I have a new article in Salon on perhaps the most misunderstood subject in energy: peak oil.

Here is the short version:

  1. We are at or near the peak of cheap conventional oil production.
  2. There is no realistic prospect that the conventional oil supply can keep up with current projected demand for much longer, if the industrialized countries don’t take strong action to sharply reduce consumption, and if China and India don’t take strong action to sharply reduce consumption growth.
  3. Many people are expecting unconventional oil — such as the tar sands and liquid coal — to make up the supply shortage. That would be a climate catastrophe, and I (optimistically) believe humanity is wise enough not to let that happen. More supply is not the answer to either our oil or climate problem.
  4. Nonetheless, contrary to popular belief, the peak oil problem will not “destroy suburbia” or the American way of life. Only unrestrained emissions of greenhouse gases can do that.
  5. We have the two primary solutions to peak oil at hand: fuel efficiency and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles run on zero-carbon electricity. The only question is whether conservatives will let progressives accelerate those solutions into the marketplace before it is too late to prevent a devastating oil shock or, for that matter, devastating climate change.

That last sentence has been a major focus of my posts. I discuss it briefly in the article, but let me elaborate on it here. For more than two decades, conservatives have put up almost every conceivable roadblock to a sane energy policy. They have essentially said to peak oil — and catastrophic global warming, for that matter — “Bring it on!

No one should be surprised that we are now mired in a tar pit of growing dependence on oil imported from unstable or undemocratic regions, that oil prices are over $100 a barrel, that we have a trade deficit in oil alone approaching $500 billion a year, and, of course, that we’re faced with the very serious threat of catastrophic climate change from burning an ever-increasing amount of fossil fuels.

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Many of us have predicted for a very long time that a quarter century of ignoring or underfunding the key solutions to our addiction to oil would have consequences. For instance, an April 1996 article I coauthored warned about what the Gingrich Congress was trying to do:

Congressional budget-cutters threaten to end America’s leadership in new energy technologies that could generate hundreds of thousands of high-wage jobs, reduce damage to the environment, and limit our costly, dangerous dependency on oil from the unstable Persian Gulf region.

Now, absent an aggressive set of government-led policies, the oil situation will only get worse, with oil and gasoline prices doubling (or worse) in the next quarter century. Crucially, we must solve our oil addiction and carbon addiction together, and soon. Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, said in November:

These two things put together, the short term security, medium term security of our oil markets, plus the climate change, consequences of this energy use, my message is that, if we don’t do anything very quickly and in a bold manner, the wheels may fall off. Our energy system’s wheels may fall off. This is the message that we want to give.

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The problem is urgent. And the solutions are known.

Clearly we now have only two realistic strategies — indeed, we have had only two realistic strategies for decades. We must greatly increase the fuel economy of our vehicles, and we must find one or more alternative fuel sources that are abundant, low-carbon, and affordable. Both of these are strategies that conservatives have strongly fought for a long time.

Just to be clear, let’s just say we adopted the favorite strategy of conservatives (more supply) and we opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and we found enough to provide one million barrels a day for 30 years. That would delay the peak in oil one whole year! Catastrophe not averted. And, of course, it would only make global warming harder to fight. More domestic supply is not the solution.

Significantly, both Senators Clinton and Obama have announced plans to sharply increase fuel economy standards. As for McCain, one of his top economic advisors recently said that if his cap and trade system worked well enough, he might take the new standards off the books. That shows the McCain campaign does not understand what it will take to solve either the global warming or the peak oil problem.

Let’s optimistically assume we can get fuel economy standards for cars and SUVs of 60 miles per gallon by 2030. We would still need half their fuel to be zero carbon. And that’s just the time-line for dealing with global warming. If you want a motor fuel to deal with peak oil, then you need something that can provide a substantial and rapidly growing resource starting by 2020 at the latest (optimistically assuming we have a decade before peak).

Only one alternative fuel is even remotely plausible: carbon-free electricity.

Hydrogen is a “multi-miracle” nonstarter that became stake-through-the-heart dead this month when GM and Toyota told everyone the obvious — we won’t have “hydrogen fuel cells for mass-market production in the near term” but “electric cars will prove to be a better way to reduce fuel consumption and cut tailpipe emissions on a large scale.” [Note to GM and Toyota: Duh!]

Corn ethanol is, as we’ve seen over and over again, a total loser from an energy and climate — and every other conceivable — perspective.

Biomass-based cellulosic biofuels hold a lot of promise, maybe even more promise than they held more than a decade ago when my office at DOE was pushing hard to develop them in the face of opposition from the Gingrich Congress. But we still don’t have a single commercial cellulosic biofuels plant in operation in this country. So it will require massive government support for biofuels to be a major player by 2030, let alone 2020. Moreover, electricity is not a fuel that can be used for air travel and probably not for long-distance travel, especially by big trucks. So, again optimistically, we should probably assume every last drop of cellulosic biofuels will be set aside to cut non-automotive transportation fuel sharply in the coming decades.

I have previously explained why I believe plug in hybrids and electric cars are the cars of the future, especially as a climate solution. The Salon article “Peak oil? Consider it solved” talks about how they are the ideal solutions to peak oil, too.

The bottom line is that if we solve the climate problem, we will solve the peak oil problem. If we don’t solve the climate problem, peak oil will be a somewhat painful but relatively short blip on the history of humanity compared to the extremely painful, multi-century tragedy our children and the 50 generations after them will face.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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