An Oily Road Ahead For Our Men in Washington
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, February 26, 2005

France and Russia were deeply involved with Saddam Hussein because of it. China and India give the term “state-trading-enterprise” new meaning as they sniff the planet’s surface for sources of it. Here in Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador lowered the Canadian flag over it while Saskatchewan will takes its case for it to Canada’s Independent Equalisation Panel. In the increasingly pipeline be-ribboned Alberta, you’ll find the planet’s second largest reserves of it.

Everywhere, the question is who wants it, who’s getting it and who’s got it.

In fact it is so important, there’s speculation the next American ambassador to Canada will be former U.S. energy secretary Spencer Abraham. Already, the Alberta government has appointed its former energy minister and irrepressible booster, Murray Smith, to become that province’s first representative at the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

All this makes oil a key factor in the geopolitical nature of things where related appointments hold potential for seismic shifts.

Oil has always been important but because the hydrocarbon era is peaking, it is even more important. Hydrocarbons provide us with everything from fuel for heating and transportation, to the fertilizers and pesticides that revolutionized 20th century agriculture production - not to mention all that plastic.

Peak Oil theory originated with the American geologist, Dr. M. King Hubbert. Working for Shell in the 1950s, he observed that all finite resources attain a peak rate of production after which it declines. Hubbert’s Peak, that is maximum oil production, is attained when half the stores are depleted. After that, as bell curve models demonstrate, it is all downhill.

Hubbert accurately predicted peak American oil production in 1970. It was hushed up at the time but various associations and individuals have since extrapolated it from his work in books, scientific papers, websites and conferences. Though oil supplies may not disappear entirely, they say, the cheaper, easily accessed and refined sources certainly will. Then, for the oil that’s further away and harder to refine, it becomes a matter of cost effectiveness and market forces.

If what people are willing or able to pay for a barrel of oil no longer covers the cost of extracting and refining that barrel of oil, production ceases. But even if production continues, scarcity and escalating demand will make rationing necessary, if only on a who-can-afford-it basis. Either way, oil and its byproducts will become less available or disappear altogether.

So when will oil peak globally? According to’s Peak Oil Primer, various methods, Hubbert’s included, are being used to make various predictions, with “results ranging from ‘already peaked’ to the very optimistic 2035.”

All being well, replacement energy sources, preferably renewable but probably coal or nuclear based, will be available when needed.

All being less well, the planet, lacking petrochemically based fertilizers, could see mass starvation, escalating resource based wars and the end of suburbia and long distance travel as we know it.

Alone among world leaders, George W. Bush has, with a combination of might and the implementation of democratic right, understood the need to stabilize oil production and to contain the world’s erratic, if not evil, axis. He also understands the relative futility of the Kyoto Accord. Since global hydrocarbon combustion will decline anyway, putting valuable resources behind CO2 reduction hardly makes sense, even if it were the undisputed cause of global warming - which it isn’t.

First among governments in Canada to do so, Alberta enjoys the benefits of oil resources that have not yet peaked. It is also the largest supplier of oil to the U.S., thanks to which, arguably, the U.S. remains forebearing towards Canada despite years of government neglect. Even so, it seems less interested in our cattle and softwood lumber and, who knows, manufactured goods could lose their appeal as well.

Despite talk of joining OPEC, Alberta lacks jurisdiction to be a player in the geopolitical nature of things, and, to be sure, it has shown little interest in acquiring it. This week, all that may have changed when Canada’s newest ambassador to-be, with a few well placed observations, forced the prime minister’s hand on missile defence and confirmed Canada’s reputation as unreliable and increasingly irrelevant, valuable not for its support or wise counsel but only for the raw materials it supplies.

When Frank McKenna and Mr. Smith take up their posts prepare for some seismic shifts.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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