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Saudis may pump sand as peak oil casts a giant shadow

February 9, 2011

 After the Guardian reported via Wikileaks that Saudi oil reserves may be a whopping 40% less than they claimed, I’m revisiting  a weird idea I’ve had about government, peak oil and climate change. In it, a UK government terrified of the backlash caused by implementing sensible climate change mitigation policies, decides instead on a rather more devious strategy.

They see peak oil on its way, and do absolutely nothing, make no plans at all – just like Monbiot discovered in 2008 when he issued an FOI request asking for details of the government’s plans to address the looming crisis.

For those of you who didn’t see it, this was the official response from the UK government:

“The government does not feel the need to hold contingency plans specifically for the eventuality of crude oil supplies peaking between now and 2020.”

That was 2008. Fast forward a bit, to November 2009, and we discover what I suspect the government already knew: peak oil was a damn site closer than we’d been told, according to a whistle-blower in the IEA (Key oil figures were distorted by US pressure, says whistleblower). To all intents and purposes, this is clearly mad, isn’t it? What kind of government would do nothing in the face of such a prospect, such a clear threat to the stability of our economy when we have a crisis so close we can reach out and touch it – or it can reach out and touch our wallets, if you like. Yet the government appears to be doing absolutely fuck all about it. This might seem very strange, unless of course there was an ulterior motive: climate change, and the need to reduce our fossil fuel usage.

Consider it this way: the government cannot implement the drastic measures needed to get our CO2 output down without incurring the wrath of the electorate. What better than to have a convenient scapegoat – a foreign scapegoat to boot – so that when the prices are sky high, the politicians can shrug, point at the barrel price, and wash their hands of any responsibility for the situation.

By being passive, by allowing the crisis to reach its full potential and its highest prices, the UK public will be forced to reduce fuel use, to become more economical, to take more and better steps to prevent waste and excess. Consumerism is built on oil. It is also the principle driver of anthropogenic climate change. If the government cannot, or will not, intercede sufficiently to keep fuel prices down, the effect will be to reduce demand – not just for oil, but for everything, as we effectively recalculate what we desire against what we can afford.

And in this scenario of passive intervention, blame for whatever ills we perceive cannot be laid at the door of our representatives, because they will clearly have done nothing at all – a solution that, from a political perspective, is perfect.

More on this: Peak Oil and Climate Change: No Cod Either

Why oil at $200 a barrel is good for the climate (extended version of Guardian article)

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. A Rebours permalink
    February 9, 2011 2:25 pm

    How I wish that the current UK government was that clever.

    Somehow, I doubt that they are.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 9, 2011 3:18 pm

    A Rebours – indeed, that might be the minor flaw in my theory 🙂

    (Nice to see you here, BTW)

  3. A Rebours permalink
    February 9, 2011 6:54 pm

    Thanks GP, it’s a pleasure to be here 😀

    That Guardian story, I realised today, is a symptom of how our denial of peak oil is even deeper than that of climate change.

    Why? Because we didn’t need Wikilieaks to tell us this – the IEA told us as much at about the time tht cable was written:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/nov/09/peak-oil-international-energy-agency

    The IEA has been saying so since 2008. And we could have worked it out anyway:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/wikileaks-saudi-oil-reserves-2011-2

    OK, so it’s an extended trail for the Guardian’s Wikileaks book, but it still shows their editorial staff have a pretty short memory.

    Behind the scenes, I’m sure there are in fact some very clued-up people in the Government who are extremely worried about this. But they’re bit players in the machinery of Government – I doubt very much whether they’d be able to sway Cameron/Clegg in their current project of installing a near-fascist kleptocracy in the British Isles.

  4. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 9, 2011 9:26 pm

    A Rebours – I think Antipodean1 (a Guardian poster) shares my view that peak oil is going to be the first tidal wave to do real damage, and we’re probably already seeing the first signs. It is truly baffling to me that the problem is so obvious, and as you point out, hardly novel…and yet, if you read the various encomiums to economic growth coming out of Davos recently, one could believe peak oil is just some fiction designed to support market speculation.

    Then we read that Saudi reserves may be 40% less than reported, and I start shopping for thermal underware. And brown trousers 🙂

  5. February 9, 2011 11:06 pm

    i will get that solar panel now and not tomorrow
    it is sad to see we only can change when we MUST and not before that

  6. February 10, 2011 9:34 am

    Like A Rebours, my thoughts reading through your piece were; could they be that clever and devious? Plus such a strategy would have to cross parties and Prime Minsters as nothing has changed through successive terms and governments.

    I must admit to now being officially scared. I hope this was just a bad year or so, natural disaster wise, a blip to show how climate change will affect us in a future at least a generation away.

    But with rising oil prices, oil production peaking, rising food prices, crop destruction through extreme weather and the world population to top 7 billion any time now, this has all the ingredients for a perfect storm.

    Stock piling food and building a defensible shelter out in the woods, if I can find any left, is starting to look like a less crazy idea day by day.

  7. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 10, 2011 1:04 pm

    Lazarus – reading the Wikileaks (and a bit of history) I think they could be exactly that devious, actually. My suspicions however are predicated on the disconnect between the information available to them and the inaction it seems to provoke. It isn’t like I’m suggesting – God forbid – a conspiracy. Without over-egging what is intended as a fun item rather than serious commentary, there is a degree of complacency that I find difficult to reconcile with what successive governments have known was happening.

  8. The King in Yellow permalink
    February 10, 2011 2:26 pm

    The figures for oil reserves have long been seen as dubious as they have not changed much since they were first published decades ago, and also because Opec bases output by country on those reserves.

    For a fictional depiction of a real peak oil event – or more accurately what happens when the oil tap mis turned off, read “Last Light” by Alex Scarrow, or a more factually based book “The End of Oil” by Paul Roberts.

    All the best.

  9. A Rebours permalink
    February 10, 2011 2:56 pm

    GP, Lazarus:

    Yes, it’s damn scary. And I think you’re right, peak oil is the more pressing problem than climate change. It does seem very much as if the concept is, figuratively and literally, unthinkable for elected representatives as well as the general populace.

    Get me Ray Mears’ phone number.

  10. Watching the Deniers permalink
    February 11, 2011 2:26 am

    And we are surprised how?

  11. February 11, 2011 11:17 am

    I’ve often wondered if it would be used to force change in peoples’ habits. It’s far from clear how this might pan out, though, because a frighteningly large proportion of people don’t know about Peak Oil and indeed have in many cases not paused to consider what the stuff is that they are filling their tanks with or where it comes from. What was it Carl Sagan once said?

    “We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.”

    My response a few years ago was to get involved with the Transition Movement and start growing my own veg on a big scale!

    Cheers – John

  12. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 11, 2011 11:34 am

    John Mason – it isn’t just the lack of consideration for where the petrol comes from. When you consider how much we depend on oil for food, plastics, medicines, biotech, lubricants and so on, it starts to become evident that it isn’t just petrol that’s going to go up massively – much of what we depend on in the modern world is going be a lot more expensive.

    In which case consumerism will be restricted by its own dependencies. It’s a matter of timing whether this will occur before we bugger up the ecosystem, or it buggers us.

  13. February 11, 2011 11:56 am

    Absolutely, Graham: one could argue that it’s more important as a process feedstock, although because transport is such an everyday taken-for-granted thing, that will be where it is noticed the most – that and rising commodity prices steered by the increasing cost of getting them to the retail point.

    On general attitudes to energy, this might interest people:

    http://www.geologywales.co.uk/storms/nimby.htm

    Cheers – John

  14. February 17, 2011 1:22 am

    I think that the real overestimation here is not the cunning and intelligence of the government, but of the electorate. Which electorate is going to conveniently remain un-angry with their government when food supplies are disrupted or prices spike? Who cares if the government points the finger at foreign oil,I want to know why they are not helping me put food on the table – and I want to know it yesterday and I’ll get into the streets to protest about it.

    Food prices were likely a significant trigger for the revolution in Egypt and other unrest across the Middle East. Of course there were many other underlying causes, but the crowds largely didn’t blame foreigners for the food price spike.

  15. The King In Yellow permalink
    March 5, 2011 8:43 pm

    Interesting, even oil execs are now worried about peak oil being ‘real’:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/oilprices/8362579/Shell-chief-Peter-Voser-warns-oil-demand-could-outstrip-supply.html

    All the best ?

  16. Graham Wayne permalink*
    March 6, 2011 7:38 am

    King – he also said “”Hopefully in the longer term it will not have substantial impact on economy. I still see economic growth in 2011.”

    Since when is ‘longer term’ the rest of the bloody year? And I’m not sure I share his confidence in OPEC’s ability to ramp up production to cover the shortfall, now that the BASIC countries are putting additional demand on the world’s supplies.

    It’s stuff like this that makes clear the sense behind China’s aggressive renewables investment.

  17. The King In Yellow permalink
    March 6, 2011 4:34 pm

    Yup – one year is long term ? LoL

    China:

    China’s environmental protection industry is doubling every four years, and it is to devote a further £287 billion to greening its economy over the next five. Best known for its proliferating coal-fired power stations, it is now the world’s biggest manufacturer of solar cells and installs more windpower than any other country. One in 10 of its homes already has solar water-heaters, its wind capacity has doubled every year since 2005, and 300,000 green jobs were created in 2009.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthcomment/geoffrey-lean/8362599/Proof-that-green-means-growth.html

  18. Graham Wayne permalink*
    March 6, 2011 4:54 pm

    King – what’s strange to me is the argument over ‘green growth’. It seem obvious that if you create and incentivise a growing technology market, get ahead in R&D and invest in manufacturing, the result is clearly going to be more jobs. I’m not a fan of over-simplification, but it really shouldn’t need saying that alternative energy sources are needed now – but despite how obvious this seems, and despite the clear evidence like the jobs created in China that you quoted, neither western administrations nor investors seem to have got the message. We even have the daft as a brush minister who was talking recently about raising the speed limit on UK motorways , FFS. It is hard to conceive of anyone in government being quite so out of touch with reality, yet there they are!

    And meanwhile, today’s Observer tells us the government are talking about putting emergency plans in place, targets etc – talking, anyway. Far too little, too late, I suspect…

  19. The King In Yellow permalink
    March 6, 2011 8:37 pm

    GWP – I think it is because of the fear of the unknown.

    My parents, hardly the most green people in the world were telling me over lunch of their experiences having fitted 20 solar panels on their roof. The house insurers had no idea how to cope with this change to their home, and had come back with dozens of questions. As their insurers were the NFU, and there are myriad examples of farmers locally installing solar panel farms on the tops of barns/outbuildings they were very surprised at this complete lack of understanding.

    Basically, we are experiencing major shifts to some fairly basic elements of our economy, and the powers that be are unsure of their own policies, finances, practicalities and the future. This causes discomfort and risk. And as we all know there is immense resistance to the status quo.

    WRT speed limits – a bit of a distraction – if the polluters pays principle is applied adding 10mph to the limit simply means the speed freaks get to pay a lot more taxes – and people go that fast currently anyway. Add on a no nonsense policy of harsh fines above 80mph…

    As I have commented on CiF: 13 years have passed with too much talk, and too little action. I hope we don’t waste another 5 years.

    We need a major and systemic approach by govt to create clarity in the markets, so that the financial, manufacturing and service industries have clear market imperatives to satisfy their customers who in turn have their own clear boundaries.

    A fudge is the worst of all worlds. Sorry for the (impending) rant.

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