January 31, 2005

Oil, Oil, Everywhere

"If only we could fix the world's problems… then all the world's problems would be fixed!" I don't know who first used that quote to describe Thomas Friedman, but it cracks me up every time. Here's yet another variation on the theme, from his column today:
I am a geo-green. The geo-greens believe that, going forward, if we put all our focus on reducing the price of oil - by conservation, by developing renewable and alternative energies and by expanding nuclear power - we will force more reform than by any other strategy. You give me $18-a-barrel oil and I will give you political and economic reform from Algeria to Iran. All these regimes have huge population bubbles and too few jobs. They make up the gap with oil revenues. Shrink the oil revenue and they will have to open up their economies and their schools and liberate their women so that their people can compete. It is that simple.
Really? It doesn't seem that simple. Hard numbers would help the debate here, and I don't have them, so I'm sorry in advance, but here's a rough case for skepticism. Most of the big advances on conservation and renewable energy will have to come from the United States. Not surprisingly, it will take years and years, or decades and decades. If that. (It's not immediately obvious that sensible alternative energy resources exist, though I'm cautiously leaning towards nuclear power.) Meanwhile, those massive developing countries—India and China especially—are pushing full steam ahead and demanding ever more oil themselves. They're certainly not going to be too thrilled with conservation or more expensive alternative energies for an even longer while. And after that? Hopefully we'll start seeing other emerging economies—Indonesia or Thailand or Congo—kick off China-like growth spurts, which means another wave of perilously high demand and high prices (especially as reserves start to dwindle).

So even if geo-greens ran the world, it would take a long, long time to hammer down the price of oil, and who knows what the Middle East will look like by then. Geo-greenism is a worthwhile goal—like all of Friedman's "Dude, I've got this unstoppable vision!" columns—but, um, we might want to think of a back-up plan too.
-- Brad Plumer 12:42 AM || ||