Released smartly in time for the COP27 climate change conference, the film “The Oil Machine", presents a stark picture of the imperative to cut our use of fossil fuels, in particular crude oil, but moreover of our utter dependency on the “black gold” for practically all aspects of modern civilization. While it is clear that further licenses should not be permitted for new oil exploration and production, in line with the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 roadmap, it is likely that oil companies would need to be accordingly compensated for their losses. However, although the UK government appears set to grant another 100 licenses in the North Sea, this would not necessarily guarantee energy security for the UK, since much of the production there is in the hands of foreign agencies.
A tricky dilemma is nonetheless presented, as European nations scramble to get hold of hydrocarbons from alternative sources, in part to avoid supporting Putin’s war machine, but also now that there is no Russian gas coming to Europe down the Nord Stream 1 pipelines, which have suffered damage from deliberate sabotage, although it is not yet clear exactly who put the explosives there for the job. While the finger of blame seems to oscillate in its direction, depending on exactly who is pointing it, efforts to maintain current levels of oil and gas through this winter and beyond, strengthen their grip, while renewable energy is pushed onto the proverbial back burner.
The film admirably emphasises the extent and complexity of the oil and gas pipeline network under the North Sea, and on land too, which is conveniently but deceptively out of sight and hence out of mind; yet it is this sprawling and fragile infrastructure whose bounty underpins the mechanics of our daily lives. We are indeed living within “the oil machine”, not only through our use of oil and gas for fuels, but our increasing reliance on oil-based products, such as plastics (think phones, computers, clothes, vehicles, packaging, toys and utensils), pharmaceuticals, and fertilizers and pesticides for agriculture. While almost no one can be unaware of the fact of plastic pollution, its close connection to the oil industry is less well known, even though making plastics consumes 6% of the global oil supply (including natural gas liquids).
Here the film scores highly, in its expression of the interconnected nature of energy, jobs, finance, geopolitics and climate change, and that while we need to stop burning oil and gas to curb CO2 emissions, we can’t “just stop oil” overnight, or the system of civilization would collapse.
Nonetheless, we have precious little time left to substantially curb our use of fossil fuels – when I began writing on these subjects back in 2005, 2030 seemed almost comfortingly distant, but is now only 7 years away. However, this alone is not the whole story, since even if greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly and dramatically cut, the vast polar ice-bodies will continue to melt, thus raising sea levels in a relentless process, lasting over centuries.
Further melting of the Arctic ice could provide a catastrophic feedback, if methane, with a heating potential one hundred times that of CO2, is released into the atmosphere from decomposing methane hydrate deposits, increasing global temperatures by 5 - 8 degrees, and rendering large regions of the Earth effectively uninhabitable. Following such a course, mass migrations of millions would be almost inevitable.
Since 81% of global production is currently in decline, to reduce the use of oil is not entirely our choice, as IEA Executive director, Fatih Birol, has noted, “We have to leave oil before it leaves us.”
Thus, to replace this loss, and maintain the overall flow of “oil” into industrialised civilization is an increasingly difficult, energy intensive and expensive process. Indeed, the loss of investment capital into the oil industry may well secure its demise, if it is no longer seen as a viable commodity. Hence, for this reason too, we need to look to alternative energy sources and, more generally, ways of actuating our lives that do not depend on oil.
While “The Oil Machine” delivers a hard punch over the status quo, it also makes clear that our present reliance on oil is an aberration, since for most of human history we managed without it perfectly well. However, in the last hundred years or so that we have based our societies on oil, and the fossil fuels more generally, growth in human numbers and consumption of natural resources have followed similar exponential trajectories, practically doubling the size of the human enterprise in just over 40 years. Clearly this cannot continue, and the only real choice is between making an alternative design or continuing on the present pathway of systemic collapse.
Toward the end of the film, an allusion is made to the need for living more simply, which reminded me of Part One of “The Transition Handbook: from oil dependence to local resilience”, entitled, “The Head: Why peak oil and climate change mean that small is inevitable,” and substantially involves relocalisation (deglobalisation) as part of an Energy Descent Action Plan. Indeed, much of the content of this and related “Transition” books, and beginning earlier, the work of Ted Trainer, “The Simpler Way”, offer guidance as to how we might redesign our society in order to live well while using less oil, and overall resources, ultimately getting the human species out of ecological overshoot and back in balance with the carrying capacity of the Earth.
Ehrlich's dire predictions were utterly wrong.
But now our numbers have grown from 2.5billion at my birth to 8 billion, and the pro capita impact is steadily increasing, perhaps in a similar proportion.
It's hard to imagine that humanity won't hit the wall soon. Our life depends on fossil fuels after all. Not only for energy.
I tend to feel similarly. We have practically doubled our overall fossil fuel use in the last 30 years, and I doubt we can double that again in the next 30. Indeed, there are good reasons to think we won't be able to maintain a flow of "new oil" to compensate for the annual 5-7% decline in existing oil fields. So, Fatih Birol's averment that "we have to get away from oil before it gets away from us" is probably sound advice.
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