based on the percentage of oil that’s been extracted from the total oil supply.

We the people might barely notice this. We’d still drive, enjoy toasty houses and eat food grown with handy petrochemical fertilizers and insecticides. (Cuz who’d want to give that up?)

This idea makes so damned much sense that a propaganda campaign designed to muddy the message couldn’t be far off. In fact, it’s already begun.

Last week, the Cambridge Energy Research Associates issued a report (that you can buy for $1,000) that finds fault with peak oil estimates. “The ‘peak oil’ theory causes confusion and can lead to inappropriate actions and turn attention away from real issues,” said CERA director of oil industry activity Peter Jackson, blathering on about growing global economies. Oil extraction won’t “peak,” Jackson says, it will “plateau.”

OK. But whether it’s a “peak” or a “plateau” and whether it happens in a year or 30, we are going to have to face an eventual future without oil. And yet we continue to exponentially increase our dependence on oil for transportation, agriculture, chemicals, plastics, home heating and electricity.

If the United States led the way with an Oil Depletion Protocol, perhaps countries with growing consumption habits—like China and India—will follow our example. Imagine.

The question that needs asking is should nations plan ahead for declining oil resources? Or should we careen into the future like college frats on a bender who stumble across the room at 4 a.m. Sunday to find the keg has been sucked dry?