Taking a tip from a bleak oil report

Calling the world oil outlook "bleak at best," the congressional Office of Technology Assessment has issued a study of future oil supply that underscores the need for effective energy conservation.

While this is not the main thrust of the OTA report in "World Petroleum Availability: 1980-2000," the study's bottom line allows little leeway for any other conclusion.

Even under favorable circumstances, OTA finds there will most likely be little or no increase in world oil production from conventional sources over the rest of the century. It didn't consider unconventional sources -- tar sands, oil shale, synfuels. These will provide valuable supplemental supplies. But they will be expensive and are more likely to help replace foreign oil than to increase liquid fuel supply.

Indeed, in a recent review of the United States energy situation, the industry journal Power Engineering concluded that, in the year 2000, the US is likely to face an overall energy shortfall of 15 quads (quadrillion B.t.u.). This would occur even if demand were held to the minimum level projected by the Department of Energy and all nuclear power plants now in the pipeline were in service. A 15-quad shortfall would be some 19 percent of last year's energy use.

Although it has been said many times, t is worth re-emphasizing that energy "conservation" does not mean "doing without." It does mean using every B.t.u. -- and every barrel of oil -- much more efficiently. This, observes OTA director John H. Gibbons, ". . . lies at the heart of the challenge to science and technology in the 1980s. We must increasingly find ways of substituting human ingenuity for resources that are no longer amply and cheaply available."

Those flashy TV ads for the new high fuel-mileage cars from Detroit dramatize that awareness of this fact is beginning to permeate national thinking. Equally encouraging is the quieter but steady progress as more homes are insulated, more appliances are designed to do a job with less energy, and industry finds a host of ways to save energy.

It takes time, as well as dedication, to reform the energy-squandering economy that the US has built up in this century. Existing machines, buildings, or transportation systems cannot just be scrapped and replaced in a few years or even a decade. To try to curb energy use that way would be disruptive, costly, and indeed wasteful of energy. But that still means conservation should be developed as rapidly as possible.

The OTA report is one more authoritative warning that time is slowly running out if the United States is to avoid disastrous energy shortages. Energy efficiency needs to be given much higher priority than it has even today in the United States national energy program. Billions have been voted for a massive synfuels program which many experts think will turn into a massive boondoggle. If comparable resources were put behind development of an energy-efficient economy, it could make a far greater difference to the US energy outlook.

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