This is the second of my talks on Christianity and Peak Oil: Let us be human! This is an overview of the Peak Oil issue itself.
Powerpoint slides, notes and the audio are all available via the link on my sidebar.
I would like to talk this morning about the imminent energy crisis which is often referred to as peak oil. I want to talk about what peak oil is, what it actually means and talk a little bit about the challenge for the church. Now you have actually got some written material on the challenge for the church linking it to what’s called the prophetic ministry. I don’t propose to spend too long on that this morning, simply because it is the foundation for the whole sequence, in a sense the whole sequence of these talks is spelling out the implications for the church and how we should live, so today is going to be more what peak oil is and what it means. Those who came to my talk in January will have heard at least half of this before but it is something that is worth covering more than once.
Let’s begin with a biblical image. Joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat interpreted dreams for the pharaoh. You will remember the dream that pharaoh had of seven fat cows who were then eaten by seven thin cows, and seven fat ears of corn eaten by seven thin ears of corn. Well we are facing a situation of seven fat barrels of oil being consumed by seven thin barrels of oil and the thin barrels consume the fat. But the trouble is there aren’t many Josephs around to be wise stewards of the resources and we are actually at the end of year seven of the fat barrels. We are not beginning the seven years of the fat barrels, we are in the year seven, that in some way is what peak oil means.
Let’s talk a bit about energy. Energy can’t be created – it can only be transformed from one form into another and energy always degrades into lower and lower quality. Organised life we can think of as being the delay of entropy, capturing some of that energy before it degrades in ways that enable life. Another way to think about energy is the ability to do work. Think of an organism, an animal requires food in order to carry out all it’s bodily functions and then get more food. Now think, just to give you an idea of how significant oil is as a source of energy, a wonderful example about the Eiffel Tower – the energy of an average car’s fuel tank could lift fifty such cars to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Oil is very dense as a source of energy. Or a different image – the average European has the equivalent of a hundred human beings working on their behalf. Think of what it would take to take your car into Colchester if you had to rely on human or animal power. Think of the weight of your car, you have a team of people or animals pulling it. That’s the sort of issue. It’s not a accident that slavery was abolished when it had become economically possible through the invention of the steam engine, industrialisation and the availability of coal in particular.
So oil is a very good, dense source of energy, it’s also very easy to use, it’s liquid, so liquids are easy to pump, easy to store. So there are all sorts of benefits about oil. It’s a much easier fuel to use than for example coal, you can actually do more with the same energy content of oil than you can with the energy content of coal. So oil is the best source of energy that we know, it’s wonder fuel, wonderful, wonder-fuel. Now at the moment oil provides 43% of world-wide energy use but 95% of energy used for transport – hold on to that figure, 95% of transport uses oil to drive it. Now as you know oil is a fossil fuel, this is just a diagram of an oil field, there is a pocket which is sealed water-tight or oil-tight, and the oil rests upon the water and there is often gas at the top, that’s why you often get gas and oil together. And basically what happens – drill goes down, sucks up the oil, the water table starts to rise, that’s called the water cut, and sometimes you get either water or nitrogen gas pumped in order to drive the oil up to capture more oil, which is something significant if we have a conversation about Saudi Arabia for example, remember that. But that’s the simple schematic of how oil is drawn up. OK. So you’ve got oil trapped with the boundaries, oil floats on top of the water and you’ve got gas on top of the oil.
A good way of thinking about oil and coal and gas is that it is a captured form of ancient sunlight. Remember energy can’t be created, the energy in oil is literally fossilised, that’s why it’s called a fossel fuel. It was laid down over millions of years as ancient forests and lagoon beds compacted under great pressure in the earth’s geology. OK. So it’s a one off inheritance. These things were laid down over millions of years and we are now drawing it down. It’s not something which is spontaneously renewed in the centre of the earth. And something else a bit of background context which sounds – I never know how to pronounce it – eroei – stands for the energy return on the energy invested. Basically unless you get more energy out of a process than you put in, it’s not worth doing, unless there are other mitigating factors, for example, a battery in a torch has negative eroei, but that battery is portable and self contained and there are circumstances where that makes it worthwhile pursuing. But in broad terms, in terms of what keeps an entire industry and civilisation going, you can’t base it upon something with negative eroei, because you are eating yourself, you will necessarily shrink. OK.
Now oil when it was first discovered and used, the energy return was about 100 to 1. You’ve seen images of drilling into the ground until the oil shoots up under it’s own pressure, OK, so it was very easy to access when it was first discovered, and as I say, it’s a wonderfully useful fuel. Over time as you draw the oil up, the pressure in the oil wells decreases and it takes more energy to get it, so in Saudi Arabia – it’s running at about 30 to 1, it’s still a wonderful, useful energy source. OK? So it’s still fairly easy to get to in comparison coal started off around 80 to 1, and is now about 15 to 1. What happens is you pick the easiest stuff first. Think of the Pick Your Own in East Mersea. Imagine it’s the middle of summer, fields of strawberries. The people go round and fill up their basket with nicest, juiciest strawberries and during the day people will start having to work harder and harder to get hold of the strawberries, so at the end of the day it’s only the smallest strawberries that people are getting. The same thing applies with oil. The low hanging fruit, the best fruit, was obtained first and so over time the oil industry is forced to look in deeper and deeper, more exotic areas, like the north slope of Alaska, like deep water off the Gulf of Mexico, to try and get the same amount of oil. So the best fruit was taken first.
So what is peak oil in sum. It’s all about flow, it’s not about the quantity available. Now as an analogy for this think about running your bath from your hot water tank. To begin with you can open your tap a little and the water comes out at great pressure and you can increase the flow by widening the tap, and then as the hot water in the tank goes down, the pressure drops and the flow through the tap drops, so you end up with that curve that I had at the beginning, a bell-shaped curve. You start off with a small flow, you widen to get a good flow and then that flow drops down and fades to nothing. So imagine the tap, open the tap wider, flow increases, the reserve is drawn down and then the pressure drops and the flow decreases, that’s effectively what peak oil is. And it looks like that as a curve. This is called the Hubbert curve after an American geologist who worked for Shell in 1956 and did some research on this and he says that basically in an oil field you have got lots of individual wells. OK? So you put down a well and you get a flow of oil in that one, in this one, in this one. When you aggregate all the oils together in a field you end up with this bell-shaped curve. It’s called the Hubbert curve after this American geologist M King Hubbert.
Now in 1956 he predicted that the American oil supply would peak in 1970 – give or take a year or two and everyone in the oil business ridiculed him. They said “Nonsense – there’s always more oil out there.” Well he was right. American oil peaked in 1970 and has been declining relentlessly ever since. It’s now running about 50% of what it was in 1970. I have got a graph to show you in a moment. But this story will come up again and again. Some of the authoritative voices within the industry say “It’s nonsense, there’s loads of oil out there.” And yet they are always proven wrong. For example, in the North Sea, which I will also come on to, in 1999, the oil majors were saying “Well, there’ll be a peak, but it will be in 2010 or 2015.” But 1999 was the year that the North Sea peaked for Britain.
It’s a geological fact: of the top 65 oil producers in the world, 54 have now peaked. The major ones that haven’t are – in fact the single major one that hasn’t is Iraq. Just to go back to the analogy - the tap for oil is not at the bottom of the barrel, it’s not at the bottom of the hot water tank. In other words there is always going to be oil left embedded in the ground, which can’t be accessed, or it’s not worthwhile in terms of energy to access it.
North Sea as I say, peaked in 1999 and is declining as around 7½% a year, which means that it halves in the course of about 10 years. OK? This is why by the way your gas bills and electricity bills are going up. The United States, as I say, that’s the green line is discovery, and that’s the production. This bump is Alaska, the north slope of Alaska. You can see that in America there is a vast amount of oil. We are about here now, it’s gone down half, and that’s the projected oil produced in the United States. So, quick link in terms of discovery, this is the oil that has been discovered, you can see it peaks here, that one is Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, which is the biggest oil field in the world. You can see there is a rough bell-shaped curve there. That’s how much oil has been discovered. Now obviously, you can’t get oil unless you have discovered it first and one of the things which Hubbert says is that there is a time lag of around 30 years where production of oil mimics the discovery of oil. And so what we’ve had, that’s what they expect to still discover. So they are expecting still to discover billions of barrels of oil, you know, there is more oil out there to be discovered, but in terms of the scale, that’s what we are facing. And that’s production, the black line, basically the area under the black line has to be the same area as what’s been discovered, because you can’t pump what you haven’t discovered. Which is why this will come up and come down. So the area will be the same.
A bit more detail and really this is where it kicks in, where it bites. Projected oil demand by the world, this is by the Energy Information Authority in the OECD and things, projected oil demand to keep the economy ticking over goes up like this and this is the projected supply of oil. Which is why the oil price is going up. I’ll skip this one I think because otherwise I’ll run out of time, I’ll come back to that one if you want.
Supply and demand. So far in 2006 world supplies trending down by about 3% which if we run with it, there will end up being about 50, 55 million barrels a day compared to at the moment about 85 million barrels a day in ten years, so it’s quite a significant chunk. But the interesting thing is not necessarily actually the peak production of oil, because there are various reasons for example the militants in Nigeria capturing Shell oil workers, that’s causing some oil not to be pumped, the situation in Iraq and so forth, there are various reasons why oil’s production might increase from where it is at the moment. But the best educated guess is it will peak before 2010 if it hasn’t already. My suspicion is that it has already, simply because if you look at the trend, there are two times when the oil supply has dropped before. The first one corresponds to the Asian currency crisis and the drop in demand from Asia, so it is preceded by drop in price, and then the tech stocks crash after the Millennium, again preceded by a drop in price. This is the first drop that has been preceded by a rise in price, which suggests that it’s not a response to market forces. It’s a response to the geology. That actually they can’t pump enough to keep the price down.
So good news – we’ll never run out of oil. Bad news – it’ll become so expensive that we won’t be able to afford it. At the moment it is ridicuously cheap, for what it is – it is ridicuously cheap. It is cheaper than bottled water. That situation will not continue and it will get chaotic. That’s the oil price as you can see has been rising consistently since 2002, with wobbles. It’s currently in a wobble at the moment. And what happens of course is that the oil price rises, you get what economists call demand destruction. People can’t afford it so the economy’s contract a little which forces the price to drop until they can afford it again but this process will become repetitive and ratchet-like, and the economy slowly as the price continues to increase, people will try and shift to alternatives but there will be contraction of the economy. But I will come to back to that.
A question – when is the peak guess-work? Educated guess-work? But there is a pretty solid consensus that it’s within five years, if not already. There are some out-lyers, some people say it won’t happen until about 2030 but the data on which those estimates are made are open to really quite profound questioning. It comes from the United States government, which isn’t in itself a reason for doubting it, but it’s based upon an assumption that there are actually two trillion barrels of oil left, whereas most of the industry say there is one trillion barrels of oil left. They have doubled the amount of oil still available, but even then we still peak within 20, 25 years. I don’t believe that we have two trillion barrels of oil left. Not many people do.
Another question is – how steep is the descent? Remember there is the decline rate, North Sea decline is running at 7½% per year and, I’m coming on to say about technology, just to give you a range, if it declines gently, we will probably be alright, it will be manageable, we probably be able to adjust, there will be pain but not vast pain. If it runs at 5%, things start to get quite choppy, and difficult. If it starts running at 8% or more then the system as a whole begins to collapse.
Now I have got a visual to describe that so if there is a decline from where we are now, is in this sort of area, we can manage, we might even be able to grow in different ways. If it’s in the middle zone then the economy contracts as a whole but society copes. We don’t have a resurgence of anarchy or something. If it’s faster then we are looking as serious system wide collapse. Now as I say, technology is the enemy. Because the more technologically advanced the utilisation of the oil resource in a particular field is, the quicker it declines. So North Sea, around 7½% an annum, there is a field in Oman I think it is called the Obal field which collapsed from 250,000 barrels a day in 1998 to 88,000 barrels a day in 2005, which took the industry by complete surprise, you know this is again a repetitive theme. Many voices in the oil industry are taken by surprise. Other voices in the oil industry completely embrace the idea of peak oil, for example the National Iranian Oil Company’s chief executive recently retired, completely embraces peak oil, the Iranian government embraces peak oil, that’s why they want nuclear power. Because in 20 years time they won’t have any oil. They want to keep their civilisation ticking over. They have a perfectly legitimate reason, it’s not just about nuclear weapons. So we are living in this time, a time of abundant and easy energy where oil as I say, is cheaper than bottled water and the thing is that all alternatives to oil are worse in one respect or another. So either we need to invent an new energy source today or energy will become very expensive, it will continue to rachet up in terms of price.
Some good news. Going back to the net energy return, wind is significantly positive, it’s a proven technology, we can get electricity from large wind turbines, small wind turbines and it is a very good, within three or four months of turbines being established they pay back the energy cost required to install them, and if they last for twenty years, you have got about nineteen years of effectively free energy. OK? So wind is a very good source. Solar is pretty good, can’t be worked on quite the same sort of scale as wind but in terms of domestic supply, solar is a very good option. So are tidal, wave, HEP, possibly bio-diesel. I put the possibly there, because in Brazil it works. They have a net energy return of about nine to one but that’s because they have got the climate, they grow sugar-cane and the stalks of the sugar cane can be processed into Ethanol. And as a result of their oil discoveries in the deep water off Brazil, Brazil is now energy independent, but they have been working to that goal for twenty to twenty-five years, and they have succeeded. Brazil is very well-placed. So it can be done, but remember that figure of twenty to twenty-five years.
Coal sands, when I hear talk about “Canada has got more oil than Saudi Arabia”, in one sense it’s true, but the net return is very, very low. And there’s this chap Matthew Simmons, who I might mention a bit later, who describes the process of turning the bitumen, the oil tar sands in Saudi Arabia, in Canada, into workable oil. Now this is a process which turns gold into lead. Because in order to turn this bitumen into fuel for a car you have actually got to heat it up using natural gas, and natural gas is the best source of energy we have got because you can simply pump your natural gas into your house, into your cooker and use it directly. And it is a wonderful fuel in that sense, very low carbon emissions. And to have this vast industrial process turning this wonderful fuel into the product from the oil bitumen which is equivalent to what’s called sour oil, as he says, it takes gold and turns it into lead. It will work for a while but the coal sands in Canada are not an answer. It will never get beyond about three or four million barrels a day, compared to current world-wide demand of 85 and growing.
Nuclear. Ignoring for a moment issues of pollution and safety. Purely in terms of energy there may be a short term role for one more generation of nuclear power, just in terms of energy. But even if that happens, it doesn’t solve the problem, because actually uranium is a finite resource. It requires energy to be mined and processed and if you start demanding more uranium than is presently being used, that will run out in about ten years. Nuclear is not an answer. It might have a short term role in purely energy terms, it’s one of the issues which this community in particular might have to have a conversation about. But it is not a long term answer. The only long term answers are renewables.
Now as I say, exisiting technology, can at least in theory and principle, provide sufficient energy for many of our really necessary domestic needs. I mean that future in winter will be wearing more warm jumpers. That’s unavoidable. But many of the things which we think of necessary for civilised life, for example a fridge to keep milk fresh. These I think are potentially long-lasting, we can have them. But not transport, this is really where peak oil is going to hit.
I want to talk about something called the Hirsch Report. The Hirsch Report was a piece of research which was done for the American government and they reported in the spring of last year and what impact peak oil would have on the American economy and therefore what needed to be done to safeguard the American economy from the impact of a contraction of the oil supply. And they basically said that if there was a settled political will, investment of around a trillion a year for twenty years, begun in advance of the peak then the American economy would be alright. If it was begun with that much vigor ten years before peak oil happened it would take ten years to recover. If that mitigation plan was put into place at the time of peak oil it would take twenty years to recover. Coming back to that figure of twenty years. And their key quote is this in the executive summary, “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 from wood to coal, from coal to oil, were gradual and evolutionary. And they were also from an energy source which is worse than the one replacing it. So from wood to coal was going to a better energy source. From coal to oil you are going to a better energy source. We are shifting to worse energy sources. Their summary, “Oil peaking will be abrupt, and discontinuous.” It’s not going to be gentle. It’s going to be chaotic.
That’s why I call it the great discolation. Because that twenty years of preparation hasn’t happened. Do you remember Jimmy Carter? American president, very concerned about energy issues. Saying to the American people “We need to change our way of life.” And he got kicked out, Ronald Reagan comes in and it’s sunshine and good morning America, and all this sort of stuff. If at that point in time there had been a serious political will pursuing alternatives, peak oil would not be a problem today. Didn’t happen so it is a problem.
We are facing, as I say, the great dislocation, and it will bite in terms of transport. We don’t have anything which can replace oil as a liquid fuel driving our transport system. Remember the vast majority of our transport system is powered by oil, 95% of oil is used for transport. And there is a huge investment in the existing infrastructure. Not just all the cars and lorries that are being built, but the petrol stations, all the oil pipelines pumping things around. There is a vast amount of embedded investment in the existing infrastructure. And so a change to alternative fuels is problematic to say the least.
So, quote from the Hirsch Report, “It’s not primarily an energy crisis, although it is an energy crisis, but it’s primarily a liquid fuels’ crisis, the transport system is going to break-down.” That’s what I think one of the sharp choices will be. Do you try and pursue a programme of bio-fuels, so you grow grain to keep the economy ticking over so people can still commute in their cars, or do you use that grain to feed people? I think that is faced more by America than by ourselves. But that’s where I think the choices will come.
Some quick figures about transport. Megajoules per ton shifted a kilometre. The key things to look at – container ships are remarkably energy efficient and if you shift to, I was looking recently at the design of this amazing, I think it was a Norwegian designed ship, which is wholly renewable powered. It’s sail, it’s covered in solar panels on the surface, it’s got wind turbines, it has it’s own hydrogen generator, it takes water from the sea, it uses that renewable energy to turn it into hydrogen and the hydrogen can then be used to power propellers. It’s a very huge ship as well, which they are piloting and I think that in five years it will actually be launched. It’s an entirely self-contained transport system, which doesn’t require any external energy coming in, expect obviously maintenance and so forth. It’s even better than that. So I think shipping will largely be able to continue – I mean there will be shocks and transitions, but shipping around the world will continue.
What you won’t get is the air. Air transport, air freight. We will not get kiwi fruit flown to us from New Zealand for us to eat, we will not get the beans flown to us from Kenya to eat, nothing that requires intense energy in terms of storage, refrigeration for example, nothing that needs to come to us swiftly will be maintained. But if, for example, you’ve got a ship bringing cases of wine from New Zealand – that will continue, because that’s not … I was going to say that makes me very happy. Lay & Wheeler are very well placed because they have been buying up properties in New Zealand to get excellent white wine and that trade will continue. I don’t see that trade as being one of the ones that is most affected.
But it’s the stuff that’s reliant upon air freight and light truck movement – the local stuff, those are what’s going to go. Look at the short haul air costs, up to 40 compared to 0.2 on the shipping. There is a vast disproportion, that’s why airlines are most vulnerable. Another figure: organic farming uses half of the energy of fossil fuel based farming for the same amount of food. This is why organic farming is the way forward.
As few side points by the way, recognise where that is [The Straits of Hormuz]. The American government has been doing lots of research, the American Army has been doing lots of research into peak oil and from their report, also released last year, “oil wars are certainly not out of the question”. This is from Colin Campbell who is one of the lead scientists, former Vice Principal of Chevron. He says “I have had discussions with leaders in China with advisers to the president about peak oil and they said they know about peak oil and will act accordingly”, as they have been over the last several years going round the world signing up long term contracts with various countries including Canada, Sudan, other places in Southern Africa. And Iran. There’s a huge investment of China in Iran for the supply of their oil.
OK - Just working through the economic impacts that will work through.
Transport will become extremely expensive. To begin with we will respond by forming car pools to keep the system ticking over, people will share cars much more. And the electric rail will continue. But food is going to start becoming very expensive unless we set up local food sources. I think it is one of the most important things that we need to do. We need to ask ourselves the question, “Where is our food going to come from?”
Talking to one of the Mersea farmers the other day, and talking about the possibility of shifting to organic production of food on Mersea Island, he said, “Well the thing is, if you take away fossil fuel fertiliser, to get an indication of what the result will be, look at what was farmed a hundred years ago.” And basically Mersea Island had sheep. The soil isn’t good enough to grow crops on without the input of fossil fuels. So Mersea Island is not going to be independent in terms of it’s food supply. Interesting thought.
Heating is going to be expensive. You have already noticed this in your bills because the gas peak is also imminent, and whereas oil declines gradually in a safe world, gas falls off a cliff. So much more house sharing, grannies will live with parents. Electricity will become very expensive. All these labour saving devices are only possible when energy is cheaper than human labour. That ratio will reverse. Human labour will be cheaper than electricity. Following that through, lots of businesses will fail, airlines are the canaries in the coal mine. Four out of six American airlines are now in chapter eleven bankruptcy proceedings. Caravans. Unemployment will rise initially as all the businesses fail but then there will be a great demand to go back to the land. The stock markets will contract so think about pensions, think about stipends, what’s going to happen to the housing market – I haven’t got a clue, is there going to be inflation?, is there going to be deflation? Who knows? But we are looking at minimum a re-run of the 1930’s in terms of the scale of what’s being faced.
A third “by the way”, global warming. I will come back to that if we have time for questions. So that does this mean we are simply back to 1900 in terms of the energy available to the economy. That’s what we are really looking at by 2030, 2035, there will be the same amount of energy available as we had in 1900, which is not so bad, and in addition we have used the oil to get lots of permanent things, like our metal roads, which by and large will last for quite a long time, especially when you don’t have the really heavy trucks thundering along it. OK so we do have some assets. The big hazard is that in 1900 the world population was 1.9 billion and it’s now 6.6 billion. And bear in mind that we eat fossil fuels, for every calorie consumed in the West, ten calories of oil energy has gone into producing it.
Something to frighten you, I don’t fully agree with this but it’s something to ponder. It’s the argument that’s called the Olduvai theory, after where humanity began in East Africa, which has this gorge and the idea is that this is an inverted gorge. Basically, industrial civilisation which is dependent upon the extensive use of fossil fuels, especially oil begins really in the ‘30’s, and will end in 2030’s and this bit is the rise in population and that bit is the fall in population. That’s why it’s called “die off”. I find this too pessimistic but I think that a vast amount of analysis has gone into this, which I think needs to be taken seriously. I think we will see some die off. The core of this, the peak that it gives here for 1979 is the energy available per capita world wide, which has been declining since 1979. As the population has increased the amount of energy per person world wide has actually been declining gently, and once peak oil hits it will start declining rapidly. So I find that too pessimistic, but what he is basically saying is that in the middle, when there’s all this wonderful energy, we have computers and cell phones and things and the light switch goes on, he’s saying as the available energy per capita drops the energy switches off and you get black outs and the power grid break down. Power grids by the way, something like two thirds of the energy is lost through transmission through the national grid. We can only run that in a time of such cheap and abundant energy. When energy becomes expensive we are not going to have a national grid which is so wasteful, we are going to have lots more locally based power systems. Look at what’s going on in Woking. Exciting things are happening in Woking, didn’t you know?!! Woking is effectively energy independent because it has this wonderful combined heat and power system in the town centre. It takes all their waste and processes and the energy which is used to create electricity has the by-product of hot air and hot water, which is then used to heat housing. There are solutions which can, at a minimum, make the down slope easier to copy with. You know, there are lots of good answers available. But it requires, going back to the Hirsch report, it requires a settled political will and in fact, you know, movement from the ground up to shift our way of life.
I’m going to stop for questions I think in a moment. Yeah I’ll stop there, because what I was going to go on and talk about is the role of the church, but that will come in throughout the coming session, so you have got peak oil, you now understand what’s described by peak oil, that we are living at the moment at the top, which is the time when the energy is most freely available, it is most abundant, and this will not last, and as it contracts, certain consequences will follow.
Now I’ve outlined something rather pessimistic, which is deliberate, because the risk of it becoming quite dark in every sense is a real risk. But there are options that can be done, but I don’t think that our present way of life where energy is effectively free, can continue, so all the things that depend upon free, effectively free energy, like much of our car use – you know, me driving in a Volvo estate, great heavy car which can carry five or six people and often it’s only one person driving it – that will not continue, because it will become much too expensive. But we will get for a while cars being shared, car pooling, but actually I think in the longer term we are going to shift towards things like bicycle power. So invest in bicycles. So questions, thoughts?
[Inaudible question, poss. about govt subsidy]
They are not in this country, I mean in Germany for example, they are rapidly pushing solar panels, you get all sorts of grants to put solar panels on in your roof. Because they see, which is strictly true, it is cheaper for the government to spend billions of pounds on giving everyone solar panels, than to build another power station. It makes more sense in terms of money and energy distribution and so forth. I think solar panels are definitely part of the solution, undoubtedly. I don’t think they will be the solution on their own, partly because you have to ask how far are fossil fuels needed to make solar panels, because it is a very high powered industrial process to make the solar panels. I think with these things that there are lots of things that can be done, especially in terms of domestic life, in terms of insulation, put solar panels in, put wind turbines in the back garden and so forth. I think our domestic way of life in terms of having a place which is safe, sheltered and so forth can be preserved. I don’t see that as being where the issue will come. I see the real issues coming in terms of transport first. The economic implications coming from transport breaking down and food. We need to think about food.
Question: Fair trade? Fair point and I don’t know the answer to that, I think there are some things which can only be grown in some areas of the world and I do think that the trade, the international trade in foodstuffs which don’t require rapid transport or refrigeration will continue. So if for example fair trade sets up processing plants in the third world countries, whereby they actually produce a finished product – like Geobars which I happen to really enjoy, if they are produced in the third world, they can be shipped and that can continue, but to have, as I say, the green beans grown in Kenya flown across and on the supermarket shelves three days later, that is not going to continue. This is why I don’t like Tesco. Or Sainsburys, it’s not that I’m anti-Tesco, I think that the supermarket system needs to shift and to be fair to them they are getting the message and they are starting to shift. They are pushing organic more. I mean Tesco, all Tesco’s new stores are going to be neutral in terms of energy because they are going to put solar panels and wind turbines and so forth on the roof. They say they are – I mean let’s wait and see, but they are certainly aware of the issues and making sensible decisions to move forward. So you know, new Tesco’s superstores, they will be energy neutral. They won’t actually draw from the grid.
Next week I will talk about grain in detail because it is a problem in terms of world grain stocks, you know how much grain is produced and where it’s needed. The point about the choice I think is really addressed to the United States because at the moment they are building up their Ethanol industry through subsidies and the American Ethanol has at best a neutral EROEI. It’s probably negative but what you could do in America is cease exporting their corn and grain in order to produce the Ethanol to keep the American cars running. Using it wholly within the United States, ceasing to export grain in order that cars continue to run. That or feeding the world. I think that is the issue because a rich westerner can afford more than a poor third worlder and therefore the rich westerner can afford to pay a higher price for fuel to keep their cars running, that’s my point. Ok I will go into that in detail next week.
Short answer yes, America is actually in an incredibly weak position in all sorts of ways. China I will talk more about next week because China is being fed by America at the moment. That’s where most of the American grain goes, so I will go into that in more depth next week. The politics of this are things to be nervous about which is why I have got a whole session on foreign policy, because it impacts everywhere. Next week is all the other contributory issues which are going to kick in.
[Q:Global warming/ newspaper coverage]
The two are very closely linked. There has been quite a bit of media coverage in the last eighteen months, for example there was a whole newsnight programme on peak oil, there was a issue of The Independent which had a eight page supplement all about peak oil. So it is starting to become more mainstream. I mean global warming as an idea is really ten, fifteen years ahead in terms of public awareness. In ten to fifteen years everyone will know about peak oil. But they do feed into each other.
I gave this talk at Colchester’s deanery synod on Wednesday night and the same questions came up about global warming. Really they lock into each other, because the solution to global warming is investing in renewable low carbon technology, which is the same answer to peak oil. However, that’s the good way out. That will be the thing that most helps us. OK? There is an alternative answer to peak oil which is called the Fischer Tropsch process which converts coal into liquid fuel. It’s not as good as simply getting your oil out of the ground but it can be done. Nazi Germany did it in the thirties and forties, South Africa did it to rebuff sanctions in the seventies and eighties. It is an established process, you can turn coal into liquid fuel. OK? Of course if you do that any hope of stopping global warming is dead. So and even then there is still a peak, it just pushes the peak off for another twenty years to keep us consuming for twenty more years. But if we go down the path of renewables, solar, wind, conservation, reducing our consumption then we can preserve a liveable habitat. If we go down what might seem an easier route, choosing to use coal to power our cars and keep the system going for another generation, then the atmosphere will get really screwed up badly and we will do more on global warming next week, and hopefully see Al Gore and his movie we will talk about it.
But you know, the bit I quoted from Deuteronomy, I think it’s Chapter 30, God saying to the Israelites “I have laid before you a choice this day, choose life that you and your descendants may live.” That’s the choice we are facing. And how are we going to choose life? We have to change our way of life in order that it goes more closely to God’s will and intention for us and we abandon the Western way of life, all those elements of the Western way of life which are destructive. Let us be human. That’s where it hangs together.
On the reading list there is a book by a guy called James Howard Kunstler called “The Long Emergency”, which is a wonderful, readable discussion of peak oil. He’s an architect and he calls suburbia the greatest misallocation of resources in human history. Because suburban houses can only function with cheap energy. If you take away the cheap energy, they will collapse, you know within a generation, they are not designed to last for generations and in terms of the amount of space made they have got high ceilings, lots of floor space in the rooms and so forth, thin walls, they will cost a fortune to heat. Kunstler is quite pessimistic. He thinks that in twenty to thirty years time the suburbs in American will have been abandoned because they have all been built up around the car and you won’t have the car, and basically there will be people making a living from strip mining houses for the copper piping. Things like this. Anyway that’s his vision and it’s not implausible. You know we are going to shift back to the classic sense where you had a town to trade and surrounding agricultural land. It’s the bits in between which are only built up through the availability of easy energy. When that easy energy is taken away they will contract. So will continue to have town centres and trade and commerce, and you are going to have much for dependence on agriculture, but the suburbs, built up around the car, that’s what is going to pass.
Any Douglas Adams fans, I think it’s the second “Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” sequence where he’s describing a cricket match taking place at Lords, and an alien spaceship lands and nobody pays any attention. Because each of them says “It’s somebody else’s problem.” So the SEP field surrounds the alien spaceship and makes it invisible. Somebody else’s problem. These are the things we face. Do we say, “It’s somebody else’s problem, I can’t cope with it, I’m not going to worry about it.” Do we way, “Something’s going to turn up.” You know, what are we putting our faith in? That there will be a technological solution, which is worshipping a different God. We’ll say “I’m alright Jack.” George Bush, his ranch in Crawford in Texas is entirely energy independent. Most, I say most, a great number of the American leadership have independent houses which have been covered in solar panels and wind turbines and so forth. The American government has known about this for quite some time.
I can tell you this, the Army and defense needs will be placed higher than civilian needs in the amount of oil available contracts. Do you remember December 2000? The fuel protests. How quickly the supermarkets emptied. After that, because it took the government by surprise the government, this government drew up plans to safeguard the supply of oil, they have drawn up a list of who gets oil first, it’s a reasonable list, you know, the emergency services should be given petrol, of course, the Police services would get given petrol. The people at the bottom of the list are independent commuters, which is why independent commuting is going to break down.
The last one is just roll over and die which I don’t really think is viable. HEP? Hydroelectric power, dams, which are renewable in one sense obviously you need quite a lot of energy to put it in to begin with and they do have a particular life span in terms of the silt, which will eventually accumulate, lessening the power, but HEP that’s in place can certainly last for quite some time. We have gone past half past ten, a lot of these themes will come back in next week. If you want to go and see “An Inconvenient Truth” on Wednesday afternoon, please do sign up on the list at the back.
One final plea please, could I have a hand putting things away, thank you very much for coming.