Thursday, December 08, 2005

From Barfield Road to Bradwell
(taking in Burgan oilfield en route)

Tesco want to build a ‘Tesco Express’ store at 1 Barfield Road. On the face of it this doesn’t seem too terrible. Let the competition commence! If Tesco can provide cheaper food to the residents of Mersea – and the residents of Mersea prefer that cheaper food to what the other local stores can provide, then so be it. It’s merely reflecting what the people want, isn’t it?

Well, there are certain assumptions embedded in that line of argument, and in this article I would like to tease out what I think is the most important, and why allowing Tesco to set up shop in Barfield Road would be a remarkably short-sighted and damaging decision. The story takes me via Burgan oilfield, in Kuwait.

Burgan is the second largest oilfield in the world. Two months ago the Kuwaiti authorities announced that it had passed ‘peak’ – in other words, the rate of extraction from the field had reached its limit, and would now go into decline.

This is what happens with an oilfield. When the field is discovered, the oil flows easily. Extraction builds up to a ‘peak’, and it then declines – the oil becoming harder and harder to extract – until the field is exhausted. This also applies to the amount of oil available on a world-wide scale – it will be extracted easily to begin with; it will build to a ‘peak’; and then it will decline.

But isn’t there lots of oil left? No. There isn’t as much oil as we have been told, and the issue isn’t about running out of oil so much as the consequences of a decline in production.

Official figures tell us that there is plenty of oil left in the ground, particularly the ground in the Middle East. This is based upon the published ‘reserves’ allocated to, in particular, Saudi Arabia. But those reserves are fraudulent. Imagine you had a bank account which had a £1000 in it in 1990. Since then you’ve been spending £100 a year from that account – and now, when you go to the cash machine to find out how much money you have left, you discover that there is still the very same £1000 in it that you started with. That is what the ministers of OPEC would like us to believe is the case with the ‘bank account’ of their oil reserves.

The powers that be, however, have started to realise that something is wrong. Matthew Simmons, a US investment banker, has published a detailed investigation of the Saudi Arabian oilfields and his conclusion is that – just like the Kuwaiti field – the major Saudi fields are at ‘peak’. Each year we will start getting a little less. Simmons, as well as being the leading investment banker to the US energy industry, also worked as an advisor to George W Bush from 2000-2004 – from which you may draw your own conclusions. This is also why Mr Blair wants to build a new generation of nuclear power stations – probably including one at Bradwell – because he knows that our present infrastructure, based on oil and gas, is going to be untenable in around ten years time.

So we’re hitting a ‘peak’ of oil production. Why is that a problem – surely that means there’s as much oil left as we’ve already used? It just means that as oil gets more expensive we’ll start switching to alternatives?

You can’t use nuclear power to fly a plane (it was explored in the 1950s). Nor can you use electricity. Oil hasn’t simply been an incredibly cheap source of energy for the last several decades – a virtually free source in fact – it also has some remarkably useful properties. It is dense – with the exception of uranium it is the most dense source of energy that we know – and it is easy to handle, being a liquid at normal temperatures. That’s why our transportation industry has been built up around it. ‘Peak Oil’ is only secondarily an ‘energy crisis’. It is primarily a ‘liquid fuels’ crisis – and our present economic system is based upon those liquid fuels.

In February this year the US Senate received a report on this problem (it will be much worse for the US), and the report said: “The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and long-lasting. Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and discontinuous." (Text of the Hirsch report available at

Which brings us back to Tesco, and Barfield Road. You see, the assumption being made to allow Tesco to come into the community here in West Mersea is that the business model is sustainable. Tesco is able to offer cheaper prices as a consequence of economies of scale – it purchases worldwide, and its purchasing power enables it to provide food cheaply. Yet it is entirely dependent upon an oil-based transport system.

The ‘peak’ of oil production will mean that the cost of oil will rise massively, and it will force businesses that depend upon transport into bankruptcy. Our transport system – and therefore our food distribution system – is based upon the ready availability of cheap oil. When that cheap oil is taken away – which it will be, on best estimates, in around five years time – then the business will fail. But in those five or so years Tesco will have hollowed out the life of our town, forcing the local businesses to fail – and then we will be a ghost town. The only prudent course for our community to take is to build up a locally based food and energy system.

Some enlightened governments have started to actively pursue this – the government of Sweden, for example, has committed that nation to going ‘off oil’ by 2020. They have realised what is at stake. Other smaller communities have started to try and reduce the risk of oil-dependency, such as the town of Kinsale (population 2000) on the south coast of Ireland. That is what we in Mersea need to do – to strengthen all the institutions in our community to enable us to withstand the crisis that is coming in our direction. To allow Tesco onto the island would be like cutting off a leg in preparation for a marathon – insane.

If you are interested in this, and would like to know more about ‘Peak Oil’ in particular, come to the Parish Church Hall on Saturday January 7th at 9:30 am. I will set out in more detail what Peak Oil involves – what it means for Mersea (Tesco and Bradwell) – and what we need to do now to prepare for it. If we plan consciously to move away from oil, then the transition to the post-oil economy need not be too painful. However if we continue as we are, and proceed blindly into the future, then may God have mercy on us all.

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