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George Monbiot on Peak Oil and Transition Towns

ms2Rob Hopkins of Transition Culture writes:

At last week’s event in Lampeter writer and activist George Monbiot was asked to give a 5 minute reflection on the presentation I had just given. His response focused on the concerns he has with the concept of peak oil, and why he feels climate change to be the more important driver. Much of what he said about the dangers of synfuels and biofuels I very much agree with, but his optimism about peak oil isn’t, as regular readers will know, something I share. Indeed I struggle to see what it might be based on. Here is the transcript, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

“There’s some supplementary stuff which I’d just like to run through quickly. Over the past two or three years or so, I’ve become pretty sure that peak oil isn’t as imminent as I first thought. There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, there are some very large unexplored areas, north-west Saudi Arabia, most of Siberia, we can go into that in greater depth if you like during the discussion.

Secondly, quite recently there have been various innovations for enhancing the amount of oil removed from existing oil fields, particularly something called “Enhanced Oil Recovery”, which uses carbon dioxide that becomes super-critical at 800 metres down and is used to drive the dregs of the oil fields out. Also there is horizontal drilling, there is deep drilling, it is not going to happen as soon as Kenneth Deffeyes and Colin Campbell and one or two others say, I’m pretty much convinced of that.

ms1The second thing to say is a very dirty word, beginning with “c”, with four letters, which Rob was kind enough scarcely to mention, being a very polite man, and it is coal. Peak oil and peak energy are not the same thing, and the bad news is we have hundreds of years of coal left. That’s even before you start to investigate things like underground coal gasification which could boost total global reserves by 10 or 15 times. This is where you don’t mine the coal, but you basically cook it underground and extract the methane.

Now coal can be used to produce almost anything. It has an enormous, horrendous environmental cost, but of course it can, among other things, be used to produce liquid fuels for transport, this is what kept the Vermacht on the road, this is what is helping to keep South Africa on the road today. One of the conclusions of the Hirsch report, which Rob brought up, is that we ought to be switching to these synfuels, made from coal, which would have enormous implications in terms of climate change, also in terms of local pollution, but which would in fact save us from peak oil.

We should be in no doubt that if the powers-that-be really believe that peak oil is coming, they will not say “oh well we’d better throw our hands in the air and move to a low energy economy instead”, they will do everything they can to move to a syn fuels economy based on coal. To an extent we are already seeing the revival of the coal economy, where we’ve seen C02 emissions rising the 4 years out of the past 5 partly because of a switch back from gas to coal for power generation. Coal remains cheap, it will remain cheap for hundreds of years to come. One of our big fights as environmentalists must be to prevent the revival of the global coal economy, because nothing else is going to prevent it if and when oil peaks, and natural gas peaks.

The third thing to say is that our emphasis on peak oil, while quite correct, and it is very important to keep bringing this up, has led to several unintended and perverse consequences. Rob showed adverts from Chevron. Chevron went on to produce adverts saying “we are an environmentally friendly oil company and we’ll prove it by dealing with the peak oil crisis by moving into the tar sands in Alberta!” Because they identified this correctly as an issue that concerns environmentalists, they are now using it as a reason for expanding into unconventional oils, which, as we know, like coal are massively more polluting that petroleum. Maybe it won’t be long before we look back to the Age of Petroleum as a relatively clean one by comparison to the alternatives.

At the same time, oil companies now are saying, “well, we need to go after new conventional sources of oil”, one of the arguments used to start exploiting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the lar north of the US, Alaska, was that peak oil is coming so therefore we;ve got to start laying our hands on every single available resource possible. A third perverse effect is of course the great expansion in biofuels, and when Bush has talked about the need greatly to increase the amount of biofuels produced or used in the US, 24% of all transport fuels by 2017, with disastrous consequences, both socially and ecologically, he’s used the need for energy independence, but also he’s talked about coming supply crunches as far as oil is concerned as his justification.

So we have to be careful as environmentalists not to give fuel to those arguments. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about peak oil, but we should talk about it while emphasising that some of the alternatives to oil are even worse than the disease they are attempting to cure. But of course we don’t have to invoke peak oil at all to see the sense and the logic of what Rob is talking about, because even if the peak oil problem didn’t exist in any form, climate change does. Climate change is reason enough to start talking about the transition to a low energy economy of the kind that Rob and others have been pioneering, and the kind that many of us, I’m sure, have found so inspiring this evening.

m3I think you may be teetering on the edge of some very interesting potential discoveries. I’m not sure if you are aware, but with your Totnes Pound you seem to have reinvented Stamp Scrip, first pioneered by Silvio Gessell in Austria in the late 1920s, which was incredibly effective at revitalising local economies which were more or less completely finished at the time. The great economic thinker Bernard Lietaer has commented that if Gessell’s idea were not squashed by the Austrian Central Bank because it felt that its monopoly over the money supply was being challenged, the Second World War might not have happened, because the economic crisis in central Europe, caused by perpetual hyperinflation and all the other issues to do with the collapse of the central bank economy could very easily have been cured by Silvio Gessell’s system of stamp scrip. One further caveat, if you exchange it for pounds its not going to work, it has to be an isolate as far as the cash system is concerned. Anyway, it’s a great idea apart from that!

The other brilliant thing about what Rob is doing is that we can all start doing it right now. We don’t have to wait for Governments to act, we don’t have to wait for central banks to act, we don’t have to wait for corporations to act. Of course, they will try and get in our way as much as they possibly can, they’ll try impede the initiatives we might try to unleash, but what even David Milliband in his quote that you brought up, is aware of, is that Government can’t keep doing that if its going to pay any kind of cognaisance towards either climate change or a whole variety of climate problems of which peak oil is just one. I think we might begin to see Governments even beginning to encourage initiatives like this if they have any view at all to the long term future.

So let’s do it. Primarily in the name of climate change, secondly in the name of peak oil, and thirdly and importantly in the name of our quality of life, and that being not just our material quality of life but also our psychological quality of life. I think the revitalisation particularly of the local food economy, which the most obvious, the easiest and the most ethical thing to relocalise, because some forms of relocalisation can have fairly disastrous consequences for other parts of the world, but where food is concerned it makes absolute sense, and has just as great a role in knitting a community together as it does in dealing with our multiple energy crises. Thank you very much”.

Many thanks to Clare Richardson for all of the photos that have accompanied these articles about Lampeter. -RH

Editorial Notes: More coverage by the Guardian of the Lampeter event. (Also at EB and Transition Culture.) Monbiot correctly identifies some counter-trends to peak oil, such as Enhanced Oil Recovery. But will they be enough to significantly slow oil depletion? Unfortunately the answer requires more than back-of-the-envelope calculations. The people at The Oil Drum and in ASPO are struggling for more precise answers. The recent GAO report on peak oil pointed out the need for better data and analyses. That's something we can all agree upon. -BA

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