Beyond Petroleum

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Michael Klare, whose work I find consistently puzzling, has a piece out in The Nation called "Beyond the Age of Petroleum" warning in dire terms of "a fundamental, near epochal shift in US and indeed world history: we are nearing the end of the Petroleum Age and have entered the Age of Insufficiency." Like Joseph Romm arguing with James Kunstler, I don't really get this. Hybrid cars are already available on the market, are much more fuel efficient than conventional autos, and with the "hybrid premium" standing at a few thousand dollars and falling, it seems obvious that if drastically higher fuel prices emerge, middle class suburbanites are going to respond with slightly altered consumption habits (more expensive cars, fewer plasma TVs and granite countertops) rather than radical lifestyle alterations:

Suppose oil hits $160 a barrel and gasoline goes to $5 dollars a gallon in, say, 2015. That price would still be lower than many Europeans pay today. You could just go out and buy the best hybrid and cut your fuel bill in half, back to current levels. Hardly the end of suburbia.

And suppose oil hit $280 a barrel and gasoline rose to $8 dollars a gallon in 2025. You would replace your hybrid with a plug-in hybrid, and those trips less than 30 miles that have made suburbia what it is today would actually cut your fuel bill by a factor of more than 10 -- even if all the electricity were from zero-carbon sources like wind power -- to far below what you are paying today. The extra cost of the vehicle would be paid for in fuel savings in well under five years.

Obviously, this would result in some economic hardship for many families, but it's hardly an "epochal shift." Indeed, even current gasoline prices are actually quite low as a share of household income by historical standards so even if plug-in technology doesn't materialize (which is hard to believe) we're not on the precipice of such never-before-seen apocalypse.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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