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LEWISBURG, Pa. - Author Paul Roberts said one positive left by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is that it focused national attention on U.S. energy vulnerability.
Speaking at Monday's kickoff lecture in the Bucknell Social Science Colloquium series, Roberts, whose first book is titled, The End of Oil, said, "A lot of Americans were surprised at how vulnerable our energy economy is to disruption."
At the same time, Roberts said the hurricane distorted the energy picture. "The truth is that the system that Katrina disrupted was in terrible shape before the hurricane arrived and will continue to be in terrible shape after the mess from Katrina is cleaned up," he said in Rooke Chapel.
Energy supply and demand remain tight, he said, and nothing indicated that scenario will change soon. Indeed, Roberts spoke on a day in which crude oil posted its largest ever one-day price gain, rising by $4.39, or 7 percent, to settle at $67.39 a barrel in New York trading.
He pointed to spare production capacity which has historically been four million to 10 million barrels a day. "That's an important buffer and has helped get through disruptions in the past. It's kept us from getting swept up in an oil panic when we do have problems" such as the Iraq invasion of Kuwait and the Sept. 11 attacks. Today, he said, that spare production capacity is an estimated 500,000 to one-and-a-half million barrels a day.
"In effect, we have no cushion. We have no safety net," he said. "There is nothing to keep prices from going up to $120 barrel starting tomorrow. Nothing."
The conventional wisdom is that today's energy prices are a short-term problem that will correct itself as higher prices encourage new production, Roberts said. "I am less and less confident in that vision," he said.
Demand, for one thing, is increasing - both in the U.S. and in places like China.
"China is now the number two user of oil in the world," Roberts said. "It's going to be some years before they catch the number one user of oil, but they are on track to do it and when it happens it is not going to be pretty."
It will not only add pressure to an unstable market, it will raise the competition for oil. "As competition for declining energy resources grows, we can only hope it remains diplomatic," Roberts said.
By the year 2050, he said world energy will be three times what it is today and even if political problems in oil-producing countries such as Iraq were resolved today, the fact remains that oil is a finite resource and a global production peak may be close at hand.
"Oil companies are struggling to find oil as fast as they are selling it to us," he said. "This is not sustainable."
But the energy picture is not entirely negative.
"The status quo is in trouble," Roberts said. "But there is some hope."
Hybrid cars, for one thing, are gaining in popularity and are helping to cut consumption and reduce emissions. There, too, is high hope for bio-fuels and the prospect that the U.S. could one day grow its own fuel and be self sufficient.
"It can't happen overnight, but it certainly can't happen if we don't start right now," said Roberts.