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.

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.

UKCS oil profile 450pix
UK Continental Shelf oil production. Source: UKERC, DECC

You can listen to the whole event at the Guardian.


  • Justin

    I am fascinated in the big picture with regards to oil and energy usage. It seems to me that humans in the most simplistic terms have transitioned from burning wood to burning coal, then ofcourse to oil and gas. All the while, total energy usage per head has increased, alongside the number of heads increasing rapidly.

    What are we going to burn next? I am not at all convinced that we have something better and easier to turn to this time, at least that we are aware of currently. There is no doubt that with so many interconnected and intelligent minds around the world today, the potential to develop new energy technologies has never been so high. But where are the breakthroughs? The truly earth shatteringly brilliant new energy technologies? I’m not seeing them. All we need is one – the biggest worry of all is that maybe it’s not possible, maybe such a technology will never be found.

    Humans like simple models – wood then coal then oil and gas. Then what? It’s not nuclear, it’s not solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, biomass. It’s not even all of these things combined. Not even close. Personally I think these things should be persued, but we need massive investment now in radical research to find a new energy source because the current alternatives are simply inadequate. Never before have so many people been so dependant on high and rising energy usage when at the same time the primary energy source is turning a corner – civilisation as we know it is under threat.

  • So depressing to note that nothing at all has changed since Ed Miliband came to the Transition Conference a year ago and made exactly the same mistaken points:

    “If you think about the history of the debate on peak oil as I understand it, climate change makes debate about peak oil a bit of a second-order debate, because we have to start making the transition to low carbon forms of energy in any case. Whether you think that peak oil’s in 2020, 2030 or 2040… I don’t need to have the debate about peak oil… to know that we have to start making the transition as quickly as possible.”

  • Yossi

    I saw a figure of circa 30 million for the number of petrol drive vehicles in UK. How on earth do you replace this number of vehicles with electric, algae, or whatever against a background of increasing unemployment, lower wages, higher taxes and diminishing and more expensive credit?

  • Ken Boak

    Another interesting article summarising the current UK energy situation as seen through the various political eyes.

    What is clear, is that there will be a transition to lower carbon dioxide emissions, brought about by changes in the methods of power generation, the increased use of renewables and a slow adoption of electric vehicles.

    I believe that nothing happens quickly in the motor industry – it takes about 30 or 40 years for new technology to become commonplace. Consider past examples, such as the introduction of the diesel car to the UK, the use of ABS braking technology, power steering and air-conditioning. It will take the next 4 decades until we see a reasonable percentage of everyday cars replaced by electric vehicles.

    I consider that the UK energy infrastructure should be able to support an EV population of some 10 million vehicles – this should be an achievable goal without massive disruption to the existing power distribution network.

    The first EVs to be offered by companies such as Mitsubishi and Nissan, achieve better than four miles per kWh – measured at the charging plug. The net effect of 10 million EVs, recharging at times controlled by smart meter technology, in response to the demand on the grid, could offer significant load balancing potential. Using the EV lithium ion batteries as a distributed energy storage component, might allow for the excess of generation capacity produced by unpredictable wind energy generation to be absorbed. Additionally, it would allow for the excess night time capacity produced by the proposed new nuclear plants to be effectively utilised.

    Ten million EVs, would offset some of our refined petroleum roadfuel energy consumption and be replaced by electricity from CCGT natural gas, nuclear and renewables. It allows a greater degree of primary energy diversity, which can only have a net beneficial effect on the UK energy security.

    New CCGT plants are already in planning and under construction to help fill the perceived generation capacity shortfall in the 2015 to 2020 period. This phase might be considered as the second “dash for gas”, as a result of the economics of building and running CCGT plant. After 2020, the next wave of proposed nuclear plants will start to make an effective contribution to the grid.

    With the timing of these events “cast in stone”, regardless of the political situation, it leaves us the next 5 to 10 years, to dig ourselves out of the current economic mess. This could be party assisted by jobs created with a new green wave of renewable manufacturing, low energy house building and the upgrading of our ageing housing stock.

    Existing industries, currently in decline could be re-purposed to contribute to green technology. For example the Scottish expertise in manufacturing North Sea platforms, could be converted to producing off-shore wind platforms. The aircraft manufacturing industry could find techology synergy in the production of wind turbine blades. The identification and subsequent redeployment of UK manufacturing industry to the low carbon economy, could be as significant to the future security of this country as the rearmament and mobilisation of industry towards the war effort in the late 1930’s.

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