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LATIN AMERICA
“Countries are producing less oil every year”
Suzanne Timmons
9/22/2005
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Interview with journalist and human ecology professor Richard Heinberg

 An increasing number of oil industry analysts warn that the world’s oil production will soon reach its peak — a scenario known as "peak oil" — unleashing cycles of price surges and economic depressions, as well as global political instability. Richard Heinberg is a journalist and professor of human ecology at New College in California, and the author of multiple books including, The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (2003). Latinamerica Press contributor Suzanne Timmons spoke with Heinberg in Bogota, Colombia about the impending energy crisis.

What is the current global situation regarding the possibility of a "peak oil" scenario?
Right now supply and demand are very closely matched and that’s the main reason for the run-up in prices. The biggest problem is simply the depletion of supplies from major producers. Over half of the countries that produce oil have passed their peak of production and are producing less oil every year. And that’s a trend that will only accelerate in the future. Once the world has passed its all-time oil production peak, which is likely to occur in the next two to three years, then we’re likely to see a decline in total production of petroleum resources in the range of 2-3 percent a year. As energy resources become more valuable, the international competition for them will become much more fierce. Countries that depend on the export of energy resources, their economies are very vulnerable to disruption from rich importing countries like the United States or China. [They are] also vulnerable to more and more political instability from within, as different factions of the country vie for control of the wealth produced from those resources. Oil prices will increase dramatically, and also become more volatile. As prices rise dramatically, that will undercut economic growth, and it will cause periodic steep recessions. And during those recessions, there’s the potential for a collapse in prices.

What can we do instead of consuming so much oil?
We have to use oil more efficiently. This is a lesson that especially needs to be learned in the United States. In the United States there is no public transportation infrastructure. This is a huge mistake of historic proportions. But also we will need to find alternatives, and biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel. But they will not enable us to operate the kind of transportation infrastructure that we have been accustomed to. Air transportation in particular is going to become much more expensive. It will make transportation of goods more expensive. Economies that are more localized and self-sufficient will be much better off than ones that depend entirely upon transportation of resources and manufactured goods from very long distances.

Should countries be developing alternative transportation?
Right now, in many countries, there is the choice of building more roads and highways or using that money to build more public transportation. It’s very important that decision-makers understand that the investment money should go to public transportation rather than more highways, because we’re simply not going to have the cheap petroleum to run millions of cars with in the future. So all of that money spent in building new highways is, essentially, wasted.

What other fuels should countries like Colombia, whose oil reserves are in decline, be considering?
Over the long term it’s possible to imagine ways of using solar energy and wind energy. Over the short term, that’s not very likely, because they produce electricity and our transportation and agriculture infrastructures are dependent on oil. Over the short term, the only possible alternatives would be biofuels. Colombia has already passed its peak of production. So the question for Colombia is: should the country continue to export its oil, which will be gone very soon, or should it retain as much of that for domestic use as possible? It may be more intelligent to use that oil be used domestically rather than to export it.

Besides public transportation, what measures should developing countries be considering?
There’s this whole question of biofuels, ethanol and biodiesel. With biofuels, the amount of energy that you get from the fuel once you created it is not that much more than the amount of energy that you put into producing the fuel. Then there’s the problem that if biofuels become economically viable because fossil fuels become so expensive, there will be more incentive for farmers to grow biofuel crops than to grow food. If this happens on a large scale we could end up seeing millions of people starving so that a few rich people can continue driving. Because there’s only so much agricultural land in the world. In fact grain production per capita is already declining. So it’s not as though we have huge amounts of agricultural land to spare for growing fuels. And if we were to try to run our cars on ethanol we would need immense amounts of agricultural land. Biofuels could be useful in public transportation, for buses, and for necessary truck transport. But they shouldn’t be used as an alternative for power and personal automobiles on a large scale.

What does that mean for countries such as Colombia and Brazil that are already developing biofuel?
Brazil is already one of the foremost exporters of ethanol. But that also has ecological implications. Are they clearing rainforest to grow sugar cane? Agriculture is an ecologically damaging process in most cases. So if we’re talking about expanding agricultural production we’re also talking about ecological impacts.


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Richard Heinberg. (Photo: ACIEM)
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