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Culture Change

Ration oil during war 
— Or is this a War on Conservation?

by Jan Lundberg

If the U.S. is waging a "War on Terrorism," federal energy policy would reflect that the war is not a "war for oil."  Even if what we've had is a war of terror (nothing new, if you ask Indo-Chinese victims of U.S. shock-n-awe), that's not exactly a war for oil.

As oil is a strategic commodity essential to the present economy and military, then policies should be geared toward conserving oil.  Everyone knows they are not; little conservation has happened since Jimmy Carter's tentative efforts.  A national paving moratorium was proposed in 1990 in part to stop the lengthening of the nation's (oil) supply lines in time of war (Operation Desert Storm).

If the U.S. is truly not in Iraq and Afghanistan mainly for petroleum, and petroleum in that part of the world is meant for those countries and the whole world, then Gosh, the U.S. has to start rationing oil now.  (Forget for a moment the main reason to cut back: global warming is caused in large part from petroleum emissions.)  One could point out that U.S. trade partners need oil too, or else the U.S. goes down the tubes economically.  But the U.S. felt a domestic and world crisis, to insist on war on Iraq.  Some say it was to keep Iraq from accepting Euros instead of dollars for oil.

Approximately 20 million barrels a day of oil and refined products are being sucked unsustainably from the finite Earth just for the USA's burning and spilling the stuff.  Neither the oil industry nor its White House acknowledges the impossibility of maintaining this rate.  Because of free-market economists' ideology about the "creation" of supply, the future is never more than ten years off in their practical planning.  As for an oil crisis hitting hard in the first decade of this century, this is not real to the oil fraternity because (1) it implies great change in an industry that's not generally about energy; petroleum is unique and specialized, and (2) it's the next quarterly report that really counts in big business.

World War II was a war for oil, in large measure, considering Axis and Allied aims and strategies.  And the Axis - which happened to ultimately lose the war - was finally cut off from sufficient supplies of oil.  But the U.S. had to ration oil and other products so that it would not run out during war.  What have we learned from our history?

Critical oil stats
The number of days of supply of immediately marketable crude oil for the nation is only about 17 (seventeen), in terms of total supply already pumped out in the U.S. and having been imported.  This is a typical level.  That statistic is derived from knowing there are about 278 million barrels of crude now on hand, out of the ground, and almost 16 million barrels are used per day.   There is also about a month's worth of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), which could be brought to surface, refined and distributed.  All the SPR oil cannot be brought to market at once; the idea is that an orderly drawdown could keep supply and demand in balance for several months.  (The commonly assumed SPR scenario does not solve a serious long-term shortage such as from declining global reserves.)  As for petroleum products, mostly gasoline and diesel, there is only about a week and a half supply in the U.S.  

Add the maximum available crude and refined products together, and you have a little over two months of oil supply for driving, some heating, and a few lesser energy uses in the U.S., if we assume the crude is refined into fuels (over half of it is).  

The bigger assumption is that domestic pumping and especially importing will keep going "forever."  Fifty-eight percent is the level of oil importation today - another reason for the attack on Iraq?

U.S. gasoline consumption is well over 9 million barrels (or over 400 million gallons) per day in summer.  Almost nothing is currently being done to decrease this.  To the contrary, conservation is anathema to the "conservatives" in control of the government. (See San Francisco Chronicle op-ed "And when cheap oil runs out... Enter the Age of Conservation" by Jan Lundberg, May 6, 2001.)

Vice President Cheney's and George Bush's opposition to the environmental form of conservation is the key to understanding why rationing is unthinkable to them today.  But if conservation were thought of as war-oriented, it might have a chance to fly.  This way the White House could also meet popular goals such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions and reducing smog.  They can save face by saying the rationing is just because of the never-ending war "on terrorism."  Emergencies are also attractive to besieged rulers.  Not primarily because of petty politics, Nixon put in oil price controls, and Bush could respond that way to today's record gasoline prices.  Voila, never-ending rationing?

WWII rationing
The rationing system that worked in World War II was sensible: an "A" sticker on most cars allowed only three or four gallons to the driver per week.  Privileged and critically needed drivers such as doctors got other stickers and more gasoline coupons.  Feds busted people wasting fuel, such as nailing them at concerts or night clubs.  There was black market abuse of the system, but rationing worked to a large degree.  Speed limits were lowered to 30 miles per hour on highways.  Rubber was suddenly unavailable from plantations in Southeast Asia, so the U.S. was rushing to refine petroleum into synthetic rubber before completely running out; hence, make those tires last.

The nation during World War II had some sensible leadership in regard to oil policy, assuming the whole system of government and industry was legitimate and evolving to something sustainable and compassionate.  (That assumption runs up against realities such as the oil-facilitated U.S. killing of 5 million Indo-Chinese.)  How does WWII policy compare with today?  The flag waving leaders today certainly have the flag - and the weapons of mass destruction, the big money, and all the oil they want (us) to guzzle.

What else was a hallmark of successful, patriotic conservation in WWII?  Victory Gardens and recycling!  New urban gardens enabled depaved and ex-lawn spaces to become food production zones.  Waste reduction featured reusing materials and parts instead of trashing them.  Things could be fixed more easily than today, due to encroaching computerization in cars, for example. 

These conservation measures went in and stuck for the duration of the war because of the threat to the nation.  Well, supposedly we are threatened now!  So where's the conservation?  If there's no conservation, what does that imply?  

Why is the modern "conservative" - and even the liberal - usually against conservation?  The main factor is individual "need," for not just consuming all the oil that's convenient, but for profiteering on oil-related, oil-fueled business.  Somebody wants a big motor vehicle regardless of fuel economy, and the powers-that-be want that car-buyer to succeed in that want!  The world almost has a gun to its head to buy new motor vehicles.  In the U.S., this has by now translated to more operable vehicles than drivers - a ratio of 1.9 personal cars in the average household of 1.75 drivers.  Most consumers will not face the fact that propaganda, brainwashing and employment policies do much to rob us of free will and independent thinking.

On the other hand, if the Iraq War is really for oil and the "right" to guzzle oil to no end, then it makes sense that the proponents of today's war for oil would be in denial over any need for conservation.  With no conservation or rationing, even though the White House and "intelligence community" know the global peak in oil production is upon us, we can with certainty say we are in a war for oil gluttony.  What a noble purpose!  But lest we be too hard on them, these folk - counting any of your neighbors too - can't imagine living simply and creating love and peace, in their fearful and aggressive mind-set in the dominant materialist culture.

When WWII rationing and speed reduction kicked in, highway crash deaths dropped by about two-thirds!  This kind of life-saving opportunity, that President Bush doesn't yet seem to be aware of, could save 25,000 lives a year on U.S. roads today.  Does this not compare favorably with the 3,000 American citizens killed on Sept. 11, 2001.  Hello?  Are we about reducing casualties of the oil war or not?  Iraqi civilians deaths this year have hit just over 37,000 (Village Voice Sept. 3-9, 2003).  That's almost as many U.S. citizens who die in highway crashes every year.  Those Iraqis can't be brought back, but future U.S. and other peoples' deaths can be avoided.

With some significant energy conservation in the U.S., many people around the world wouldn't hate the U.S. and its citizens so much.  Oil use is equated to wealth.  The more oil we use the more the impoverished of the world have violent feelings for U.S. citizens and targets of U.S. corporate and military property.  These feelings are strongest among those deprived of their ancestral lands in part because of U.S. interventions.

But the response by a George Bush (either one) and his supporters is, in effect, "Never!  Gimme more oil!"  With this kind of honesty (unlike the Democrats), and such absence of sense and equity, shall we try something else than muttering intellectual logic that calls for peace and driving higher-tech cars (the sell-out enviros' big solution)?  Talk is cheap.

It is time for grassroots action to conserve.  Almost as much as advocating car-free or minimized-car living, rationing would not be popular.  But a one-term or lame-duck president could try rationing as an Emergency measure.  At the rate George Bush is going, he could be on his way to becoming a lame duck.  Despite his Enron scandal-taint, he got a boost in popularity after 9-11 and attacked two countries with devastating force which included depleted uranium.   However, what with the growing backlash against the White House's/EPA's suppressing toxic exposure-risk data in the Twin Towers' debris; what with the Iraq guerrilla war; the record budget deficit of half a trillion dollars next year; mistreatment of soldiers regarding their pay and occupation conditions, constitutional rights being infringed, etc., Bush could lose the 2004 election, assuming he is not impeached first.

If President Bush and his executive colleagues can keep being as audacious and brazen as they have been - and they have gotten pretty far with it - rationing of oil is on the same order of audacity and extreme action.  Yet, saving lives and the atmosphere is admittedly a bit radical to come of out Washington D.C. - DC stands for District of Crooks, but anything's possible.  Only a lame duck or one-termer would try serious conservation in times of plenty - plenty of oil, for now, and plenty of oil-related death in both hemispheres.  Will oil profligacy only stop when oil gets really tight in supply?  Judge for yourself as to timing:

It is a world on the dawn of an historic oil crisis, perhaps the greatest and final one.  The oil industry's M. King Hubbert bequeathed to us all the oilfield extraction curve named after him.  We're at the global peak, and the downhill slide will not be like the easy climb: when the market reacts and goes berserk, not even radical rationing will work.  So, let's slash petroleum dependence beginning now, if the modern world is to transition to the future of a lot less energy.  

Energy alternatives are not ready and won't be, as long as oil is still quite subsidized to be priced low.  Also, alternatives don't compare to petroleum's energy punch and molecular flexibility.  (To understand peak oil and how new oil discoveries and improved renewable energy technology won't change basic trends that these conclusions are based on, see Sustainable Energy Institute's webpages such as The Fall of Petroleum Civilization and alternative energy.)

It's unlikely that the average north American, here in oil pig-out heaven, will realize on his or her own that the oil war has been taking place in our own homeland.  But, a few more of us can heed the call to Can the car.  Let's also unplug our energy-wasting luxuries and go outside into the natural world.  If it's not there, take the asphalt up and plant some fruit trees.  And please watch the cat population which is decimating the vanishing songbirds.  Peace!


The author formerly provided the U.S. Defense Fuel Supply Center, the biggest oil consumer in the world, price information for its purchasing.  Jan Lundberg formerly ran Lundberg Survey Incorporated which once published "the bible of the oil industry."  He has run the Sustainable Energy Institute since 1988.  It can use your assistance and generous help.

- read an alternative approach, Energy Tax Made Easy
- Feedback is wanted for our letters page.
- Check out Food Not Lawns/Wild Urban Gardeners!

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Jan Lundberg's columns are protected by copyright.  However, non-commercial use of the material is permitted as long as full attribution is given with a link to this website, and he is informed of the re-publishing:


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UK leader calls War on Terror "bogus"

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The oil industry has plans for you: blow-back by Jan Lundberg

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How GM destroyed the U.S. rail system excerpts from the film "Taken for a Ride".

"Iraqi oil not enough for US: Last days of America?"

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The Hydrogen fuel cell technofix: Spencer Abraham's hydrogen dream.

Ancient Forest Protection in Northern California . Forest defenders climb trees to save them.

Daniel Quinn's thoughts on this website.

A case study in unsustainable development is the ongoing crisis in Palestine and Israel.

Renewable and alternative energy information.

Conserving energy at home (Calif. Title 24)



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