Monday, December 15, 2008

When will the oil run out?

Guardian | George Monbiot puts the question to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency - and is both astonished and alarmed by the answer.

Can you think of a major threat for which the British government does not prepare? It employs an army of civil servants, spooks and consultants to assess the chances of terrorist attacks, financial collapse, floods, epidemics, even asteroid strikes, and to work out what it should do if they happen. But there is one hazard about which it appears intensely relaxed: it has never conducted its own assessment of the state of global oil supplies and the possibility that one day they might peak and then go into decline.

If you ask, the government always produces the same response: "Global oil resources are adequate for the foreseeable future." It knows this, it says, because of the assessments made by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its World Energy Outlook reports. In the 2007 report, the IEA does appear to support the government's view. "World oil resources," it states, "are judged to be sufficient to meet the projected growth in demand to 2030," though it says nothing about what happens at that point, or whether they will continue to be sufficient after 2030. But this, as far as Whitehall is concerned, is the end of the matter. Like most of the rich world's governments, the UK treats the IEA's projections as gospel. Earlier this year, I submitted a freedom of information request to the UK's department for business, asking what contingency plans the government has made for global supplies of oil peaking by 2020. The answer was as follows: "The government does not feel the need to hold contingency plans specifically for the eventuality of crude-oil supplies peaking between now and 2020."

So the IEA had better be right. In the report on peak oil commissioned by the US department of energy, the oil analyst Robert L Hirsch concluded that "without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political costs" of world oil supplies peaking "will be unprecedented". He went on to explain what "timely mitigation" meant. Even a worldwide emergency response "10 years before world oil peaking", he wrote, would leave "a liquid-fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked". To avoid global economic collapse, we need to begin "a mitigation crash programme 20 years before peaking". If Hirsch is right, and if oil supplies peak before 2028, we're in deep doodah. Direct link to video here.