Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

On August 27, 1859 Colonel Edwin Drake drilled the first successful oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania and ushered in the Age of Oil. The Age of Oil will not endure. Already just 150 years into it, we are seeing the endline but there is little question that oil has remade our world. That magical string of hydrocarbons allows us to live on this planet in numbers otherwise not possible. If not for oil, at least 40% of us would not be here. We literally eat oil for without we could not produce the quantity of food that enables our numbers of now near seven billion. Indeed, the major phenomenon of the modern era are wholly attributable to oil. The Green Revolution, globalization, the advent of plastics are all ultimately tied to our mastery of oil's magic. Our transportation infrastructure is largely based on a hydrocarbon economy. There is no question that solving our energy riddle is one of the paramount questions for the upcoming century.

Thus it is striking that the President last night in Williamsburg made the following comment:

This plan will begin to end the tyranny of oil in our time. It doubles our capacity to generate alternative sources of energy like wind, solar, and biofuels in three years.

It's an interesting and perhaps odd phrase, the tyranny of oil, but those involved in the study of peak oil or in the transition towns movement that phrase has real meaning and it is music to our ears. It signifies that President is aware of the daunting challenge to wean a planet off a diminishing resource before our world literally slides off a cliff. For me personally as someone who was less than enthused with candidate Obama, that phrase along with his comment back in Toledo to Joe the Plumber about "share the wealth" are the most instructive and insightful into the President's thinking and core beliefs. If President Obama addresses the "tyranny of oil" and moves to address the growing income inequality in this country then he truly is the one that I have been awaiting.

Last year, Dr. Ken Senz House wrote an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on how the tyranny of oil might be broken:

Breaking the tyranny of oil will require a broad-based, market-driven movement toward electrification of the transportation sector where currently, oil has a monopoly. We can't run individual cars on wind, sunlight, coal, or nuclear fission, but we can generate electricity from them and deliver that electricity to cars with rechargeable batteries. With electrified transport, drivers will always be buying the cheapest available source of energy through their utility company.

And then there is my good friend Antonia Juhasz who just this past year wrote a new book The Tyranny of Oil. In it she argues that the business and politics of oil's production pose such grave implications on so many fronts -- the environment, human rights, the economy, worker safety, public health -- that the current state of petroleum-industry affairs is fundamentally antithetical to democracy. I suspect that President when he spoke that phrase was addressing the concerns of Dr. House rather than Ms. Juhasz's view about the influence of oil companies in US energy and US foreign policy but by tackling the former, the President will also moving to break the stranglehold of Big Oil on the global economy.

The tyranny of oil. The President gets it.

Other Resources:
An NPR interview with Antonia Juhasz. Antonia is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and previously worked as an aide to Michigan Congressman John Conyers.

Tags: Peak Oil, Tyranny of Oil, US Energy Policy (all tags)



Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

I read somewhere that the U.S. government subsidizes oil to the tune of 200 billion dollars per year, and this figure does not include the cost of foreign entanglements like Iraq (which cost us 1 trillion dollars).

It is ironic that we talk about investment and deficit reduction, but no one has a real conversation about how we can make certain that we can truly pay down our debt. One of those ways is reducing our dependency on foriegn oil. This has the advantages of: a) reducing or eliminating subsidization over the long haul b) reducing military expenditures (because new industries would exist that do not require them) and c) creating domestic industries will real versus paper value.

by bruh3 2009-02-06 11:15PM | 0 recs
Think of cutting edge 19th century technology - -
We no longer use a manual typewriter.  Or, a butter churn.  Or, a washboard.
But, we still use an internal combustion engine fueled by oil.
We still rely on personal transport vehicles akin to the first autos built in the late 1800's.
It makes no sense.
by kosnomore 2009-02-07 03:42AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

Charls Lemos wrote: "We literally eat oil for without we could not produce the quantity of food that enables our numbers of now near seven billion."

Every morning I wake up and wonder what will be the most absurd thing I'll hear that day.

We have a winner! (See above.)

by Tboy 2009-02-07 04:20AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

It may sound strange the first time you hear it, but it's perfectly true. Nitrogen-based fertilizers are made from oil. Pesticides are made from oil. Decades of using both of them for most large-scale farming around the world have eroded the inherent fertility of the soil to the point to which you couldn't grow anything in many places without them at this point. To paraphrase one scientist, "Modern soil is a sterile sponge that we soak with hydroocarbons in order to produce food." And then there's the farming equipment and vehicles that run on oil. And don't forget that the average food item in America travels over 1,500 miles before it gets to somebody's plate.

No, he's not overstating things. If anything, he's understating them because the entire modern pharmaceutical industry is totally dependent on oil as well.

by Vetch 2009-02-07 05:40AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

It sounds strange the first time you hear the statement and it sounds strange every time after that. Misinformation and industry generated falsehoods are funny like that.

Just because we use oil as we do does not mean that it is impossible to produce as much or more using sustainable methods. It does take more labor, more attention to detail, ... But the results are typically not as high or higher in quantity but also in quality.

Sustainable very high yielding local farms can not only outproduce rescue chemical agriculture but do outproduce it.

A large part of the "need" for a large pharmaceutical industry is due to the crappy food supply to which we've been subjected.

You know - there are other ways.

by Tboy 2009-02-07 11:37AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

I wrote "But the results are typically not as high or higher in quantity but also in quality."

Drat - meant to write

"But the results are typically as high or higher not only in quantity but also in quality."

by Tboy 2009-02-07 11:39AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

Sustainable very high yielding local farms can not only outproduce rescue chemical agriculture but do outproduce it.

Not everywhere. The erosion of quality topsoil the world over is a severe problem. The agri-business model produces for short-term gain, no longer are fields rotated and laid fallow to the degree that they once were. In marginal lands, it is only oil-based additives that allow that land to be productive.

by Charles Lemos 2009-02-07 11:58AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

I'm sure more than a few dogs heard that whistle.

by JimR 2009-02-07 04:23AM | 0 recs
Tyranny of Oil

Oil has already hit peak levels and will never recover to its previous highs.  This seems to have happened in 2003.  Peak oil was demonstrated by Matthew Simmons in his 2003 presentation (large but really nifty PDF presentation slideshow & lecture) to the Center for Strategic and International Studies

We will always need oil, look at your keyboard, it is made from oil derivatives. The real trick is to stop burning oil for transportation.

As of 2007 the United States imports a bit over 10 million barrels of oil a day. Just for fun, we'll call an average price of $50.00 a Barrel.  

Now for the Math part:

10,031,000 bbl/day x $50.00 /bbl = $501,550,000 /Day for oil imports


$501,550,000 /Day * 365 days/Yr =  $183,065,750,000


If we can reduce our oil imports by 50%, we automatically don't export $91,532,875,000 cash annually to the Middle East.  

With a good alternative energy program focused on electrical production (generation and autos, both electric and fuel cell) we pay for the stimulus package, Obama's rescue package gets paid back in under 10 years in savings from oil imports alone.

I know it's not perfect, but it's really easy to explain to non political junkies and they get it!  Go Green Rescue Package = Payback in under 10 years = yeah, we can do that! (Bonus: no dependence on the Middle East for oil).

This effectively ends the Tyranny of oil.  Expect the Republicans to fight it tooth and nail every inch of the way because, we as a nation will be required to invest in our future, and not spend it away.

by NvDem 2009-02-07 05:51AM | 0 recs
Re: Tyranny of Oil

Roscoe Bartlett gave a similar presentation to an empty (except for Wayne Gilchrist) House chamber in March 2005.


by JimR 2009-02-07 08:59AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

what would ever lead you to believe the phrase "tyranny of oil" is anything other than more all hat and no cattle? Or are we to believe words alone make it so?

by gak 2009-02-07 05:57AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

Well, for starters, it's a departure from leaders heretofore. But I did say this

If President Obama addresses the "tyranny of oil" . . .

He has talked in the past about playing catch up on energy noting we should have started on this 30 years ago and he has also said that lower gas prices is not an excuse for delaying alternative energy development. This hasn't been lost on me or on others who see this as the most vexing challenge of our times.

by Charles Lemos 2009-02-07 11:54AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil - 30 Years Ante

We did start on this effort 30 years ago.  Jimmy Carter burned a lot of bridges pushing for a modern energy program.  St. Ronni Ray-gun (may his name be forever revered) pulled the plug on the programs at the earliest opportunity.  Ignorant ideology will always get you into the deepest end of the swamp and Reagan proved it totally.

by VizierVic 2009-02-07 01:15PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

Senator Udall, of New Mexico is a Peak Oil advocate in a big way, too.

by Jerome Armstrong 2009-02-07 07:02AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

Ditto Governor Paterson.

by Charles Lemos 2009-02-07 11:59AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

Petroleum's demise will merely echo the product which it replaced -- whale oil.  Colonel Edwin Drake was drilling that well because the supply of whale oil was declining and the nation (if not the world) needed another source of lantern fuel.  Most of the petroleum produced in the early years of liquid fossil fuels was distilled into kerosene, with "gasoline" an undesired by-product.  In those early days, gasoline (which is broad mixture of light distillate products) was literally toxic waste.  Finding a use for it was critical, but it also meant internal combustion engines had a source of cheap, readily available product.  Widespread electrification and the creation of a large motor car industry after several decades changed that, but vast new petroleum discoveries in Texas, the Middle East, the Caspian and Indonesia kept the price low.  We've taken a strange, wandering path to reach our present state.

by VizierVic 2009-02-07 01:12PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

I dont believe in Peak Oil or demise of petroleum but we need to reduce dependence on foreign oil!

by Boilermaker 2009-02-07 01:18PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil
Here's a piece I wrote back in May of last year on
The Whale Oil Peak Curve.
by Charles Lemos 2009-02-07 03:03PM | 0 recs
Titusville, not "Tutusville"

On August 27, 1859 Colonel Edwin Drake drilled the first successful oil well in Tutusville, Pennsylvania and ushered in the Age of Oil.
It's in NE PA, close to Erie.  

by NM Ward Chair 2009-02-07 02:06PM | 0 recs
Re: Titusville, not "Tutusville"

Sorry, typo. Thanks.

by Charles Lemos 2009-02-07 03:04PM | 0 recs
I can be really petty sometimes

Got any more nits for me to pick?  /snark

by NM Ward Chair 2009-02-17 09:06PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

Let's make sure we get the "idea" correct here.  Oil is not the lynch pin any more than whale oil used to be.  Cheap, easy to use ENERGY is the lynch pin.

You make Solar cheap and easy to use, fossil-fuel based oil dissappears tomorrow.  Everything made from teh fossil fuel can be made from bio-mass...it just depends on how much energy you have to put into the process.  You can make plastic from corn oil, been done.  But it takes more energy, and a lot more steps, than just using crude from a barrel.

Electricity is the next big thing.  It is coming, it is only a matter of how long we want to drag this out.  The needs of the world will soon overpower the abilities of the corporation/government, no matter what doom sci-fi tells us!  :)  Cheap clean energy is on the cusp, and only the process to make the collectors poses the hazard rather than the entire energy extraction process.

Obama gets this and it is a good thing for all of us.  Imagine, if you will, the effect of every building IN THE WORLD being able to access electricity and people being able to access clean water (with the "water straw" filter and possibly less pollution).  Boggles the mind where we can go from there.

by Hammer1001 2009-02-07 04:34PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

Bah! I believed in peak oil. I bet my IRA on it. Oil is now cheaper (in real terms) than it's ever been. The world is awash in oil and OPEC can't shut dwn production fast enough to hold the price up. The price rise was just leveraged speculation by hedge funds. We might as well talk about "peak housing".

by antiHyde 2009-02-07 05:14PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

Supply hasn't changed, only demand as a result of the global economic downturn. Should the economy rebound (which is frankly unlikely any time soon), we'll quickly be back to mid-2008 price levels.

The fact remains that there have been no major new oil field finds since the early 1970s. The recent Tupi Atlantic shelf finds off Brazil amount to two to three week global supply.

by Charles Lemos 2009-02-07 06:32PM | 0 recs


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