Posted on Thursday, April 22nd, 2010
Peak oil has come a long way in the last few years: from bug-eyed millennial cult to mainstream consensus, embracing academia, much of the oil industry, and now the US military. There’s a growing consensus global oil production will peak this side of 2020, with many forecasts clustered around the middle the decade and some well within the next parliament. Strange then that even now the mainstream parties’ manifestos contain not a single word on the subject.
I put this point to Secretary of State Ed Miliband, Greg Clark, his Conservative Shadow, and Simon Hughes for the Liberal Democrats, at an energy hustings hosted by the Guardian last night. You can listen to their answers here (the other questioner is Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian, who chaired the event).
NB Some listeners have reported problems with lastoilshock.com podcasts using Quicktime, but they seem to play perfectly well on RealPlayer and Windows Media Player.
Ed Miliband sounded uncannily like Blair justifying Iraq with his “Look, I respect people who have arguments about peak oil…”, and then going on to dismiss it out of hand. His argument is that peak is irrelevant because the same policies are required for climate change, and New Labour is already on the case – citing government targets of 100,000 electric vehicle charging points by 2015 and 40% low carbon electricity by 2020. I support both those policies, but all this would all be rather more convincing if Labour weren’t so much better at setting targets than hitting them.
Worse, Mr Miliband has it entirely upside down. He claims “climate change has bypassed peak oil”, but it’s more like peak oil is overtaking climate change. For those of us in the privileged West, it is now clear the worst impacts of peak oil will arrive far sooner than the worst impacts of global warming, demanding yet greater urgency in terms of electrification of transport, building renewable generating capacity and so on. Energy policy-making has improved since Mr Miliband took over – not hard – but delivery is still glacial – though I’m not sure how long that metaphor will survive now they’re all melting so fast.
He also fails to acknowledge the devastating impact further of oil price spikes (Deutsche Bank forecasts $175 per barrel by 2016), which will be brief but brutal. As we discovered with $147 during 2008 – a minor tremor ahead of the main eruption – the resulting recessions destroy both the wealth and political will necessary to deal with climate change. So now we have three reasons to kick oil before it kicks us: it’s running out; carbon emissions; and the oil price volatility that will undermine our ability to act on both of the above.
Confidence in Mr Miliband’s judgement would also be higher if he didn’t keep saying things like “the dates are inevitably uncertain, new discoveries are made, and the dates change”. As the UKERC report last October made clear (Peak oil report exposes UK position), this is a complete misreading. Most discoveries are already anticipated in the ‘yet-to-find’ element of peak forecasts, and those which add genuinely unexpected new resources have little effect. UKERC found that adding 1 billion barrels to global oil resource would delay peak oil by just 4.7 days. To delay peak by a year would mean finding 7 times the amount of oil discovered in 2007.
Simon Hughes was the only one to venture a date – the second half of this decade – but was similarly confused about some of the basics. He complained that peak oil provides a strong argument for exploiting unconventional oil such as the Canadian tar sands, which his party opposes: “We think it’s entirely wrong that banks that are partly owned by us now should be investing in those sorts of things”.
I sympathize with the sentiment, but this view overstates both the speed at which tar sands production is likely to expand (Can non-conventional oil fill the gap?), and the threat it poses to the climate, which is misunderstood and fetishized by many environmentalists. The most optimistic forecast of tar sands production is about 6 million barrels per day by 2030, by which time we will have lost ten times that much conventional capacity. Of course, you can never say never, but if tar sands output was capable of growing dangerously quickly, why did that signally fail to happen between 2005 and 2008, when global production was on plateau, demand booming, the crude price surging to an all time high? Don’t get me wrong: we have to close down the tar sands as soon as possible, but for rather different reasons than given by the Lib Dems (Who’s afraid of the tar sands?).
Like their opponents, the Conservatives fail to mention peak oil in their manifesto, but as Greg Clark pointed out, they did acknowledge it in a recent green paper, Rebuilding Security, which nods to the recent reports from UKERC and ITPOES and contains some interesting peak-related policy recommendations: high speed rail, electrification of ground transport to reduce oil dependency, and changing the rules so that local electricity grid operators can install electric vehicle charging points ahead of need, to break the chicken-and-egg problem.
The big surprise of the evening came from George Monbiot, who berated all three parties for claiming to want to cut fossil fuel consumption, while simultaneously promising to maximize oil and gas production from the UK continental shelf, which he said was entirely contradictory. I’m sure it is, but I’m not sure it matters much in the scheme of things. A glance at the graph suggests UK North Sea production is not really the problem in terms of climate: oil production, and therefore emissions, have roughly halved since peaking in 1999 – impervious to government policy and even the odd late, large discovery, such as Buzzard – an average decline of about 5% per year. If only the government could cut all emissions so quickly.
You can listen to the whole event at the Guardian.