Friday, November 07, 2008

Oil Gap Greater Threat than Terrorism.

Professor Sir David King said famously that global warming is a greater threat than terrorism. This was in the context of a perceived need to install new nuclear power, which many claim is "carbon free". It isn't quite, not when all the factors of uranium mining, concrete production etc. are costed-in, but overall, the technology does produce less CO2 than coal or gas-fired power stations. Presuming that it is true that rising levels of atmospheric of CO2 will cook the planet, it might be conceived that more lives will be lost to global warming than to actions by terrorists.

There is a more immediate and actually connected problem and that is the splitting seam between the demand for oil and the amount of it that can be recovered at a daily rate. It is thought there are some 1.2 trillion barrels of crude oil in the ground to be recovered, but it is the rate of recovery (sometimes called "conversion") that determines the viability of a resource, rather than its total unrecovered volume. The impact of a supply-demand gap will be felt more immediately than that of climate change. Indeed, some producers may decide to withhold oil from exports to satisfy their own needs, thus conferring an oil-famine on importing nations such as the US and UK. This would be good for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but at the same time destroy entire national or continental economies in the process. A price too high, one might think.

A looming energy crisis, when oil prices rise to and above the $150 barrel level of last summer (more than twelve times the price in 1999), is the more immediate threat to national security, with fuel prices soaring back above the £1.20 litre that has hit many industries, including haulage with a knock on influence on the costs of practically all goods. The UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security, which is an alliance of eight companies drawn from across the national economy, has warned of an end to cheap oil by 2013, in accord with the prognostications of most oil analysts. The peak will certainly be with us by then, biting hard on the tail of supply, thus widening further the gap with demand; that is, if the world economy has not fallen into major recession, or depression during the next five years, which it might.

Last week, OPEC announced its intention to cut production by 1.5 million barrels a day, having been persuaded by the West to up its output of oil because of the summer prices which the latter said it could not bear and keep its economies afloat. The latter relative surfeit of oil, combined with the credit crunch and economic downturn with a fall in demand for oil has forced an artificial plunge in the price of oil to around $60 a barrel with an according loss in revenue to the OPEC nations.

The geological factors of peak oil mean that this is a temporary halt in an inevitable and relentless overall upward trend in the price of crude oil and this will hit the world economy hard. As oil becomes more expensive, the rate of inflation will be forced-upward, as the costs of manufacturing and distributing all goods rises. Will Whitehorn, the Chairman of the Taskforce said:

"The first report of the Taskforce is a balanced look at the energy risks and opportunities we face. It is also a wake-up call to the urgent actions required by the UK and other major global economies to overcome the consequences of the end of the era of cheap oil.

"The current financial and economic crisis provides a real opportunity to the British Government to lead the world in renewable investment whilst the oil and other commodity prices remain suppressed in the short term by weaker demand."

Nice to see there is an "opportunity" rather than blind panic and imminent societal collapse. If only we had been thinking this way 30 years ago, but sadly I doubt there is enough time left to come up with much in the way of renewables - particularly not to substitute oil-based transport with - unless one accepts the longer paradigm of electric vehicles run on renewable electricity, but that will take much more time to implement. That last statement about "renewable investment" does sound like a sales-pitch, laudable though it may be, and a fall in demand for oil due to the cancellation of projects due to lack of funding from banks too nervous to lend money, is not encouraging that there is much time left for opportunity to be reaped. Even at best, we have 4 years (until 2013), and that is not long enough to do much, except to learn to use less energy, especially oil.

The most immediate threat to human civilization is the lack of cheap liquid fuel for transportation, for which there is no alternative to oil, certainly not on the scale of around 20 billion of the 30 billion barrels of oil the world's nations gets through every year to keep their populations mobile.

Once again, the dawn of a relocalised (less transport-intensive) global society is indicated... and soon, whether we like it or not.

Related Reading.
"Oil shortage 'bigger threat to UK than terrorism'". By David Millward.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Chris

I also have been puzzled by the fact that the media talked so much about the threat of climate change without being conscious that Peak Oil was a much more immediate threat, and generally ignoring it.

One of your compatriots, Paul Thompson (Reading, England) reported the same remark, in August 2007, in the introduction of his multilingual website "Wolf at the door" (English, German, French and Polish). English pages :

I quote below the beginning of this introduction :

"Everyday in the news, we hear of the threat of climate change. There are international conferences, television documentaries, books galore. Leaders meet regularly to discuss the issues and define programs. Yet, while climate change is undoubtedly a serious problem, the most dangerous aspects are not likely to threaten us for several decades and even then will be ambiguous in their results, bringing hazards for many, benefits for some, and little effect for a few.
But there is a danger whose consequences will be far more destructive and which will hit us much sooner. It is a danger that will affect everybody, rich or poor, wherever they live in the world. It will require enormous financial and scientific strides to defeat, strides which the world’s governments show few signs of taking. It is a danger which, quite feasibly, could lead to the end of our industrial civilization. It is the danger of peak oil."

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Andre',

yes I have communicated with Paul, who also lives in Reading.

It seems to be almost a red-herring as though the need to cut oil use is being dressed-up as a need to curb CO2 emissions.

O.K., maybe the powers that be don't want to panic everybody and keeping within the text of climate change which everyone is familiar with, is the chosen policy.

But I agree with you 9and Paul) completely, it is the fall-off of cheap oil that will hit civilization first and probably hardest.

Once we can't get hold of or can't afford fossil fuel (oil especially) any more, we will inevitably cut our "carbon emissions."