Plan Now for a World Without Oil
- Article by Michael Meacher
January 5, 2004
Four months ago, Britain's oil imports overtook its exports, underlining
a decline in North Sea oil production that was already well under way.
North Sea oil output peaked at about 2.9m barrels per day in 1999, and
has been predicted to fall to only 1.6m bpd by 2007. Even the discovery
of the new Buzzard field, the biggest British oil find in a decade, with
a total of some 500m barrels recoverable, will not alter by much the
overall picture of dwindling resources.
This prospect would not be so bleak were it not that similar trends are
now becoming manifest around the globe. The three main oil-producing
regions are Opec, the former Soviet Union, and the rest of the world.
According to papers presented at the latest annual meetings of the
Association for the Study of Peak Oil, Opec's future production is
expected to peak in 2020 at about 40-45m bpd. Under-production in the
Soviet Union in the 1990s has been followed by a new surge in east
Sakhalin. Together with new discoveries in the Caspian, this will yield a
peak of about 10m bpd in 2010.
Combining the models for Opec, the former Soviet Union and the remaining
40 or more major oil-producing countries puts ultimate world oil recovery
- past and future - at some 2,200bn barrels, with production peaking at
about 80m bpd between 2010 and 2020. To this may be added
non-conventional oil and other liquids brought into commercial production
by the rising price as oil becomes more scarce. These include oil from
coal and shale, bitumen and derived synthetics, heavy and extra-heavy
oil, deep-water oil, polar oil and liquids from gas fields and gas
plants. These sources, though at very much greater cost, could provide an
ultimate recovery of about 800bn
barrels and might peak in 2050 at around 20m bpd. But the combined model
suggests a peak from all sources of about 90m bpd around 2015.
Today we enjoy a daily production of 75m bpd. But to meet projected
demand in 2015, we would need to open new oilfields that can give an
additional 60m bpd. This is frankly impossible. It would require the
equivalent of more than 10 new regions, each the size of the North Sea.
Maybe Iraq with enormous new investments will increase production by 6m
bpd, and the rest of the Middle East might be able to do the same. But to
suggest that the rest of the world could produce an extra 40m barrels
daily is just moonshine.
These calculations place the coming oil crunch some time between 2010 and
2015, perhaps earlier. The reserves in the world's super-giant and giant
oilfields are dwindling at an average rate of 4-6 per cent a year. No
more big frontier regions remain to be explored except the north and
south poles. The production of non-conventional crude oil has already
been initiated at enormous cost in Venezuela's Orinoco belt and Canada's
Athabasca tar sands and ultra-deep waters. Yet no major primary energy
alternative can replace oil and gas in the short-to-medium term.
The implications of this are mind-blowing, since oil provides 40 per cent
of all traded energy and no less than 90 per cent of transport fuel. But
not only are the motor vehicle and farming industries dependent on oil,
so is national defence. Oil powers the vast network of planes, tanks,
helicopters and ships that provide the basis of each country's armaments.
It is hard to envisage the effects of a radically reduced oil supply on a
modern economy or society. Yet just such a radical reduction is staring
us in the face.
The world faces a stark choice. It can continue down the existing path of
rising oil consumption, trying to pre-empt available remaining oil
supplies, if necessary by military force, but without avoiding a steady
exhaustion of global capacity. Or it could switch to renewable sources of
energy, much more stringent standards of energy efficiency, and a steady
reduction in oil use. The latter course would involve huge new investment
in energy generation and transportation technologies.
The US response to this dilemma is very striking. The National Energy
Policy report prepared by Dick Cheney, US vice-president, in May
2001proposed the exploitation of untapped reserves in protected
wilderness areas within the US, notably the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge in north-eastern Alaska. The rejection of this extremely
contentious proposal forced President George W. Bush, unwilling to curb
America's ever-growing thirst for oil, to go back on White House rhetoric
and accept the need to
increase oil imports from foreign suppliers.
It was a fateful decision. It means that, for the US alone, oil imports,
or imports of other sources of oil, such as natural gas liquids, will
have to rise from 11m bpd to 18.5m bpd by 2020. Securing that increment
of imported oil - the equivalent of total current oil consumption by
China and India combined - has driven an integrated US oil-military
strategy ever since.
There is, however, a fundamental weakness in this policy. Most countries
targeted as a source of increased oil supplies to the US are riven by
deep internal conflicts, strong anti-Americanism, or both. Iraq is only
the first example of the cost - both in cash and in soldiers' lives - of
facing down resistance or fighting resource wars in key oil-producing
regions, a cost that even the US may find unsustainable.
The conclusion is clear: if we do not immediately plan to make the switch
to renewable energy - faster, and backed by far greater investment than
currently envisaged - then civilisation faces the sharpest and perhaps
most violent dislocation in recent history.
Plan Now for a World Without Oil by Michael Meacher
The writer was UK environment minister from 1997
to June 2003. Michael Meacher stepped down from
the Blair government in protest in June
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