Sunday, April 27, 2008

Grangemouth may Foretaste Peak-Oil.

The strike at the Grangemouth oil-refinery in Scotland has gone ahead, and while its duration is set for just 48 hours, it is debatable for how long the plant will be closed, in its wake. The news this morning on the BBC was optimistic and seemed to indicate that sufficient operations would be maintained that it could be brought back on-line within days, rather than the month or so originally feared. The whole business reminds me of the year 2000, when I was working in Switzerland, and my wife sent me regular e.mail-updates of the precarious situation in the U.K. at the time. On returning home, there was an "edge" to this normally apathetic and peaceful society, and I realised just how close we are to that fine-blade that divides civilization from anarchy.

At that time, it was a case of active-protest - unusual over here, as noted - that lorry-drivers had marched in London over rising fuel prices (I laugh at this one considering the price of fuel now!) and refineries and fuel-suppliers were blockaded resulting in the temporary but effective closure of 3,000 garages which were starved of fuel. To bring that number into reckoning, there are around 10,000 garages in the U.K. altogether, so it was a significant proportion and as I say, a very edgy time when I first began to realise the underlying fragility of my country, and by implication the entire world, being so entirely dependent on fuel. I must qualify the latter by saying that it is "oil" upon which we depend so much, since only 70% of it is refined into fuel while the rest (apart from a small amount in Europe that goes for heating-oil, and far less than is the case in the U.S.) serves as a chemical feedstock for industry.

The closure of the Grangemouth facility, since it is the only one of its kind in Scotland, will restrict supplies of fuel across not only that country but northern Ireland and the north of England. To cope with the shortfall, imports of fuel have been arranged from Gothenberg and Belgium, among other sources. The reason for the strike is dissatisfaction with changes in the pension-scheme for workers at the refinery, of whom 1,200 are involved. This is not uncommon, and similarly other organisations are abolishing so-called final-salary pensions, at least for newly appointed employees.

All in all, I see the combined-elements of this situation as both a metaphor and an inauguration for the post peak-oil time which I have termed the "Oil-Dearth Era" ( I am not as pessimistic as James Howard Kunstler that we are on the edge of an apocalypse and I believe we can survive, but forget about pensions, final-salary or of any kind. Dismiss too the transportation-driven economy and manner of living we are all used to in the West, whose prosperity has been literally fed by oil. "Literal" since all modern agriculture depends on oil and natural gas to run tractors and to synthesise fertilizers and pesticides. If transportation fails, people will tend to stay where they are and the morning and evening commute will be relegated to the pages of history. Paper-pages at that, once computers are crashingly expensive along with all other commodities.

Instead, the whole of civilization will take-on a more localised focus, while the concept of the mythical global village recedes into memory. We will depend on local economies, farms and businesses and what we can produce or grow for ourselves. Now there I do agree with Kunstler, as in his novel World Made by Hand, and I expect some of the nastier aspects he imagines will not prove to be far off the mark either, knowing human nature and the well-recorded history of inhumanity when the rules no longer can be enforced. I am thinking of former Yugoslavia, for instance and many African states.

I hope that chaos will not ensue in Scotland and the north, in some microcosm of the oil-dearth era. It is unlikely to be so severe because everybody knows that the refinery will come back on-line at Grangemouth within a short time, bringing back business as usual. But what will happen when there is nothing left or cheap enough to refine, there or anywhere else? We are not merely characters in a novel, all 6.7 billion of us.

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