The not-so-final word on peak oil

The Government Accountability Office takes a hard look at the global energy crisis. Could be, we have a problem.

Published March 29, 2007 9:01PM (EDT)

Channeling Harpers Index:

Total count for variants of the word "uncertain" used in the Government Accountability Office's newly released report on peak oil: 87.

That tells you most of what you need to know about the GAO's evaluation. While the GAO supports the basic principle of peak oil -- at some point, the world will reach maximum production and thenceforth decline, it is uncertain whether that moment is now, 2040, or the next century. There is also great uncertainty over how much oil is still in the ground, how much can be recovered using new technology, and whether alternate transportation technologies can significantly mitigate demand.

Why all this uncertainty? Simple: "Expert sources disagree."

The closest the GAO will commit to a definitive statement: "Most studies estimate that oil production will peak sometime between now and 2040."

Members of the peak oil community lusting after a more apocalyptic pronouncement will likely be disappointed by such hedging. But they need not hang their heads too far. The GAO expresses itself reasonably forcefully on the potential consequences of the arrival of peak oil, depending on its timing. After throwing ice-cold water on the possibility that biofuels, hybrid technologies, or hydrogen fuel cells will offer any kind of get-out-of-peak-oil-free-card in the short term, the report makes clear the implications of its pessimism.

If the peak and decline in oil production occur before these technologies are advanced enough to substantially offset the decline, the consequences could be severe. If the peak occurs in the more distant future, however, alternative technologies have a greater potential to mitigate the consequences.

Severe = massive worldwide recession, oil resource wars, and a likely curtailment of your average American's summer vacation plans. In other words, if world production of oil maxes out in 2007, but demand continues to grow, 2008 could be a very bad year. But, if world production of oil hits its peak in 2040, and the world spends the intervening three decades massively investing in alternative transportation technologies, renewable energy, and energy efficiency, we might have a shot at wiggling our way out of the mess.

So what's the main recommendation proposed by the GAO for executive action? The GAO urges the secretary of energy to "establish a strategy... for addressing peak oil issues... with the intent of reducing uncertainty surrounding estimates of the timing of peak oil production."

Sure, why not? That could be useful.

Total number of times the word "could" is used in the Government Accountability Office's newly released report on peak oil: 84.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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