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Vail Daily column: Gobbling on fossil fuels

Don Rogers
My View
Don Rogers
Laura Mahaffy/lmahaffy@theunion.com | The Union

My theory about the future goes like this: We don’t know what we don’t know. So we go by what we do know.

That means we look in a rearview mirror and draw these trend lines. Up, up, or down, down.

Some of these look a lot like a graph of a turkey headed to Thanksgiving, fattening day by day, only without the knowledge of the holiday and what this means for the bird. Thanksgiving is a black swan event for the turkey, which reasonably would expect a continuing pattern.

So Exxon and other energy experts projecting similar trends, a little smugly timing the bridge from fossil fuels to renewables down the road a good 40 years, only reveals the fundamental flaw with experts.

The Great Recession was a big surprise for folks you’d think would know better. Only a few kooks called for collapse and most had done so for decades, through all the booms and minor recessions alike. A broken clock occasionally tells the correct time, too. Of course, there were a few truly prescient exceptions, former Vail Councilman Kent Logan being a notable one who helped his town neatly dodge the worst of it.

But I digress.

Still, the scholars and other experts were arguing over when peak oil would hit less than a decade ago, back when the United States imported 60 percent of its oil from abroad. Today it’s more like 20 percent, and sure to wane.

Exxon — or was it Chevron — not so long ago was taking out newspaper ads discussing the imminent shortage of oil in the ground and what next. Never mind that experts had been calling for the end almost as soon as the first gushers were tapped around the turn of a whole ’nother century. We don’t know what we don’t know, only what we do know. Which ain’t all that much, it keeps turning out.

Even Big Oil didn’t anticipate the game-changing advances in horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, which have unlocked energy independence for us if we wish.

Turns out we’re awash in black gold, and OPEC is afraid to turn off the tap because then we’ll truly understand their services no longer are required.

The turkey woke up, though maybe a bit late. Look at those prices. No one predicted this recent turn, either, a black swan for the oil and gas companies laying workers off by the barrel.

I think a much bigger swan might loom for energy. Here’s why: Technology evolves like, well, evolution evolves. That is, it’s far from a trend line smoothed by distance or time. The stock market charts might be the best teacher here.

Looking at financial investment, a clue may lie in the funds divesting from their bets on the future of fossil fuels. Yes, that’s political. And perhaps a little more, too.

I suspect that solar energy for automobiles as well as the system that turns the lights on is as close as a key invention or two from disrupting our need for fossil sources. This may be 40 years away, as the trend trusters calculate. It could be tomorrow.

We shouldn’t be so surprised to see wells idled, pipelines emptied, refineries and power plants silenced in swift transition. A little more efficiency, a bump in battery tech, drop in cost, nudge from pollution and voila.

This outlook doesn’t fit the trend lines, but we’d be foolish to scoff while gobbling along, secure in what we know.

We’re not really turkeys, after all.

Editor and Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at drogers@vaildaily.com and 970-748-2920.


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