Two meetings, two very different futures

The governor's vision of 2030 is bright, not so much at Georgia Tech group

The theme of a high-powered breakfast last week for the state's top government officials and business leaders was "The Shape of Things to Come," as the meeting's sponsor, the Atlanta Regional Commission, put it.

On Nov. 10, keynote speaker Gov. Sonny Perdue told the thousand guests gathered in a Hyatt Regency conference room that the coming decades will bring promise, possibilities and several other cliches.

"The possibilities of tomorrow fall on us, the leaders of today," Perdue said.

Over the next 25 years, 2.3 million people are expected to move into the metro area, and Georgia is preparing for them by building more, and wider, roads.

"The drivers of 2030 will thank us," Perdue said. "I'm pretty confident there will still be plenty of cars on our highways 25 years from now."

Perdue has taken the first steps to spend $15.5 billion on transportation projects intended to alleviate congestion and encourage economic development.

His plan includes $116 million for traffic-light upgrades, $1.3 billion toward high-occupancy lanes, and $1.5 billion for new lanes on interstates in rural areas.

For its part, the ARC, the primary transportation planning agency for most of metro Atlanta, will spend $52 billion to improve traffic congestion over the next 25 years.

Of that, $5 billion will go to new mass transit projects, mainly to buses that will run in their own lanes on highways.

In other words, Atlantans should expect more of the same.

"We truly do not know what the future will look like," Perdue says. "But that's one of joys of life — seeing what the future will bring."

Two days after Perdue's address, a panel of energy industry experts met in a small Georgia Tech conference room to present a sobering account of energy supplies.

The panel's big-picture discussion — which took place in front of 50 people, a crowd a good bit smaller than the one Perdue drew — focused on declining international oil and natural gas supplies, and ruminated on the types of energy alternatives that could realistically replace fossil fuels one day.

It's not just an academic question. Oil supplies are running out, many experts say.

Oil powers so many aspects of the global economy that predictions of its depletion point to a doomsday scenario, which is one reason why experts are hesitant to forecast the outcome of running out of oil. Analysts can't even agree on how much oil is left, or when the peak — the point at which more than half of the world's oil has been extracted from the earth — may happen.

The most optimistic projections, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, show that oil supplies will peak in 2030 (the same year that Perdue says drivers will be thanking him for spending $15.5 billion on road enhancements).

But some industry analysts and former oil company executives argue that oil production will peak next year, while a handful of doomsayers contend that the world has already passed the peak, and the days of petroleum are numbered.

In his book, The End of Oil, Paul Roberts, a regular contributor to Harper's Magazine, takes the data and arguments of the pessimists and optimists, combines them with a dose of his own skepticism and scrutiny, and concludes that 2010 will be the year oil supplies peak.

The big-draw panelist at Georgia Tech was Matthew R. Simmons, chairman and CEO of Simmons & Company International, an investment bank specializing in the energy industry. Simmons says it's impossible to accurately inventory world oil supplies because such data is "worthless." He points out that two-thirds of all proven oil reserves have never had a third-party audit, giving governments and analysts no other option but to blindly trust oil producing nations like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Venezuela and the United Arab Emirates.

Regardless of when oil supply peaks, it will take at least 20 years to develop the technology needed to supplant oil and gas, says Georgia Tech professor Sam Shelton.

It would take a landmass 15 times the size of Georgia to grow enough corn to make the amount of ethanol, a possible fuel replacement favored by the Bush administration, to meet the country's current demand for gasoline.

Shelton, director of Georgia Tech's newly launched Strategic Energy Initiative, which will study renewable energies and their economic feasibility, says, "We have to find the energy source for those nice things ... like SUVs that society wants."


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