The biggest stories of the year were financial. But you could say that the continuing Great Recession, the deficit debate, and more and more mortgage defaults were really stories of energy-driven economic crisis.
This year also had plenty of big stories directly on energy, including some breakthroughs on peak oil. Here are our top picks. It’s a highly subjective list; so please chime in with any stories you think we left off.
- Gulf Oil Apocalypse. The explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon along with the leakage of nearly nearly 206 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico drew the world’s attention to the problems of producing oil today. The late great oil industry banker Matt Simmons (whose untimely death in August was an important peak oil story itself) predicted that the spill, the biggest environmental disaster in American history, would become the Pearl Harbor moment for America to move beyond fossil fuels. But like most environmental disasters, the Gulf catastrophe faded from public view within months. The takeaway: why would we be drilling for oil more than a mile underwater unless all the easy to get stuff on-shore was already running out? Huh?
- IEA Declares Peak Oil in 2006. After years of hedging, the International Energy Agency officially acknowledged that peak oil came four years ago. But the hedging habit dies hard, and the IEA report went on to say that the peak was only for conventional oil, or what we like to call “real” oil. Unconventional sources (what we call “magic” oil) like tar sands and deepwater (thanks, BP) would postpone the peak for another couple decades at least. The takeaway: when it comes to public agencies uttering the words “peak oil,” be grateful for whatever you can get.
- Military Declares War on Peak Oil. OK, not exactly war. And maybe it’s not that Pearl Harbor moment. But the Pentagon, which has a history of recognizing and planning for future energy shortages more honestly than either the White House or Congress, released a report in February fingering peak oil as a threat to global political stability. The takeaway: actually, the report came from the military’s Joint Forces Command in Virginia, which the Defense Department now wants to close. Coincidence?
- California Beats Back Attack from Big Oil. Texas oil companies targeted the Sunshine State’s leading-edge climate and clean energy law for repeal with Prop 23, but voters didn’t buy it. The takeaway: Who says that we’re doomed to repeat history? Californians obviously weren’t going to let themselves get Enron-ed again.
- Unconventional Fossil Fuels Ready for Their Close-up, Mr. De Mille. From shale gas (not only dirty, but a fracking bad investment too) to tar sands (or “oil” sands) to methane ice on the ocean floor, the dirtiest, nastiest and costliest fossil fuels have been getting more love than ever from government, investors and the media. The takeaway: Like an aging film diva, fossil fuel just can’t give up the limelight. And with peak oil, mood lighting and a lot of mascara, creepy energy ghouls might just have a long career ahead of them.
- Totnes Releases Energy Descent Plan. The big daddy of all plans to prepare for a lower-energy future came out this year from the Devon hometown of Transition Movement co-founder Rob Hopkins. At more than 300 pages and covering topics from trash to culture to the Totnes Pound and the Totnes Rickshaw Company, the plan will surely be the ultimate wheel that Transition groups won’t need to reinvent. The takeaway: much as we’d like to just copy and paste, it’ll still be a lot of work to adapt the EDAP to our own communities. Can’t we all just move to Totnes? Maybe we could crash on Rob’s couch.
- Transition Voice Launches. Peak Oil Solved. Climate Change Next. You think we’re going to miss the chance for some cheap self-promotion? The takeaway: in a modest way, we hope that we’re just another example of how peak oil is going mainstream through the crazy-fast growth of the Transition Movement and a willingness to tell the peak energy story in a new way.
- Kunstler Kourts Kontroversy. Sorry, don’t know how this one got in here; there’s nothing new about Kunstler and controversy. News is that James Howard Kunstler’s novel The Witch of Hebron suffered slings and arrows from peak oil writers including Carolyn Baker and Sharon Astyk, as well as our own reviewer Cliff Garstang, for picturing women as second-class citizens in a post-peak world. The takeaway: whether you think he’s right about women or not, Hebron shows yet again that nobody knows better how reach out to the general reader with a haunting vision of a post-peak future than the author of The Long Emergency.
- Oil Squirts Towards $100 per Barrel. With black gold looking to finish 2010 at nearly $90 and predicted to top $100 in the coming months, conventional wisdom says that the economy should start looking up. The takeaway: Anyone here think that rising oil prices signal a recovery? Anyone?
- Super Rich Old Guys Invest in Peak Energy for Good and Ill. Not only did Warren Buffett continue to buy stock of rail companies (nice). But he and Bill Gates have been scouting coal mines in Wyoming (naughty). And Sir Richard Branson led a group of Brit tycoons urging the UK government to do its own investing for peak oil (jolly good, of course). The takeway: Gates is already leading a campaign for billionaires to invest half their wealth in worthy causes, possibly inspired by Ralph Nader’s 2010 novel “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” And what cause could be worthier than prepping industrial societies for a post-peak world? If you call, Mr. Gates, we’ll answer.
— Erik Curren