Eleven years ago, I wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly with various predictions and warnings on oil and energy technology and climate. Since those subjects remain hot today — concern over oil prices and peak oil is at a three-decade-high and Shellenberger and Nordhaus have reignited the technology debate with a variety of historically inaccurate claims about the clean energy R&D message — and since this is probably the best thing I wrote in the 1990s, I am going to reprint it here. It is a long piece so I will divide it up into several posts.
“MidEast Oil Forever?” (subs. req’d), coauthored by then deputy energy secretary Charles Curtis, became the cover story for the April 1996 issue (click on picture to enlarge — yes that is a lightbulb, the sun, and a windmill about to go over the edge of a sea of oil).
The back story is that the Gingrich Congress had come in with its passionate hatred of all applied energy research, and the Clinton Administration was desperately trying to save the entire clean energy budget from being zeroed out. I wrote most of the piece in the summer of 1995 and revised it in January 1996. The title was a warning that the U.S. would be stuck with its dependence on MidEast Oil if that happened. Hence the subhead for the article:
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.
[Note: The original online article had active links, and I have kept those that still work. In the interests of space, I will not indent the whole article, as I normally do for extended quotations.]
Imagine a world in which the Persian Gulf controlled two thirds of the world’s oil for export, with $200 billion a year in oil revenues streaming into that unstable and politically troubled region, and America was importing nearly 60 percent of its oil, resulting in a $100-billion-a-year outflow that undermined efforts to reduce our trade deficit. That’s a scenario out of the 1970s which can never happen again, right? No, that’s the “reference case” projection for ten years from now from the federal Energy Information Administration.
Imagine another world in which fossil-fuel use had begun a slow, steady decline; more than a third of the market for new electricity generation was supplied from renewable sources; the renewables industry had annual sales of $150 billion; and the fastest-growing new source of power was solar energy. An environmentalist’s fantasy, right? No, that’s one of two planning scenarios for three to four decades from now, developed by Royal Dutch/Shell Group, the world’s most profitable oil company, which is widely viewed as a bench mark for strategic planning.