Blog post

It’s been a fascinating few days. Early in the week, Nate Hagens and Sharon Astyk were suggesting that perhaps the term ‘peak oil’ has outlived its usefulness, given that we have almost certainly peaked, and that the peak oil movement needs to shift its focus. It echoed something I wrote a while ago, likening ASPO and the wider peak oil movement to a Loch Ness Monster Society, dedicated to establishing the existence of this fabled creature. They organise conferences, scientific searches of the loch, write papers and journals, and then one day, an entire, intact Loch Ness Monster washes up on the shore. Then what? They have no reason to exist any longer, their whole raison d’etre vanishes overnight.

However, I don’t think it is that straightforward. For me, what we are seeing, taking a step back and looking in the longer time context, is a series of pulses. Peak oil won’t go away as an issue, it pulses in and out of the collective consciousness and hopefully will increasingly come to underpin Government policy-making. In July 2008, peak oil was pulsing as the oil price hit record highs, and issues around economics were in the background. Now, economics has been the key pulse for the last year or so, and peak oil has been pushed off the side of the stage until the last few days. If Colin Campbell’s original analysis, elaborated by David Strahan in his talk at the 2009 Transition Network conference, is correct, what looks likely is that the two will pulse alternately, as any kind of economic recovery increases demand, which raises the oil prices, which dampens economic recovery, which reduces demand and lowers prices, which increases demand, and so on and so on. Until the connection between the two becomes clear, they will continue to pulse alternately.

Over the last couple of days, the peak oil pulse has become most prominent, with two excellent reports which will hopefully give Ed Miliband a lot to think about, and dampen the complacency brought about by Malcolm Wicks’ dreadful and fairly pointless report on UK energy security. The first report, by the UKERC, the UK’s premiere research establishment, sets out to answer the question “what evidence is there to support the proposition that the global supply of ‘conventional oil’ will be constrained by physical depletion before 2030?”, via. a review of 500 published papers on the subject. Its findings are striking (you can read David Strahan’s excellent analysis of it here). It argues that there is a ’significant risk’ of conventional oil production peaking before 2020, and brands those who argue that it will come some time beyond 2030 as being ‘at best optimistic and at worst implausible’.

It also contains a couple of striking stats which are great to include in your presentations on peak oil and which put the recent ‘giant’ oil finds into perspective;

  • that 2/3rds of current capacity must be replaced by 2030, even with an assumption of no growth in demand by then
  • that each additional 1 billion barrels delays peak oil by less than a week. To postpone the peak by a year would take 7 times what was discovered in 2007

Its policy recommendations basically echo what the peak oil and Transition movements have been saying for 5 years;

  • that we needed to have started responding to this a long time ago, you can’t wait until you know you have peaked before you start responding
  • that peak oil is likely to lead to increased demand for coal, and that climate change protection needs to be rigorously upheld and
  • that price volatility will reduce the ability of business and markets to adequately respond on their own, and that it will need government intervention.

You can download the report, and its more accessible Summary, here. Speaking also as someone working within a University, it is great to see academics finally really looking at this issue, generally being incredibly slow to respond to such things.

Then today, Ofgem, which regulates electricity and gas markets in the UK, publishes its Project Discovery: energy market scenarios report. It generates 4 scenarios about where energy prices might go between now and 2020, concluding that its worst case scenario means a 60% increase in energy bills. In order to be prepared for the decline in UK gas supplies, the shift to low carbon energy generation and the phasing out of nuclear plants, the UK needs to be prepared to invest £200 billion. Under all of its scenarios, fuel bills will rise, and interestingly, they note that the slower the economic recovery, the less steep the rise in prices. It is a shot across the bows of what it sees as Government’s keeping of the issue on the long finger, and failure to invest (although it does put nuclear centre stage as part of the solution).

This morning on Radio 4’s Today Programme, shadow energy secretary Greg Clark and energy analyst David Hunter discussed the implications of the Ofgem report with presenter John Humphries. It was a fascinating piece, mostly along the lines of “how has the Government let this slide for so long”, with Clark trying to make out that the Conservatives have been onto this for years, in spite of the lack of any evidence for this. When asked what the Tories’ response would be, he replied ‘clean coal’, a technology which Humphries had to point out, doesn’t actually exist yet, a phenomena Clark had tried to sidestep by describing it as ‘pre-commercial’. No talk, of course, of reducing demand, conservation, rethinking supply chains, of resilience.

So, now peak oil and energy security is pulsing, and the economic crash and disaster “is like so Summer ‘09″. Within weeks it will pulse back, and then in a few weeks, with Copenhagen, the climate change pulse will obscure the others (hopefully, although a peak oil awareness at Copenhagen might make solutions reached more useful and less prone to technofix responses). Unlike Hagens, I don’t think that the term ‘peak oil’ has “outlived its usefulness”. He argues that “the terminology is passe” and that “too many associate the term with gloom, doom and fundamentalism”. On the contrary, I think that in the current situation, where the UK Government still holds to its official position that peak oil isn’t something we need to worry our pretty heads about until at least 2030, aided somewhat by Malcolm Wicks’ head-in-the-sand approach to energy policy, peak oil remains a very useful term.

Those of us in the peak oil community might have ‘got it’, and we may share Hagens’ assumption that we have passed the peak, but as we so often forget that most people aren’t there yet. ‘Peak oil’ may no longer be relevant in a ‘look what’s coming’ kind of a way, but as a ‘look where we are’, and ‘when planning where we are going we need to bear this in mind’ way, it is still vital. For those of us who have been onto peak oil for 4 or 5 years, it is clear that if we have peaked, it doesn’t look like we expected it to. No blackouts (yet), no riots, no clear and present disaster, the economic crash having, ironically, cushioned many of its worst impacts. While the peak oil analysis is correct, as Sharon observes, it is one element in a mix of issues converging simultaneously, each of which pulse with varying intensity.

This is for me why the most important focus for the Transition response is on resilience. Whether the current pulse is the economy, climate change, peak oil or any other of a range of issues, the fact remains that we are desperately unresilient at a time when that is really something you don’t want to be. The point is that building resilience, moving towards localisation, building parallel public infrastructure, is the best response to all these challenges, and can be justified whichever issue happens to be pulsing the strongest. In the wonderful ‘The Upside of Down’, which I have recently picked up again, Tom Homer-Dixon writes “if we want to thrive, we need to move from a growth imperative to a resilience imperative”. Although he acknowledges that, in so far as society is currently configured, economic growth is critical for the world’s economy, “it must not be at the expense of the overarching principle of resilience, so needed for any coming transformation of human civilisation”. I often argue that resilience is the new sustainability, a far more appropriate principle to underpin future planning.

Neil Adger, writing in 2003 (in an academic paper which is not available online unfortunately), wrote that “resilience also requires communities and societies to have the ability to self-organise and to manage resources and make decisions in a manner that promotes sustainability”. It is this self-organisation and community empowerment that Transition focuses on. Yet in doing this work, peak oil as a term and as an analysis offers a vital lens through which to view the world, as does climate change. Peak oil offers a concise analysis of resource depletion in a visceral way that most people can really ‘get’. Presented in the context of a historic-feeling, self-organising, positive, solutions-focused process such as Transition, peak oil begins to lose its association with ‘doom and fundamentalism’, instead being seen as a clarifying insight into what is afoot in the world. Yet like all these other issues, it will pulse, one week being centre stage, the next week being overtaken by other issues, yet all the while, in communities across the world, the process of building resilience from the ground up continues, becoming more articulate, better networked, more effective and more able. Ultimately, it will be that pulse that will be the strongest of them all.

What we are seeing, I think, in the debate at the Oil Drum, is people who have given fantastic service analysing the data, assessing global reserves and analysing peak oil, looking up from their computer screens and wondering what is going on out there in the world now that, they feel, peak oil has passed. EnergyBulletin got onto this first, moving beyond a focus just on peak oil and related issues, now covering the range of solutions emerging around the world. Oil Drum has started to do the same, and this is great. However, I don’t think that an awareness that peak oil has now passed negates the need for their skilled and insightful analysis, in the same way that the world still needs climate scientists in spite of the case for climate science being firmly established. To return to our metaphor of the Loch Ness Monster lying on a beach, for many people, the questions have only just begun, and rather than finding themselves redundant, our Loch Ness Monster Society might just find that actually its work has only just begun.

Originally published October 9, 2009 at Transition Culture

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