Are Democrats the Peak-Oil Party?

For the first time since 1980, energy should be a major presidential campaign issue.

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"We have to understand how weak [Iran] is," explained Sen. Joe Biden last month at the Democratic presidential debate in Nashua, N.H. "They import almost all of their refined oil. By 2014, they are going to be importing their crude oil." If Biden really meant to say what he said, that places him firmly in the camp of those analysts who believe in "peak oil" and predict that global oil production will soon decline even as demand continues to rise, with the results being ever higher oil prices and shortages.

Peak oilers contend that the Middle East oil reserves are vastly overstated. Some, the minority to be sure, even think that global oil production will fall so far, so fast, that western civilization will have to return to some sort of pre-industrial way of life. Here are some choice predictions from one well-known proponent of the theory, James Howard Kunstler:

"One huge implication of the oil peak is that industrial societies will never again enjoy the 2 to 7 percent annual economic growth that has been considered healthy for over 100 years. This amounts to the industrialized nations of the world finding themselves in a permanent depression...The future is therefore telling us very loudly that we will have to change the way we live in this country. The implications are clear: We will have to downscale and rescale virtually everything we do...All indications are that American life will have to be reconstituted along the lines of traditional towns, villages, and cities much reduced in their current scale. These will be the most successful places once we are gripped by the profound challenge of a permanent reduced energy supply."

Clearly, the members of the National Petroleum Council, a federal advisory group representing the oil industry, are not believers in peak oil. "Fortunately, the world is not running out of energy resources," concludes a new report. "Coal, oil, and natural gas will remain indispensable to meeting total projected energy demand growth. "But the report does advocate that the United States do the following to meet a continuing rise in energy demand over the next quarter century:

1) Moderate the growing demand for energy by increasing efficiency of transportation, residential, commercial, and industrial uses.

2) Expand and diversify production from clean coal, nuclear, biomass, other renewables, and unconventional oil and gas; moderate the decline of conventional domestic oil and gas production; and increase access for development of new resources.

3) Integrate energy policy into trade, economic, environmental, security, and foreign policies; strengthen global energy trade and investment; and broaden dialogue with both producing and consuming nations to improve global energy security.

4) Enhance science and engineering capabilities and create long-term opportunities for research and development in all phases of the energy supply and demand system.

5) Develop the legal and regulatory framework to enable carbon capture and sequestration. In addition, as policymakers consider options to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, provide an effective global framework for carbon management, including establishment of a transparent, predictable, economy wide cost for carbon dioxide emissions.

My take: Between fears of global warming and higher energy prices, energy looks certain to be a major issue for the first time in a presidential election since 1980. Democrats already seem to have realized and are formulating specific plans, like Hillary Clinton's idea of a $50 billion energy research fund, or a similar $10 billion "New Energy Economy" fund that John Edwards is proposing.

The GOP isn't quite there yet as far as addressing this as an issue with specifics. Rudy Giuliani, as part of his website's "12 commitments," merely says, "I will lead America towards energy independence." Mitt Romney advocates spending "more research dollars in power generation, fuel technology, and materials science. It is in new technologies that we will find solutions to our environmental and energy needs."