Talk of an unending fuel supply
but it's all smoke and mirrors
By Sue Potvin
If you are concerned about the rising cost of gas and oil, well, the news is, you ain't seen nothin' yet. And, believe it or not, the rash of e-mails that advocate various actions to get the costs back down, while well-meaning, are not helping to solve the problem.

The prediction from some quarters that the peak of oil and gas production is imminent, from whence it will decrease to non-existence, is a fact of life that too few people are willing to acknowledge. Everyone believes that, at the very least, alternative energy sources will be developed, so they will have nothing to worry about.

There have, indeed, been some advances made that might provide some help. But even the big guys who call the shots in this world have no concept of how fast the crash is coming and how widespread the devastation will be. What alternate technology we have is, so far, too little, too late. The big shots may live to rue the day that, in the name of more profits, they squelched every invention that might compete with oil and gas.

Evar Nering is a professor emeritus of mathematics at Arizona State University who has written about the mirage of a growing fuel supply. He applies the exponential function (most often thought of in connection with compound interest) to the consumption of a non-renewable natural resource like oil.

He assumes, hypothetically, that the world has a 100-year supply of oil if consumed at the current rate. If the consumption rate grows by 5 per cent each year, Nering says an easy calculation shows the oil would only last about 36 years.

If the first assumption was an underestimation and there was actually a 1,000-year supply being used at the same 5 per cent annual growth rate, the supply would last for 79 years.

But suppose an amazing discovery supplied the world with a 10,000-year supply. At the same 5 per cent annual growth rate, the oil would only last for 125 years.

Estimates on the size of the world's oil reserves will vary dramatically, depending on where you get your information. But most people agree that it's lifespan is considerably less than 100 years, some, less than half that. The exact number of years' supply remaining is irrelevant.

The only irrefutable fact is that attacking the oil supply -- that is, seeking more gas -- is not the answer.

Prof. Nering shows that even doubling the oil supply will add, at most, only 14 years to the life expectancy of the resource -- if it is used at the continually increasing 5 per cent rate -- no matter how large it currently is. On the other hand, cutting the growth of consumption by half will almost double the life expectancy of the supply, however much it is, he says.

Politicians are making big mistakes in building more power plants and drilling for more oil because it simply encourages more use. The growth in energy consumption must be reduced to zero -- if only to give the world time to seek alternative solutions.

There are many ways in which citizens can help fight the energy problems. And no doubt if enough people added sweaters and cranked the furnace down in winter, drove more energy efficient vehicles and pooled driving; shared the bath water; turned computers off overnight; and more, the sheer numbers would add up and make a difference. But, as necessary as these steps are, they are just band-aid solutions according to some.

A number of engineers and other professionals are crunching the numbers and they say civilization is in deep trouble, and drastic measures are necessary. Chief among their recommendations is a stiff tax on gasoline to discourage its use. As hard to swallow as this may be for the average driver, the alternative is no fuel at all in a very few years.

Reducing immigration is also seen as an important step. Importing people and turning them into the big-time consumers we are is no help to the energy shortage. They are more likely to be much smaller energy consumers in their own countries.

The development of alternative forms of energy must be fast-tracked, perhaps financed with the extra tax on gas. Wind, solar and geothermal energy generators must be studied, developed, and a way found to make them financially available to the average family. Tax relief and other incentives should be given to home owners and businesses to encourage the installation of solar panels and other alternate energy sources that may become available.

Preparations should be made for a system of mass transit that does not rely on oil or gasoline. Curtail all construction which does not take an energy transition into consideration. Stop the production of more and bigger airplanes; when oil runs out, there is no alternative fuel to keep them in the air.

There is more to be done. But first one must acquire understanding and acceptance of the urgency of the task at hand. The time for action can not be too soon.