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Oil drought could be our saviour

When Lord Browne, BP's chief executive, recently stated that oil reserves were enough to support current production for around 40 years, it would have been music to the ears of the politically complacent. Thus the economic and social pain of our having to be quickly weaned off cheap oil and gas could safely be filed away under Nimtoo (not in my term of office).

What, however, if another former oil man and geologist Dr Colin Campbell is right. He worked for BP and Amoco and is founder of the Association for Study of Peak Oil. This group of former oil men and academics are on record as stating that discovery has declined since 1964, that the world started finding less oil than it consumed in 1981 and that it now finds about one barrel for every five it consumes.

Their conclusion is that peak production could be reached by around 2007 followed by a decline, if it has not already done so. The resulting continued and rising energy prices could be devastating economically since, according to Dr Campbell, all company accounts assume a "business as usual" supply of the cheap energy on which their operations depend. Politically this brings us firmly into the domain of Yimtoo - Yikes! In my term of office!

Given the gravity, immediacy and potentially all-encompassing implications of this projection, there must by an urgent government-initiated debate over the validity of the statistics and the potentially devastating short term economic and political implications of oil peaking in next two or three years. Big oil must also feature centrally in the frame. Shell's shameful over-reporting of its oil reserves led Dr Jeremy Leggett, another former geologist who has worked for the oil industry and who is now chief executive of Solarcentury, to call upon shareholders and governments to force the oil industry to open its books.

If ever higher energy prices is not just the short term, but also the medium and long term future, this poses a potentially destabilising and fast approaching economic threat to the way the global economy is at present organised. Such a rapid reappraisal of energy reality can, however, also provide an opportunity to shape dramatic yet positive changes in what is at present a range of negative activities.

Economic globalisation with world trade taking place over ever greater distances has accelerated the shift worldwide to an environmentally and socially destructive form of energy intensive agriculture. This concentrates less on supplying local markets and instead contributes to evermore long distance food exports. But perhaps most important in terms of the future of our planet this new and inescapable world of continued high energy prices can lead to a rapid and massive investment in energy efficiency and renewables. This is also crucial in attempting to head off climate change at the pass. Thus geology, with its unavoidable constraints on oil supplies, could well become the planet's Seventh Cavalry.

NGOs and unions concerned about the environment, poverty and jobs, and business people looking for new markets could all find their agendas actually coincide with what needs to be done to speedily unhook us from the oil economy. This will include an urgent shift to a new global economy where more local production, less long distance trade, and more low input agriculture becomes the norm and at the same time where there is a crash programme of saving energy and shifting to a range of renewables.

While not underestimating the vast scope of such a rapid and dramatic change and the dangers inherent in it, I have to confess that my schadenfreude cup will overflow with the end of the flood of 4x4s, presumably deemed by their idiotic owners to be de rigeur for negotiating the Somme-like mud they have to cope with during the school run and in Tesco's car park.

· Colin Hines is the author of the book Localisation - a global manifesto

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