The dangers of peak oil


Peak oil

The longer you campaign on transport issues, the more you find yourself tiptoeing around the ugly face of peak oil. Hailed by advocates as the best thing since the bread slicer, peak oil is the point at which oil supply peaks and begins to taper off, pushing prices higher and higher until economic forces demand a shift to alternative energy sources.

This might sound like great news to those campaigning against the fossil fuels economy, but it’s a poisoned chalice for a number of reasons. Firstly, rising oil prices make more polluting sources of energy (such as coal) very attractive – well before green energy like solar or wind becomes economically viable. Extracting oil from tar sands – incredibly ecologically destructive – is uneconomical when prices are low, but as they climb higher then wholesale investment becomes very attractive indeed.

The spectre of peak oil is an argument for inaction, as ‘the market’ will take care of everything soon enough. If peak oil is a given, then you could even argue in favour promoting increased consumption of oil in order to accelerate peak oil – the sooner it’s gone, the sooner we have to make the shift. It also supports the premise of market superiority (and by proxy, economic growth), which most environmentalists believe to be incompatible with tackling the root cause of climate change.

The third major problem with peak oil is the unreliability of the data on oil reserves. No one – not even the major oil companies – has any real idea how much oil is actually left in the ground (although there’s certainly less than they’d like us to believe), which turns the whole issue into one big game of smoke and mirrors. New finds (like the recent discovery of ‘enormous’ reserves off the coast of Brazil) threaten to debunk the whole basis of the need to move away from oil, and any fall in oil price sets your campaign back months. Given that it’s in the interests of oil producers to keep oil prices high, can we trust them to tell us how much they’ve got left?

Finally, increased oil scarcity leads us neatly to fuel efficiency – squeezing the most miles out of the least oil. Again, this looks like a solution, but leads us firmly down the garden path. In the 1970s, during the Oil Crisis, government and manufacturers leapt on efficiency as the way out of sky-rocketing oil prices. Miles-per-gallon increased dramatically, as engine technology improved, but once the Oil Crisis concluded and prices fell again, cars were able to drive further for cheaper, driving urban sprawl and locking people into car-dependent lifestyles. The same can be said for increased efficiency in aviation – less fuel consumption equals cheaper flights, equals more people conned into making decisions (such as buying a second house abroad, or moving far away from friends and family) which lock them into flying.

Oil prices are rising – and impacting on the day-to-day running of airlines – but we must be cautious about getting too excited by peak oil. The real enemy is climate change – and with the 100 months timer ticking down, we can’t afford to gamble on the oil running out in time…