Current Issues

A Post-Oil Vision

Posted on June 6, 2010

I am flying back from DC this morning having come down yesterday to attend an event sponsored by the Saudi Cultural Mission.  The event was a celebration of the scholarship program that has brought 25,000 Saudi students to the US in a very short time, 95 of them to the SNHU campus.

Taking over the ballroom of a local Marriott, the Mission set out a dizzying array of that Saudi export staple, not oil, dates. Dates of every size, dates stuffed with almonds, date cookies, date waffles…really, a date lover’s paradise.

There were displays about Saudi culture, investments in technology and medicine, the rapidly evolving role of women, the Saudi peace plan for the region, and more.

Saudi students also had display tables reflecting the work they have been doing at their respective universities.  The Saudi Student Clubs (we have one now) were recognized, withe the top ten rewarded for their cultural outreach on their campuses and in their communities.

The Saudi Ambassador and the Minister of Education were in attendance and there were speeches about the need for the next generation of Saudi leaders and for the students to step up and take on the problems facing the world.

There was little about oil (a few out of the way display panels).  Oil revenues make possible the enormous investment the Saudi government is making in the scholarship program (full tuition, monthly living allowance, support for dependents, excellent medical coverage, and annual tickets home), but the vision the Saudis have is for a world eventually without oil.  If you doubt it, consider the enormous investment they are making to train tens of thousands of their young people in medicine, nanotechnology, finance, and other non-oil related fields.

It reminded me of a visit I had with the Gulf Investment Council in Dubai some years ago when the Director said to me: “We know oil is not the future — it will run out — and our mission is to invest in other areas for a post-oil world.”

So how is that we seem so oblivious to what the oil producers know: oil is not the future?  Yet we continue to grant drilling rights offshore (while there is a moratorium on deep water drilling, there is no such stop for shallow water wells) and watch as the worst environmental nightmare in our country’s history continues in the Gulf.  Don’t be fooled — there is no “clean up” that will bring back despoiled wetlands, fishing grounds,migratory grounds, and shore areas in our lifetime.  It will be cosmetic, but good parts of the country’s cost are lost to us.

If I may borrow and combine two quotes from Sarah Palin, “How’s that ‘drill baby drill’ thing working out for us?”  This is shameful stuff and it demonstrates two things:

A) The power and rapaciousness of big oil and its powerful lobby in DC, and

B) A lack of faith in the American ability to innovate, solve problems, and lead the world in new ways of thinking.

I agree with Tom Freidman that the BP oil disaster should be Obama’s call to action moment, the event around which he can rally and positively channel the public’s anger and dismay.  Instead, I fear he will squander the opportunity as George Bush squandered the opportunity to drive us to a new energy economy post-911.  Imagine what would have happened if we had used these 9 years and the $1 trillion we have spent on two wars to fundamentally rebuild our energy infrastructure instead.

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