Oil be damned

When even President George Bush – for whom petroleum is the elixir of political life – begins talking about the need to break the US‘s ‘addiction to oil’ we know that we live in changing times.

The man who was backed to the hilt by the US oil industry through two successful election campaigns is now giving public speeches on the virtues of alternative energy technologies, most notably renewables and nuclear power.

It stretches the imagination to believe that this is because of any latter-day conversion by the president to the green agenda. The key elements of Bush’s comments on energy policy were his references to the need for America to move beyond a dependency on oil which is often imported from ‘unstable parts of the world’.

The president (or his key advisers) have, in short, seen the writing on the wall, and they don’t like the message. If the US remains as oil-hungry as it is today, the crunch is going to come when one or more of the world’s major sources of supply end up in unfriendly hands.

In the light of Bush’s comments, it was interesting to hear another developed western nation this week make a similar pledge to wean itself off the black stuff. The country in question is Sweden, which issued some stark warnings about the economic effects of rising oil prices. Sweden was ravaged by the price spike of the 1970s, and set out detailed plans to ensure that it isn’t caught napping a second time. These include promotion of biofuels and co-operation with domestic automotive companies to develop non-petroleum technologies.

So the US and Sweden have both fired the starting gun in the race to change fundamentally their energy economies. Let’s indulge the very British passion for placing a bet and examine the form of our two competitors.

First the big guy in the Stars and Stripes. The US has a population of 300 million, an economy awash with energy-hungry heavy industry, a cultural aversion to being told what to do, and a long-standing (though admittedly fading) love affair with the big car.

Now let’s look at the lean, blond chap in the blue and yellow. Sweden weighs in at just nine million people, and has already made huge progress towards replacing oil-based energy consumption with alternatives (in reality it started our hypothetical race a decade ago). Its people are used to deferring to the government as the font of all wisdom and like their cars to be green machines rather than mean machines.

On paper then, not so much a race as a walkover. This tells us a few things.

One is that when it comes to energy policy, technology is the beginning rather than the end of the process. Cultural, political and economic factors weigh far more heavily.

A second is that when George Bush and the government of Sweden begin singing from the same hymn sheet, there’s probably a good case for all of us listening to the words.

Thirdly, if there really is a crunch on the way that could be averted by winning our race, we should all be rooting for the underdog. With the greatest respect to Sweden, the relative health of its economy is of marginal importance to the wider world. The same cannot be said of the US.

Andrew Lee
The Engineer Magazine & Online