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Peak Oil: The Implications for Planning Policy (review)

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) describes itself as “the UK’s leading planning body….” It recently released a 59-page discussion paper on Peak Oil, partly in preparation for a forum on this issue which is scheduled for January 17th in London.

RTPI describes the purpose of its study as follows:
This discussion paper sets out the findings of a study undertaken into the issue of Peak oil and the implications for spatial planning. It aims to promote discussion, raise awareness among transport and spatial planners of the issues around peak oil and suggest an agenda for action by professionals. It is intended as an introduction and primer to the issue; further work will be necessary… to ensure that the concept is properly taken into account in future planning (p. 1).

This study is a compilation of three discrete activities.

1. Literature review.
The RTPI team examined several first-rate sources: the pioneering work of Hubbert, as well as more recent work by Hirsch, Energy Watch Group, the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security (ITPOES) and the IEA’s landmark 2008 World Energy Outlook. The writing team relied on these sources for credible, balanced reference material.

2. Critical evaluation of present spatial and transport planning (including “discussion of the shortcomings of present approaches in this respect”).
The authors examined existing UK government documents and were struck by the absence of attention to Peak Oil. With respect to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the authors found, “Reviews of the literature undertaken for this study revealed no apparent published information or consideration explicitly by DECC concerning Peak Oil, with the exception of the acknowledgement that a key challenge facing DECC is to ensure energy supplies after North Sea oil and gas production has peaked” (p. 15).

With respect to the UK government’s 2007 Energy White Paper, the authors note, “Indeed, the term Peak Oil does not even appear in the White Paper” (p. 15).

Within the planning community, the RTPI team points out, “Peak Oil is not well recognized in spatial planning although some direct effects of Peak Oil will be experienced in the UK within time horizon of national and local plans” (p. 16).

With respect to UK transport planning, the authors note that the new White Paper “remains resolutely silent on the issue of Peak Oil…” (p. 18).

The RTPI team also notes the ongoing inattention to food security: “The area that is almost completely ignored in development plans is that of food security” (p. 18).

With respect to UK policy development in general, the RTPI team concludes, “there are few examples of the Peak Oil concept being explicitly considered in policy development” (p. 20).

Given the relative absence of proactive work within the UK on Peak Oil, the authors “would welcome contributions from readers indicating other examples which could inform the development of policies in the UK in this respect” (p. 21).

3. Recommendations for planners
The RTPI report offers its own recommendations in addition to directing readers to progressive initiatives which have been undertaken by other agencies (eg. Transition Towns, Zero Carbon Britain, Low Carbon Communities Network, etc).

The focus of their recommendations is primarily the transport sector and is summarized in this pointed observation: “Given that Peak Oil will happen at some point, albeit with uncertain timing, and the possible profound and severe impacts that it could engender, integrating Peak Oil mitigation into transport policy is imperative” (p. 42).

Supplementary observations
Since RTPI has kindly invited comments and suggestions, a few are offered here.

Although their report contains an excellent list of references, conspicuously absent is any reference to the military literature on Peak Oil. Two documents which may be of direct relevance to UK analysts are the Defence Academy’s study, Climate Change and the Energy Crunch (2010, 47 pgs), and an insightful war college thesis done by a Royal Air Force officer in which he argues that the Ministry of Defence should be included in government analyses of energy security (2009, 133 pgs).

One aspect which was largely overlooked in the RTPI study was the potential of Peak Oil to destabilize financial markets and threaten financial institutions and currencies. The potential for an economic “tipping point” was explored in a very thorough study conducted by the German military, reviewed here.

A constriction of the world’s supply of affordable oil has implications which go far beyond matters of transportation: Peak Oil may indeed present economic and social risks on a scale which are unprecedented, not the least of which is the threat that economic and financial disruptions would preclude investments which are required for an effective, orderly transition to a low-carbon future.

One point which was raised in the RTPI report which may be erroneous is the assumption that “the peaking and subsequent reductions in oil supply will of itself reduce emissions” (p. 41). Other analysts have expressed concern that as conventional oil declines, we may turn to liquid fuels which are more carbon-intensive (eg. coal-to-liquids).

Another point which appears to have been missed is the threat of export decline. The RTPI authors correctly note, “The decline of global oil supply is a serious issue, but more critical is our ability to continue to import oil” (p. 13). They warn of “limited exports to pay for imports” but a larger threat is presented by an ever-shrinking pool of countries with surplus oil to export. A decline in available oil exports promises to be one of the most imminent aspects of Peak Oil: clearly, we can’t all be importers.

The central message of the RTPI report is that the peaking of global oil production is a pervasive issue whose effects could be profound, yet it remains almost entirely overlooked. As a society of professional planners, RTPI recognizes the significance of Peak Oil and insists that it be incorporated in future planning.

This report and the January 17th forum are important first steps in achieving this, and RTPI and the Transport Planning Network are commended for initiating them.

Information regarding the Jan. 17th event is available here.

The complete RTPI discussion paper is available here.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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