While the US dilly-dallies, others plan for oil-less future

Partnerships in two countries, Sweden and South Africa, have seen the writing on the wall and are making concrete steps toward life without oil. One hopes that the US can learn some things from their planning.

In Sweden, a committee representing a cross-section of society, will offer to parliament plans to wean the nation of 9 million off oil within the next 15 years, without building any more nuclear power plants. The committee will focus on alternatives to heating oil and gasoline. Nuclear and hydroelectric plants already provide all the nation’s electricity. If successful, the plan would make Sweden largely free of dependence on oil.

Meanwhile, SASOL, the South African petroleum giant, and the Central Energy Fund, are planning to build a major biodiesel plant, using soybeans as the source. Biodiesel supplements petroleum-based diesel fuel, simultaneously stretching diesel supplies and reducing tailpipe emissions. A feasibility study is expected by the end of the year.

The Guardian also reported today that French automaker Renault plans to manufacture half its cars to run on a mixture of ethanol and gasoline by 2009.

“French car groups have seized on the call by President Jacques Chirac to end the country’s “addiction to oil” with plans for bio-fuels or hybrid power. Peugeot Citroën last week opted to produce diesel hybrids emitting 90 grams of carbon dioxide and reducing consumption to 3.4 litres per 100 kilometres by 2010.”

This reports, and Pres. George W. Bush’s own acknowledgement that the US is also addicted to oil, are encouraging, but it remains to be seen how successful they will be. Those of us with long memories might remember similar plans to wean us from oil back in the mid-70s, when OPEC sharply tightened oil supplies, sending gasoline prices through the roof (for back then).

Once the supplies opened up, gas prices leveled off, and car manufacturers gradually began the move toward bigger, less fuel-efficient automobiles. Remember when Honda and Toyota only sold tiny, fuel-sipping cars in the States? Now they too sell big trucks and SUVs.

So, 30 years later, the pendulum has swung back to high crude oil prices again, and people are taking seriously the distinct possibility that we may actually someday run out of oil. SUV owners are looking to sell their behemoths, and no less an oilman than Dubya confesses that we have to seek other options.

Sweden, being a progressive nation, will probably succeed in its efforts to kick the oil habit. Being less dependent on petroleum for electric generation than the US, the Swedes are more than halfway there.

South Africa, meanwhile, needs to find cheaper sources of oil and needs to offer its farmers, most of whom subsist at or below the poverty level, some kind of decent income. The RSA, which is highly motivated to bring electric power to many rural areas for the first time, gets 90% of its electrical power by burning coal; the other 10% comes from nuclear and other sources. While biodiesel will not replace petroleum diesel entirely, it should reduce the RSA’s oil requirements significantly. Assuming okes there are willing to buy biodiesel-powered bakkes, South Africa might also be successful in kicking the oil habit.

The question remains whether the US can make good Bush’s kick-the-habit intentions, without invading any more oil-rich nations, drilling into pristine wilderness areas or setting up more rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. China, which is now moving into a huge consumer-driven society, will be another major user of oil very soon. The Chinese are giving up their bicycles for cars — that’s a lot of drivers who will want to fill ‘er up.

The world needs to get it through its thick skull. Oil will not last forever. We need to plan now for the end of the Oil Age, so we do not sink into global chaos when the wells finally do run dry.

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