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China and India will determine energy future
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service


January 14, 2006

Americans practically panicked in late summer when gasoline prices soared past $3 a gallon. The price has fallen considerably since that peak, and although the current figure of $2.32 is still about 53 cents more per gallon than the U.S. average a year ago, the drop has been sufficient to quiet the howls of public outrage, which for several weeks had federal lawmakers trampling each other in their eagerness to address the matter.

The outrage had cooled so much by year's end, in fact, that the GOP-led charge to finally throw open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling ran out of steam just as it appeared to reach the home stretch. A centerpiece of President Bush's energy plan since the fossil-fuel industry drafted it for him, ANWR drilling failed to muster sufficient congressional support even when attached to an unrelated bill funding such can't-lose causes as military support and disaster relief.

ANWR drilling will be back soon, count on that. The battle swirling around the refuge has never been about energy so much as it has been a symbolic death match between conservationists and those who believe that every drop of petroleum should be squeezed from the ground, regardless of cost, as long as there's a profit to be made. Meanwhile, the rhetorical fireworks over ANWR will distract everyone from a far more important determinant of the nation's energy future.

Hint: It has nothing to do with Alaska.

As recently as a decade ago, China was nearly self-sufficient in oil. Since then, its consumption has doubled, and a little over a year ago, it quietly became the world's second-largest oil importer, overtaking Japan but still lagging the United States.

India, just a bit behind its larger Asian neighbor, has doubled its oil consumption since 1992.

These and other startling statistics are in a report issued this week by the Worldwatch Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that for 23 years has issued an annual report on the top environmental and social challenges facing the world - and on the progress the world has made in dealing with those challenges. This year's report focuses on China and India.

Both nations remain at a fairly primitive level when it comes to energy production, consumption and distribution. Their per-capita energy use is barely one-tenth that of Japan, one of the most frugal nations on the planet. But what India and China lack in energy hunger they make up for in sheer numbers. With a combined population of more than 2.3 billion people, they account for fully 40 percent of humanity. And they are modernizing at a furious pace, buying cars and appliances, building highways and power plants, pursuing the trappings of affluence as avidly as postwar Americans.

What this suggests is that $3-a-gallon gasoline is going to look like a bargain in the not-very-distant future, regardless of how many times lawmakers stamp their feet and vow to do something about high fuel prices. If China and India raise their per-capita oil consumption over the next few decades to even half the American level, those two countries alone would consume 100 million barrels of oil per day.

Total global oil consumption last year was about 85 billion barrels a day. Not even the most optimistic petroleum geologist believes the planet holds sufficient crude-oil resources to more than double production and maintain it at that level. To the contrary, many analysts expect global production to peak at around 100 billion barrels a day, probably in the next decade or so, and then begin an irreversible decline.

One could argue that this is all the more reason to squeeze every last drop from ANWR and anywhere else it might be found. That's basically the position taken by the administration and the energy industry's champions in Congress. But the more sensible inference to draw from these gloomy statistics is that the only winners in the high-stakes game of fossil-fuel poker are going to be those that take their chips and walk away the soonest.

China and India may be in a better position to do that than the United States, many of whose leaders seem determined to keep their foot on the gas until the nation drives off a cliff. Because their sudden lurch toward economic maturity is coming in a time of increasingly scarce and expensive energy, rather than during a fantasy era of cheap and seemingly limitless fuel, the nascent economic superpowers of the East are being forced to confront the era of limits before they've become as powerfully wedded to excess as the West.

India, for example, already has the world's fourth-largest wind power industry. China has 75 percent of the world's solar water-heating capacity, and its People's Congress passed a far-reaching renewable-energy law last year. Perhaps the American Congress could learn something from that.


Contact John Krist of the Ventura County Star in California
at jkrist(at)

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