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Book Review: Preparing for Peak Oil: local authorities and the energy crisis

‘Preparing for Peak Oil: Local Authorities and the Energy Crisis’, prepared by the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre and the Post carbon Institute.  2008. 41 pages.  Free download here.

The whole question of how to communicate peak oil to local government, and how to support and encourage their creative and rapid responses to it, is huge and very timely.  ‘Preparing for Peak Oil’ is an excellent guidebook for anyone who wants to bring their local authority up to speed on energy depletion and climate change issues.  It is clear, well presented, and achieves an excellent balance between presenting the hard facts about peak oil alongside some positive and inspiring examples of change, as well as some clear and well thought through thinking tools.

It begins with an overview of the peak oil issue, as well as the impacts of ‘peak everything’ on electricity and natural gas, doing a thorough job of undermining the unquestioned assumptions about the future of cheap energy supplies on which most local authorities appear to base their planning for the future.  Having woven climate change into the peak oil discussion, it refuses to shy away from the key issues, and does so very skillfully.  While some may favour a more softly softly approach, feeling that for now, it is just enough to raise awareness, the authors here address the impacts of peak oil on road and airport expansion and on food security head on.

The report pulls together what is happening at a government level with regards to peak oil responses (not a great deal, apart from Ireland and the state government of Queensland in Australia), and then what local governments are up to.  The UK examples given (Woking, London) are actually more responses to climate change rather than peak oil, and although they are visionary responses to reducing the carbon impacts of energy generation, as the authors point out, some of them, especially London’s transport measures, are also good ‘peak-proofing’ measures (it has been argued by some that Woking’s shift to gas fired CHP, although clearly preferable from a climate perspective, does little to reduce vulnerability given the perilious state of the UK’s gas supplies).

There is then a large section on transport options, which argues for a huge increase in cycling provision and in public transport, and one can see the enthusiastic hand of David Strahan (one of the contributors and a big biogas enthusiast) in the section on biogas buses, with the inspiring story of Lille in France, where 120 buses now run on biogas made from local food waste.

The efforts of many towns and cities in the US to develop peak oil resolutions and action plans are relatively well known by now, (Oakland, San Francisco and so on), which were also documented at greater length in the more US-centric Post Carbon Cities report, produced also by Post Carbon last year.  These are inspiring, and highlight how little is happening at that level in the UK, although Bristol City Council are now the first such authority to set up a Peak OIl Task Force, with others now set to follow.

The final section is, for me, the most useful.  Daniel Lerch has created 5 principles for local authorities which anyone approaching their local council will find hugely useful.  His 5 principles are;

  1. Deal with transport and land use right away
  2. Tackle private energy consumption
  3. Attack the problems piece-by-piece and from many angles
  4. Plan for fundamental changes.. and make fundamental changes happen
  5. Build a sense of community

They would make a great backbone to any presentation to a local authority, and for the activist, they are the most useful part of this report.

Although this is an excellent document, one I would find extremely useful when doing work with local authorities, I do two small criticisms of it.  The first is that although it has been prepared by the UK based ODAC, and has had input from a range of UK based people, it does still often have more of a US feel than it need have.  Daniel Lerch writes of ‘Local Officials’, not a term used so much here to describe those working in local councils, and other than a couple of pictures of London red buses, most of the pictures could be from anywhere, and some certainly appear to be from the US.  If it actually is the UK focused document it is presented as, it needs to feel a bit less ‘universal’.  It might have been more engaging if those some of the pictures were of actual examples of solutions on the ground here in the UK.

The other thing is more of an aspiration for future revisions and editions of this document.  This first version, coming from two organisations who are not local authorities themselves but are attempting to create a document to enable constructive dialogue with them, sometimes reads like a layman’s idea of what local authorities ought to be doing.  I  would be great to see, as this work deepens, the document evolve to be based more on what those in local government feel they need, capturing the stories of those within local government trying to bring about these changes, their successes and failures, the nature of the obstacles that they encounter.  In short, over time, it would be great if the ownership of this report were gradually transferred to those in these organisations trying to push for change.  My sense is that it would make it a far more powerful piece of work.

Small criticisms aside though, this is a superb document, and one which many of you working with your local authorities (Step 9 of the 12 Steps of Transition is “Build a Bridge to Local Government”) will find highly useful.  At present, when most local authorities sit down to write their future development plans, they begin with a line that rises from left to right.  They assume that the future will feature more of everything, more energy, more economic growth, more housing, more cars etc etc.  This guide is a long-overdue riposte to this kind of thinking, and we should do all that we can to place it in the hands of our local representatives as soon as possible.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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