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Preparing for the Next Oil Shock

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I have a creeping sense of déjà vu. Robert Fisk's article in the UK Independent on Saudi forces mobilizing thousands of troops to "quell growing revolt" brought me back nearly 38 years to the first oil shock of 1973.

Living in Los Angeles, I'd had my driver's license for less than a year and was thrilled with my new found mobility. But then the price of gas skyrocketed from around 35 to nearly 60 cents a gallon and lines at the pump meant a four-hour commitment to fill 'er up. Given the circumstances, I quickly reverted to my old mode of transport --hitchhiking.

2011-03-07-gasprices.jpg Gas Prices in Los Angeles, March 7, 2011

I distinctly remember President Nixon's State of the Union speech in January 1974 in which he vowed to "break the back of the energy crisis". He said "Let this be our national goal: At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need to provide our jobs, to heat our homes, and to keep our transportation moving." This goal eluded Nixon, and every president that came after him.

As Jon Stewart pointed out in a brilliant compilation of presidential pronouncements on the subject, "Nixon says let's get off foreign oil by 1980 which somehow becomes let's not use as much foreign oil by 2025. We redefined success and still failed."

Fast forward to 2011 and the Fisk report from the Middle East. Mass demonstrations in several Saudi cities are planned for 11 March. According to Fisk "The opposition is expecting at least 20,000 Saudis to gather in Riyadh and in the Shia Muslim provinces of the north-east of the country in six days, to demand an end to corruption and, if necessary, the overthrow of the House of Saud." It's anyone's guess where this will lead. In the meantime, fighting over the control of Libya's oil installations has begun and oil production there has been halved.

How long before we see the next oil shock? And are we really prepared for it?

Wael Hmaidan, activist and Director of Lebanon-based IndyAct, recently talked with OneWorld about the dramatic events unfolding in the Middle East, and their implications for addressing climate change. He sees both opportunities and threats.

A 70s-type oil shock could make expensive and incredibly destructive fossil fuel technologies (like fracking, shale, drilling in hostile environments, tar sands etc.) more economical. But it could also catalyze an effort once and for all to address the fundamental insecurity of our dependence on fossil fuels through the massive investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions.

Even in the absence of the upheavals in the Middle East, there are signs that the time is approaching when global oil extraction will peak and begin its terminal decline. Diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks, for example, suggest that Saudi Arabia's reserves of crude oil may be on the order of 40% less than previously stated. Some experts believe that this peak may come as early as 2012.

Will conversations about short-term fixes to boost domestic fossil fuel production once again overshadow the need for a long-term sustainable solution -- a solution that would have the benefit of creating energy independence and solving the climate crisis at the same time?

It looks like that conversation is already starting to move in the wrong direction, so this time let's not settle for anything less than a sustainable revolution, with abundant renewable resources powering our future. If we don't the stakes will be very high. As Mikhail Gorbachev told his East German comrades shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall, "Life punishes those who come too late."

What do you think? How high will oil prices need to get before we move toward renewable alternatives?

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