The question Mann raises-- when, or if, we will run out of oil--is the wrong question. The real question is: What has the pursuit of oil cost us? Who pays the highest cost? Who reaps the benefits? How far are we willing to go? And what is the upside of continuing to rely on carbon-based fuels--whether it's methane hydrate, shale gas, or tar sands oil--when we have alternatives? The only question we don't have to ask is whether we should transition to carbon-free energy.
The consequences of relying on oil are becoming impossible to ignore. And that makes it more difficult to justify the lengths we'll go to in order to get to it.
Take a look at the tar sands. Producing tar sands oil devours staggering quantities of energy and water. And the process leaves behind a legacy of toxic lakes, dead wildlife, and cancer-stricken communities. In terms of our oil addiction, tar sands is the hard stuff. And pursuing it is an unmistakably desperate move.
We've already gone to great lengths to feed our addiction to oil. We've seen too many disasters unfold--from the Exxon Valdez spill, to more recent examples like the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, or just this month, the pipeline spill that spewed 10,000 gallons of oil into an Arkansas community.
Over the years, we've watched as companies and governments repeatedly violate human rights in their pursuit of oil. We've seen them put more and more communities at risk--from Richmond, California, to Nigeria, Ecuador, and just about everywhere they operate.
And then, of course, there is climate change.
When we talk about running out of oil, the assumption is we are talking about running out of oil before we run out of water, clean air, food, and the other resources that are critical to our existence. We might not run out of oil before we find ourselves at the mercy of unprecedented war, disease and disasters. This is not hyperbole--even the Pentagon has identified climate change as a security threat, largely because of the human migrations and conflicts over resources it will bring.
So it's tough to feel like celebrating the advances in drilling technology or the discovery of methane hydrate reserves that Mann points to, even when they result from brilliant innovation. Finding new ways to get and burn fuels that contribute to climate change isn't a victory. Not in the long run.
One big problem with these new technologies is that they threaten to funnel funds, innovation, and momentum away from real carbon-free, renewable energy solutions. As Mann points out--a fuel like natural gas could be a useful crutch as we transition from dirtier fuels like coal--but unless we're prepared to set it aside at some point, it fails us miserably.
Critics raise questions about the viability of a full, fast transition to clean energy--including whether our grid could handle it. These concerns are sometimes overblown--just this month, Synapse Energy Economics released a report showing that the grid would be reliable even with a much higher level of renewables. But the transition to clean energy does bring legitimate challenges. And they would be more readily solved if we were willing to spend as much money and time on them as we are on finding hidden petroleum reserves and developing deep sea drilling vessels.