Richard Heinberg: Katrina, New Orleans, and Peak Oil


05 Sep 2005
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Like just about everyone else, I was transfixed by news reports from New Orleans and the Gulf coast of Mississippi and Alabama last week. My wife Janet grew up in New Orleans, most of her family members still live there (to the degree that anyone can for the moment say they live in the Big Easy), and we visit the city every year. The scenes were heart-wrenching and mind-boggling: an entire modern American metropolis had effectively ceased to exist as an organized society. The tens of thousands of survivors who had been unable or unwilling to evacuate prior to the storm were utterly helpless as they awaited rescue from the outside, some of them reduced to looting stores to obtain food and other necessities, a few even joining armed gangs.

Soon the Internet began pulsing with stories of how the Bush administration had exacerbated the tragedy by encouraging the destruction of wetlands and barrier islands, by appointing FEMA heads with no experience in disaster management, by focusing the agency’s resources on counter-terrorism rather than disaster relief, by refusing funds for upgrading New Orleans’ levees, and so on. By the end of the week, mainstream media had begun picking up on some of these stories.

However, when it came to reporting on the damage to oil production and refining facilities, most media outlets took at face value the glib and non-specific assurances of the petroleum industry that damage was relatively minor and temporary. Meanwhile, however, one report, allegedly from an unnamed industry insider, described at least 20 oil platforms as missing and presumed sunk, with others drifting, having sustained serious damage. Port Fourchon, the hub for oil and gas production in the gulf, likewise appears severely damaged, according to this source, along with the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP), which is the only port in the nation designed to receive supertankers. In addition, most of the region’s refineries were closed, with some likely to be shut down for many weeks or months.

Whether or not this description exaggerates the damage, repair efforts will be hindered by the lack of a nearby functioning port or city from which to base operations.

And all of this is occurring at a time when the global supply of oil is barely able to meet demand. Indeed, many petroleum analysts were already looking to the fourth quarter of 2005 as the likely moment of the all-time world oil production peak.

The head of International Energy Agency forecast on Saturday that Hurricane Katrina could spark a worldwide energy crisis. “If the crisis affects oil products then it’s a worldwide crisis. No one should think this will be limited to the United States,” Claude Mandil told the German daily Die Welt. That same day, 26 nations—including the United States—agreed to release 60 million barrels of oil, gasoline, and other petroleum products from their emergency reserves over the next 30 days. This nearly unprecedented move (the IEA also opened its taps during the first Gulf War) was surely a measure of the seriousness with which national leaders viewed the problem.

While the bringing to market of a few tens of millions of barrels of stored oil and gasoline may temporarily calm speculators and thus prevent dramatic price spikes, it cannot balance the global supply-and-demand equation for more than a few weeks (the world uses 84 million barrels of oil each day, after all). And once these stores are gone, few nations will have any cushion in the event of other supply threats. Hence Katrina may mark the beginning of the inevitable unraveling of the petroleum-based industrial world system.

The United States is the center of that system. Think of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as a gaping wound in the national body. Organisms need a steady flow of energy in order to maintain their ordered existence; a wound is like an intrusion of entropy within the system. When wounded, the body essentially takes energy away from other parts of itself to restore order at the site of injury. In ordinary times, nations as “organisms” do this very well. But in this case the timing is bad, as energy is scarce anyway (the wound was incurred at the onset of what will soon become a global energy famine); the nation has already been hemorrhaging materiel and trained personnel in Iraq for three years; and the site of the wound couldn’t be worse: it is in the part of the national body through which much of its energy enters (the region is home to half the nation’s refining capacity and almost 30% of production). Thus it seems likely that the available energy may not be sufficient to overcome the entropy that has been introduced; rather than being contained and eliminated, disorder may fester and spread.

New Orleans will be rebuilt. It must be: the nation needs a port at the mouth of the Mississippi, and the port needs a city to support and service it. It is one of the few US cities with character and charm, and people will desperately want to return to their homes. The only event likely to prevent rebuilding would be another strong hurricane hitting Louisiana later this season. However, rebuilding will proceed in the context of a national economy that is crippled and perhaps mortally wounded, and a global complex system of production and trade that is starting to lose its battle against entropy.

During the week of the disaster a mass-mailed letter arrived in my box, obviously composed and sent prior to Katrina (at the time it arrived, I was in Guatemala—one of the many beautiful and resource-rich but fiscally poor Latin American nations still run by remote control from Langley, Virginia). The letter was from the Middlebury Institute, which “hopes to foster a national movement in the United States” that will “place secession on the national political agenda; develop secessionist and separatist movements here and abroad; . . . create a body of scholarship to examine and promote the ideas of separatism; and work carefully and thoughtfully for the ultimate task, the peaceful dissolution of the American Empire.” The authors, Kirkpatrick Sale and Thomas Naylor, note that “the national government has shown itself to be clumsy, unresponsive, and unaccountable in so many ways” that “power should be concentrated at lower levels.” They also point out that “the separatist/independence movement is the most important and widespread political force in the world today,” with the United Nations having grown from 51 nations in 1945 to 193 nations in 2004.

How long can the center hold?

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