I haven’t touched on too many geopolitical issues (but see here and here for examples) as they bear upon Peak Oil, but that is a result of choices made, and not a determination that the subject is unimportant.

The recent publication of both German and Australian reports on Peak Oil (here and here—the subject of an upcoming post) have sparked a great deal of interest and chatter on the internet, and deservedly so. Coming on the heels of several other high profile reports this year, such as the United States Joint Forces Command’s Joint Operating Environment (JOE) report and a Lloyd’s/Chatham House white paper, keeping government concerns about Peak Oil away from public attention is becoming increasingly difficult.

The report from Germany cited above suggests that Peak Oil will happen this year, and it paints a disturbing picture of potential foreign relation and energy supply problems that will surely not be limited to Germany. The JOE report is not much more sanguine about future international challenges and potential conflicts, although it did not assert a specific date for Peak Oil (but did express serious reservations about the stability and availability of adequate supplies beyond the next few years).

As oil supplies diminish over time, the relative importance of oil-producing nations will likely increase, and with that added influence and power will be the likelihood that U.S. and other Western nations may find their preferences and “values” playing second fiddle to the preferences and values of those foreign suppliers—not all of whom share our ideals and objectives. It’s not at all far-fetched to consider the real possibility that active resistance to the growing political and economic might of these new international power players may result in a swift curtailment of oil supplies. That’s a powerful club for the Russias and Venezuelas and Saudi Arabias of the world to suddenly wield.

Seven of the fifteen largest suppliers of oil to the United States are on the State Department’s Travel Warning List, for their “long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable.” [1] Who knows how the internal politics of those nations will play out in the years to come, and what the international/energy supply and security ramifications might be? Saudi Arabia, long-recognized as the leading oil exporter, has its own set of internal issues to contend with, as both Matthew Wild and this article make clear. We cannot passively assume that our primary suppliers of oil will remain so.

Relying on potentially unstable suppliers is not the most optimistic strategy, and we don’t have too many alternatives right now. Ignoring these geopolitical considerations is even less prudent.

Furthermore, the declining availability of fossil fuels will just as likely limit the opportunities we have to export our preferences and values to other nations in need of our assistance. Diminished influence in the international arena will carry its own set of consequences.

Coupled with the loss of political influence is the likelihood that our ability to project military might and protection will also be lessened. The military is the largest consumer of fossil fuels. If we continue to allocate the same percentages of energy supplies to our military, what happens to the rest of us? How will an even smaller pie be divided? And if we allocate fossil fuel supplies in the same proportions now, what happens to the comfort and security we derive from our then-decreased military capabilities? (The flip side, of course, is that proactively decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels lessens the need to project our military all over the world and at exorbitant costs—financial and otherwise.)

And let’s also not forget that diminishing supplies with the onset of peak oil production means that other nations will vie more aggressively for their fair share of oil supplies. The United States may find itself playing an international game it is not at all accustomed to playing—or prepared to play at all. Acceding to the types of political, economic or ideological “favors” that future suppliers may insist upon could prove a very difficult pill for this country’s leaders and citizens to swallow.

A sampling of headlines from just a few articles over the past few months about China’s aggressive acquisition of future oil supplies suggests another problem. They have the means to tie up a good chunk of future supply, and that behavior may be indicative of how future energy transactions take place, as the German report suggests.

“China Global Oil Shopping Spree” [2]

“China’s Global Shopping Spree” [3]

“Saudis Tighten China Energy Ties to Reduce U.S. Dependence” [4]

“China Looking To Make More Loan-For-Oil Deals – report” [5]

“China Now Controls Majority Of Canada’s Athabasca Oil Sands Corp” [6]

The longstanding practices of free market purchase and sale may not prove to be as enduring as we would expect. As the German report noted, “[b]ilateral, conditioned supply agreements and privileged partnerships, such as those seen prior to the oil crises of the 1970s, will once again come to the fore.” Suffering as we do from our arrogance and sense of entitlement because we’re Americans, the change in oil market practices in coming years will prove to be a distinct and unpleasant shock to our political and economic systems, with consequences spreading far and wide. We won’t be the only nation suffering, either, but that will be of little consolation.

Let’s also not ignore the fact that as supplier nations’ populations increase (Matthew Wild suggests that Saudi Arabia could have as many as 45 – 50 million people in twenty years’ time, more than double its 2000 population [7]), the needs of their own citizens will surely take precedence of those in other countries. Exports are usually derived from excess production after domestic usage is accounted for. (Mexico—one of our primary suppliers—has seen its oil exports to us decline by more than a third in just five years. That trend won’t be reversing course. That’s not encouraging.)

With hundreds of millions of citizens in less-developed parts of the world seeking their own version of the American Dream, where will that leave the gluttonous U.S. demand to be satisfied? (“Should China’s total per capita oil consumption reach the level of the United States, they will require basically all of the world’s current oil production. While it is highly unlikely that China’s per capita oil consumption will reach that level, even if it reaches half of the current U.S. level, they will require 40.7 million BOPD.” [8] That’s almost half of the world’s daily usage … not comforting.)

We’re beyond foolish and ignorant if we think that we’re always going to be first in line when oil is passed out just because we’re America.

Any sense that these are issues “out there” and not really affecting us in our daily, personal lives is a risk we should not be taking. What happens out in the real world oil markets has a direct impact on each and every one of us. The more information and understanding we possess, the better our chances of doing something to help mitigate the very real impact and consequences of declining oil production and supply. It’s understandably far more preferable to let “others” work on these issues, but we must give voice to our own concerns so that decisions and practices eventually implemented will have some marginal comfort and familiarity to us.

We are probably beyond the point where we can fully and properly prepare for effortless accommodations and transitions away from fossil fuel dependency, but having a say in how we all must deal with the effects of Peak Oil will help make those transitions more palatable.

Small consolations indeed.

Sources & References:

[1] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-09-03/exponentially-purpose-century-and-half-ignored-warnings – Exponentially on purpose: a century-and-a-half of ignored warnings – Published by Peak Generation on Fri, 09/03/2010 by Matthew Wild

[2] http://www.energytribune.com/articles.cfm?aid=3356; Posted on Mar. 02, 2010 By Michael Economides, ET editor in chief, and Xina Xie, ET China correspondent

[3] http://www.energybulletin.net/node/52256; 04/01/2010

[4] http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601207&sid=afA7qKyLK44s

[5] http://www.forexyard.com/en/news/China-looking-to-make-more-loan-for-oil-deals-report-2010-05-17T101708Z

[6] http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/01/china-now-controls-majority-canada-s-athabasca-oil-sands-corp.php

[7] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-09-03/exponentially-purpose-century-and-half-ignored-warnings (full cite above)

[8] http://oyetimes.com/views/columns/5880-have-we-passed-the-point-of-peak-oil – Have we passed the point of Peak Oil? by Glen Allen