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Post oil: Glimpses of life after fossil fuel

Contentious debates about "peak oil" aside, imagining how the world looks post oil is increasingly easy as alternatives to fossil fuel develop rapidly.

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If these wild scenarios aren't far off, the circumstances they have in common – the absence of oil – is further out. Today's public is convinced it will never see an oil-free world. Less than one-quarter of Americans believe oil will run out in their lifetime, according to a September Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll. Young adults are slightly more concerned: Thirty-eight percent of respondents ages 18 to 24 said it was "likely" they would see the end of oil.

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Even oil industry experts acknowledge that having a stable supply of oil doesn't mean we must – or should – rely on it. A post-oil world may not be an inevitability to which we must react, but it may be a world we choose to create.

There are compelling reasons to make that choice, says Amy Myers Jaffe, coauthor of "Oil, Dollars, Debt, and Crises: The Global Curse of Black Gold" and director of the Baker Institute Energy Policy Initiative at Rice University in Houston. "They range from reducing our trade deficit to taking away instability in our financial system ... to global warming and protecting our environment."

It would be a mistake to see this element of free will as a hippie hangover or sneaky environmentalism. Whether we wait to run out of oil or choose to replace it before then may determine all that comes next. "How we leave the age of oil and what we set up for beyond that is really key to what the world looks like when there's a lot less oil," says Lisa Margonelli, director of the New America Foundation's Energy Policy Initiative. Do we update power grids to accommodate a surge in electric cars? Beef up public transit networks in less-urban areas? Bet on a biofuel breakthrough and plan for the adaptations that it would require? "There's a lot of differences among biofuels," says Ms. Margonelli. "An ethanol-based biofuel ... needs a whole different transit structure [than] a butane-based biofuel, or biodiesel, or biogas."

Choices made now about the coming energy transition will have a global effect. The Gulf states, home to "oil sheikhs," may see their influence fall. Some of those sheikhs, meanwhile, are moving away from oil: Saudi Arabia, an ally the United States has cultivated especially for oil, is making major investments in solar energy, both to use at home and sell abroad. Brazil, which along with the US is expected to produce most of the world's biofuel by 2015, may see its global clout rise.

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