Supertanker at Iraq Oil Terminal
Supertanker at the Mina Al-Bakr oil terminal taking on first load of petroleum exported from Iraq after the US invasion. Given the threat of an Iranian-like overthrow of the Royal House of Saud in which a radical Islamist government could decide to no longer sell its oil to the West, the stready flow of Iraqi oil would become a critical geopolitical, economic and military necessity. US Navy Photo.

Why We Need Alternatives to Oil

With the political stability of Saudi Arabia in doubt and peak oil just around the corner, it's critical the West find realistic alternatives to petroleum

By Noel Adams

The dawn of 2005 sees the economies of the western world, especially that of the USA, more dependent on foreign oil than ever before. This is a recipe for disaster.

In 1956 M. King Hubbert predicted that US oil production would peak in the early 1970s. The scientific community scoffed at this until 1970 when, just as predicted, US oil production peaked. US Production has been steadily declining for the past 30 years and by 2002 it had fallen from a high of a little over 10 million barrels a day to 8 million barrels per day. In the same period US oil consumption has steadily risen to about 20 million barrels per day, about 25% of total world output.

If you use the US Geological Survey's estimate of world oil reserves of 649 billion barrels of oil, and apply Hubbert's formulae, world oil production will peaking around 2022.

Many people think that the US Geological Survey's numbers are greatly inflated. In his book "Hubbert's Peak", Professor Kenneth S. Deffeyes of Princeton University predicts that the peak for world oil production will be reached by 2006 or 2007. Many others believe we have already reached Hubbert's peak.

There is supporting evidence that oil is, indeed, reaching its peak. In March 2004 Shell oil cut its estimated oil reserves for the second time in three months. The Saudi oil fields, which supposedly have the world's largest proven reserves of crude oil, are also showing signs of aging. Water has been seen mixed with the oil; a sure sign that the field is past its prime. Companies have had to start drilling horizontally instead of vertically which increases the cost of oil production.

Should we be worried about Hubbert's Peak?

Hubbert's Peak graph
Some businesses are starting to recognize the significance of 'Hubbert's Peak'. This is a screen capture of a Powerpoint slide that was part of a presentation by Scania Trucks at the 2004 Tokyo Autoshow.

Hubbert's Peak should concern us all, but there is a much more pressing problem that should be driving us to cut our dependence on foreign oil. I am talking about political instability in Saudi Arabia.

In the July 28 edition of the London newspaper The Observer they stated "Saudi Arabia is teetering on the brink of collapse, fuelling Foreign Office fears of an extremist takeover of one of the West's key allies in the war on terror." While "brink of collapse" is a bit strong, the overthrow of the House of Saud is a very real threat, and it will not only impact the war on terror but could shake the very foundation of western economic stability.

The indications of trouble in the Kingdom have received only passing mention in the US media but they are very real. On December 15, 2004 the US Embassy in Riyahd issued the following warning "The Embassy advises all American citizens of rumors concerning potential demonstrations in Saudi Arabia in the near future."

The very next day, the Washington Post printed excerpts from an audio-tape thought to be from Osama bin Laden which, "called for the ousting of the royal family as a precursor to any political change"

Demonstrations against the government of Saudi Arabia are illegal in the kingdom but that hasn't stopped the opposition group MIRA, the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, from calling for demonstrations and a national strike.

Saudi security forces were out in force on December 17, 2004 to quash demonstrations before they began. London's Daily Telegraph reported "ANTI-REGIME demonstrations in Saudi Arabia called for today by a dissident Islamist group were thwarted as Saudi security forces deployed en masse in Riyadh and Jeddah, detaining 14 people and making it difficult to gauge the group's popularity."

I just happened to be living in Tehran in 1978 when the Islamic revolution broke out and I am starting to see signs of similar problems in Riyhad. There is an exiled opposition figurehead, MIRA leader Saad al-Faqih, calling for Islamic reform. A country with a growing population of poor Saudi's watching a corrupt and oppressive ruling class getting richer selling the nation's oil, and an a royal family with close associations to the US, a country considered by many Muslims to be intent on the destruction of Islam.

Saad al-Faqih has not, so far, shown the charisma of Ayatola Khomeyni, but Bin Laden does have a large following and with his voice joining al-Faqih, a popular uprising in Saudi Arabia becomes a real possibility.

A the onset of the Iranian revolution, there was a sudden decrease in the output of Iranian crude to a level of about two million barrels a day and the new Islamic government kept oil production at that level after taking power.

If revolution happens in Saudi Arabia we could see a drop in world production of 8 million barrels of oil a day, which is more than 10 percent of current supply. In the second half of 2003 we saw a huge spike in oil prices when hurricanes in the Caribbean and a strike in Nigeria reduced oil supplies by as much as two million barrels a day. Now imagine what would happen if oil supplies suddenly dropped by ten percent. The results would be lines at the gas pump reminiscent of the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, which caused a major disruption of the world economy.

The threat of a huge drop in Saudi oil production is very real and, as we have observed in Iraq, sending in our troops won't get the oil flowing very quickly if the local populace doesn't want to cooperate.

There are many alternatives to oil that we can take. Right now on the roads of America are hundreds of thousands of vehicles that are optimized to run on E85, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. Most people don't even know that their car can run on such a fuel, which is probably a good thing since the Weststart clean car fuel map shows only one station in the whole of California that sells E85.

We have to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and we have to start doing it today. There are lots of solutions out there including E85, Bio-diesel and battery electric. There is probably not just one solution to reducing foreign oil dependence and different alternatives need to be followed.

Car manufacturers and politicians alike will tell you that moving to alternate fuels is bad for the US economy and that the path to take is towards a hydrogen economy. The hydrogen economy is at least three decades away, well beyond the best estimates for Hubbert's peak. It is difficult to see how reducing our fast growing trade deficit by importing less oil, while becoming the world leader in alterative fuel technologies, can be harmful to the long term health of our economy.

There is an urgent need to cut oil usage and we need to start today before America's favorite pastime becomes waiting in line at the gas station.

Times Article Viewed: 26202
Published: 01-Jan-2005


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