Advice for Oil Addicts
President Bush called on the country to break its addiction to Middle East oil in his State of the Union address last week. Easier said than done, says former Chevron geophysicist Peter Tertzakian, who talked to U.S. News about his new book, A Thousand Barrels a Second: The Coming Oil Break Point and the Challenges Facing an Energy Dependent World, and why kicking the oil habit will be a tough slog. Excerpts follow.
Is Bush on the right track?
There was recognition that there is a problem, and that is a first step. Having said that, the solutions that [he] presented were oversimplified. The dependency runs deep, and it takes more than just saying, "We're going to grow more corn" to solve the problem. But we are addicted to oil, and it's nice to finally acknowledge that.
What about plans to develop alternative sources of energy?
In the United States, less than 3 percent of electrical power is generated from oil. When we talk about clean coal, windmills, and nuclear power, we address only the electricity issue, not the oil issue. Those alternatives are not large-scale substitutes, and they cannot push oil out of its largest market, which is transportation.
Oil consumption has always been on the radar. Why are we trying to change things now?
The core issue is the way we live. The most problematic trend for oil consumption to emerge in the past 20 years has been the continued migration to the American suburbs. Twenty years ago, the average American vehicle traveled 10,000 miles per year. Today, it travels 12,000 miles. That's a 20 percent increase, right there. On top of all this, we have larger and heavier vehicles. We came to accept the fact that we would have cheap energy whenever we pulled up to the pump. Finding solutions to these demographic changes and trying to mitigate gasoline consumption is very difficult.
How have other countries dealt with similar pressures?
After the last oil price shocks of the 1970s, the Europeans and the Japanese taxed oil very heavily. The Japanese made it government policy not to consume more oil than they currently were. Indeed, they consume the same amount of oil today. It can be done with smart policy. The Europeans and the Japanese built public transportation, while the U.S. built suburbs.
What about making a full conversion away from a particular type of fuel?
Winston Churchill's decision to move away from coal and fuel the ships with oil, at the turn of the century, was a huge decision. At the time the British had all the coal they needed--energy independence. But they needed the oil-powered ships to compete with the Germans. In order to convert the Navy to oil, however, they had to begin buying it from Iran. In the 1850s and '60s, when whale oil was being used, there was a moment when all the whales had been hunted. Several ships were frozen in the Arctic, which decimated the whaling fleet. At the same time, during the Civil War, the Confederacy blew up some whaling ships docked in Connecticut. Around the same time, "rock oil" was discovered in Pennsylvania.