Friday, May 23, 2008

Running on Empty?

No, the world is not running on empty. There is plenty of oil left in the ground, but we are getting through it too fast. There is some debate about whether we have reached peak oil now or not, in view of the surge in the price of crude oil, but it doesn't really matter: supply is struggling to meet demand, even before we have reached that point of remorseless production depletion and so our lives are going to change profoundly and irreversibly. I have commented on this repeatedly, but the only reality I see is a partial relocalisation of society into smaller, independent communities supplied by their own farms and businesses. I am not fooled that there is some new technology just around the corner that is going to pull us out of the hole in terms of transportation fuel that geology, not politics has delivered us to.

In Britain there are angry calls for the government to cut the tax on fuel to get the price down to more manageable amounts, while the French are picketing oil-refineries (as happened in this country in 2000), and across the pond the car manufacturer, Ford, is preparing to reduce production of SUV's and concentrate on more fuel-efficient vehicles. The price of oil has increased day on day for 13 days, finding a record $135 for a barrel of light sweet crude. Only 5 months a go it reached $100 a barrel, a psychological watershed figure that it seemed would not be breached for a long time.

It seems there is no particular plan by any government for what to do about the oil-gap, which the Paris-based International Energy Agency has issued a downward revision of the oil-industry's capability to fill. There seems to be a state of denial - as though everyone is sticking their fingers in their ears and going "La - La - La- La" to drown out the noise of realities no one wishes to hear.

I read that unless demand in the US curbs its thirst for oil (which amounts to one quarter of the world's output for this highly car-dependent nation) and China does the same - unlikely in the white-heat midst of its industrial revolution - the gap is inevitable and incurable. Ms Clinton and Mr McCain have proposed a "fuel tax holiday" in the US this summer, and British lobbyists are urging the same kind of event over here. However, these actions merely obfuscate the simple fact that underpins the surging price of oil, and that is that supply can no longer keep up with demand.

There is some opinion that a global oil-shock would be a good thing. Meaning that this will force us to curb our dependency on fossil fuels. Well, it will do that all right, but without substitution by some other form of energy provision, noting that alternatives like hydrogen are a long way off if they will ever become a reality, while biofuels cannot match the quantity of petroleum we currently use, and their electrical counterparts in the form of electric cars and PHEV's would take many years to install, and to do so renewably, solar and other technologies would need to be implemented on an enormous scale too, an alternative way of living at an equivalent level of energy consumption is not obvious. Thus I can only see a powering-down of society and that does mean a relocalisation of society as part of a general focus on energy efficiency and to address the most immediate problem, specifically regarding oil. The oil-shocks of the 1970's did precipitate some focus on more efficient cars and many other ideas appeared on the drawing board. Sadly the resurgence of cheap oil on the markets caused much of this potential good to evaporate. We need this kind of thinking again and now for facts of geology not mere politics.

But does any government have a plan as to how this eventuality will be achieved? If the event is left to market forces to bring it about, I foresee extremely difficult times ahead both economically and socially.

Related Reading.
[1] "Is the world about to be running on empty?" By Stephen Foley.
[2] "Soaring oil prices are a warning that we need to change."


Anonymous said...

For a dose of optimism, pleas see
and (details for Wales alone include the towns of
- Llandeilo
- Bro Ddyfi
- Rhayader
- Presteigne
- Lampeter).

In a clear sign that the car culture isn't going to go away quietly, Japanese car maker Honda promises "hybridization" via cheap hybrid and clean diesel driven vehicles by 2009.
Sustainably yours,

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Some nice stuff here George! I think I've written something about transition towns and I read an article in the New Internationalist about them yesterday. There are several in Wales (I am Welsh actually).

I think it's really the only way forward.

I like the thought that the government might pay us to stay home a grow food!

No, there is too much money being made from cars, so I doubt they will go away without a considerable fuss; and also from those who are addicted to them. I don't own a car simply because I don't need one. I live in a village with good amenities, and take public transport if I go further afield.

Yes, lets hope we will survive sustainably to a ripe and happy old age!


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