Fishy Tales

23 May 2005

Bloody Oil

I've belatedly realised that the cause of most problems in the world is access to and control of natural resources. In fact it seems strange that I ever (implicitly) thought that things had changed from a time when people would fight over who owned a particular tree or could drink from a well right through to the World Wars, and on into the present. Guilty of idealism and selective ignorance as charged, m'Lud.

Anyway, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that the most crucial natural resource at the moment is oil. Our economy, even civilisation, remains mostly (70%ish) oil-based. And it's likely to stay that way for a good while yet because of the huge cost of changing infrastructure. You also don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that oil is a non-renewable source of energy, that it is going to become more and more difficult to find, becoming more and more expensive, until only the ridiculously rich can afford it.

The big question is when.

A BBC column back in June 2004 - Is the world's oil running out fast? - presented the viewpoint of ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil. Their opinion is that global oil production will peak very soon (around 2010), and may even have peaked already. Because oil is provided by private companies whose stock value will be affected, we aren't likely to get an honest assessment of oil reserves from them. The same may be true of governments of oil-rich countries. Also estimating reserves is inherently complex. However, the fact that Shell fell foul of overestimating reserves four times not long ago, and the fact that:
the number of major new oil fields discovered around the world fell to zero for the first time in 2003, despite an obvious increase in technological expertise
would seem to indicate ASPO are on the right lines.

As oil production peaks, furthermore, the Middle Eastern OPEC states (Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya, UAE) will quite probably have a 50% share of the market, giving them a stranglehold on the world economy should they wish to use that power.

In other words, it's all downhill from here. No more cheap oil, fighting/underhand politics over the remainder (mainly in the Middle East), economies struggling, restrictions on transport, probably riots, states of emergency, probably more authoritarian governments, etc, etc.

There are glimmers of hope, however.
Crucially, it's not only a disgruntled minority that can see which way the wind is blowing. Increasingly it's governments who are having to face up to what is, after all, a potential global catastrophe.

There's an excellent article in Wired spelling out how well-placed China is to be at the forefront of an energy revolution, a significant (and scary) statistical fact being the spur:
In the absence of new regulations, pollution-related illness will suck up as much as 15 percent of the country's gross domestic product by 2030.

and also:
After food, oil is the most important issue for Chinese economic planners. Without an increasing supply of oil, high GDP growth will be impossible, creating unemployment and social unrest, potentially threatening the government's hold on power. That's not all. Dependency on foreign oil... inevitably leads to war.
Because China has relatively little in the way of oil-associated infrastructure - and also, let's face it, because there's so much central government control - it's in an enviable position of being able to start afresh.

But now even neo-cons in the US are going green on grounds of national security. I can see that movement becoming a trickle and then a flood, once people start thinking about oil dependency and how it leaves us at the mercy of others. Especially when we heartily dislike those others and would like to at the very least give them a piece of our mind.

We could end up with a modern equivalent of Victory Gardens : millions of individual homes with their own backyard generators, be they solar panels, wind turbines, biomass generators, whatever, all generating at least a proportion of the energy required in a home. And some even generating more energy than required and selling it on to the National Grid (or saving it for later, perhaps?).

If the US went that way, the world could and probably would change. We would be set fair for the creation of a distributed Hydrogen Economy.

And that's one of the few ways - maybe the only way - there could be a victory in the War Against Terrorism.

But we do need to survive the transition period first.

Addendum
9th June: Looks like biofuels are a potential way forward for cars, supported by Bush with Brazil well ahead of the game. Biofuel is mostly ethanol, so you could say drink-driving is here to stay.

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