Why ‘peak oil’ collision provides opportunity for bold invention
David Le Page Published: 2010/01/08
ONE day, oil production will begin declining. The world’s drivers and transport operators and airlines, not to mention fertiliser, plastics and pharmaceutical manufacturers, will file their usual orders — only to be met by suppliers saying: “Um, sorry, we can only meet part of that order.”
Imagine the panic. Imagine the shock to markets. And imagine if that moment were to come not in 2130, or even 2030, but in 2013?
The economic uncertainty would eclipse the current recession, the potential for global conflict would shoot upwards, and some predict that we’d face the dark prospect of global oil apartheid, where rich countries might corner supplies — and poor countries would be left lurching, their very survival as states possibly at risk.
For years, those who have raised the spectre of “peak oil” have been derided as cranks and alarmists. But their ranks now include some remarkably conventional figures, and the statistics they use have the most respectable origins.
Often misunderstood, “peak oil” does not refer to oil running out. That won’t happen for a long time. Peak oil simply refers to the time at which overall production peaks and, most likely, demand begins to outstrip supply.
The world consumes 85-million barrels per day. The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects demand to hit 105-million barrels per day by 2030. But it’s not clear how this 20-million barrel-per-day gap will be filled.
Some extremely influential figures doubt it can be: the head of Total Oil, Christophe de Margerie, doesn’t see global oil production ever exceeding 89-million barrels per day.
Ever since 1965, oil discoveries have been declining. While new, unconventional sources of oil, such as the Canadian tar sands, are coming online, they are costly to develop, and demand far more energy to mine, so the net energy return on investment declines…………….
…………………Whitehorn is clearly trying not to paint governments as blind and obdurate. “I do see government starting to take oil-supply warnings seriously,” he says. “We’re not a group that believes we’re running out of oil. We’re a group that believes the price of oil is going to become permanently high within a decade as cheap sources of oil cease to exist.
“We’ve got to be ready for a world with permanent 100-a-barrel oil. Oil is going to become too precious just to burn in cars. Oil is the source of our fertiliser, of our pesticides and pharmaceuticals, of most of our furnishings. It is the lifeblood of civilisation.”
Right now, he says, “the first priority for national economies is energy saving…. Efficiency should become the watchword.”
Nor does he wish to alienate any part of the energy sector: “I believe that there is a nuclear solution, there is a solar solution, a wind solution, a tidal power solution, a hydro solution.
“Anyone who lobbies one of those as being better than the others is very biased. The combination of them with much better energy efficiency should see us through this period of transition from an oil-based economy to a much broader source of energy supply.”
The UK task force will release an updated report this month.
But, in the meantime, are governments starting to listen?
“I think the British government has been advised by its public servants that peak oil is not so much of an issue, because their understanding of what ‘peak oil’ means is based on the alarmism of the 1970s,” says Whitehorn
“The problem is quite a lot of public servants ‘cried wolf’ about this in the past … but eventually the wolf usually does come to the door.
“I’m not a doom-and-gloom merchant, I’m for doing things. If we can build a carbon-composite spaceship that is a 1000 times more efficient than current ground-based rocketry, I think we can solve the problem of peak oil.”