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Ireland’s ‘Hirsch Report’ Released

Forfas, Ireland’s national policy advisory board for enterprise, trade, science, technology and innovation today releases its long-awaited study on the potential impacts of peak oil on the Irish economy A Baseline Assessment of Ireland’s Oil Dependence - key policy considerations. Forfas operates under the auspices of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Robert Hirsch collaborated on the study, so how adequately does it address the challenges that Ireland will face?

The study paints a very clear picture of Ireland’s degree of vulnerability. Having no indigenous sources of oil, and being dependent on transport, by air, sea and freight for its international connectivity, Ireland, they write, is “among the most sensitive (nations) to rising oil prices and therefore (will be among the) most vulnerable post-peak”. They have produced an ‘Oil Vulnerability Index’ which identifies the various trends that contribute to vulnerability to changes to oil supply. Ireland features near the top of each of them. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom economy has hugely increased national wealth, but has also massively increased levels of oil dependency.

So what does the study suggest is done about it? Firstly they argue that the Irish Government should develop a national strategy for dealing with the challenge of peak oil. There should also, they argue, be a common EU approach to peak oil, agreed to by all member states, for how the EU can collectively approach this. For Ireland itself, the study says that the Irish Government “should consider the possibility of nuclear power”, should increase coal-fired electricity production provided it is combined with carbon sequestration. It should develop increased storage capacity of oil, and should explore the use of biofuels for transport. “Germany”, they say, “has set a target to increase the share of biofuels to 5.75% of fuel consumption by 2010, mitigating to some extent the likely impact of peak oil”.

Each of these recommendations is delusional in the extreme. The Irish people, having long battled against Sellafield, will never support nuclear power coming to Ireland. Increased coal burning? Where will the coal come from, and is carbon sequestration even possible? It is often talked about but seldom done. Increased storage of oil? That is only any use if there is oil to store. Building bigger bookshelves in my house is no good if all the bookshops are closed. As for biofuels, you only have to read George Monbiot’s piece on biofuels to see the dark side of this particular silver bullet. Germany is kidding itself if it thinks that replacing 5.75% of its fuel consumption with biofuels will make it significantly more resilient to oil peak. The men with the chainsaws in Borneo and Sarawak must be rubbing their hands with glee.

This report’s Achilles heel is its attachment to business-as-usual. This is nowhere more apparent than in the sentence “breaking Ireland’s dependence on oil brings many opportunities for strengthened competitiveness, technological development and progress”. In other words, we have to rely on the very things that got us into this mess in the first place to get us out again. I think probably my definition of each of those 3 words would differ from the authors’. I would argue firstly that rather than strengthened competiveness, we need strengthened co-operation. The challenge of peak oil means that we have to focus on rebuilding social capital as an essential first step, that the economic ‘miracle’ that Ireland has experienced has been at a very high cost to individuals and to communities. As Elizabeth Cullen has argued, competitiveness has had a disasterous impact across all aspects of life in modern day Ireland.

Secondly, technological development should focus on solutions and technologies that are, to quote Gandhi, “cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone, suitable for small-scale application and compatible with man’s need for creativity”. That is, we need technology that returns power and control to communities, rather than centralising it with the same large industries who have got us into this mess in the first place. Lastly, I suspect that my definition of progress differs from that of the authors. If progress means a perpetually growing economy then forget it. If progress means relocalisation, rebuilding local markets, decentralised grids, more meaningful work, regional currencies, local building materials as standard then I’m all for it. That would certainly be my definition of progress. I suspect however that it is not theirs.

This is an important document, in that it is, in effect, the beginnings of the Irish Government starting to wake up to the scale of what it is faced with. It sets out a clear picture of the scale of the problem, and that should hopefully send ripples upwards through Government. It is well written, concise and punchy. It does leave rather a lot of room for complacency when it says;

Some expert commentators believe that the supply of conventional oil (petroleum crude oil extracted using the traditional oil well method) will peak by 2012; others believe that it will not happen until at least 2030.

Actually most of the people I would put most faith in are saying 2007-2010, those saying 2012 are the optimists. Those saying 2030 are economists living in la-la land. It is regrettable that this report leaves room for complacency here, people may well read it, see 2030 and go back to sleep. Where this report really falls down is in it paucity of ideas for practically how Ireland might adapt to peak oil. It is full of tired old chestnuts like ‘telecommuniting’ (once the economy goes into recession, just who will you actually be working from home for?) There is of course a compelling case that many of us will be working from home, but rather than sitting in front of a computer all day, we’ll be growing carrots, making furniture and making compost.

Business as usual will not be an option. The Age of Oil in Ireland (as elsewhere) will be seen in hindsight as a brief blip, and what is essential now, rather than clinging to ‘progress’ in the conventional sense, is a collective rethinking of what progress actually means. How can Ireland move forward, taking the best of what it has achieved and created, but being realistic about the scale of the challenge ahead? How can the Irish Government ’sell’ people the idea of powerdown, rather than deluding both the people and themselves that the economy can continue to grow indefinitely. The Kinsale Energy Descent Plan, although just a student project, offered a glimpse of how a post-peak Ireland could be. It offered a far more attractive, and acheivable future than one of nuclear power, new coal stations and biofuels. In short, The Challenge? 7 out of 10. The Solutions? 2 out of 10. Could do better.

Editorial Notes: More responses to the Forfas report are collated here: www.energybulletin.net/14635.html Transition Culture blog is an "Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent." There are lots of wonderful articles we've yet failed to mention such as the If Lawns Were a Psychosis, they would be… obsessive compulsive disorder, New arrivals and the birthing of a new culture…, Top Five Things to Do With Oil Barrels When There’s No More Oil To Fill Them, and much more. transitionculture.org -AF

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