Monbiot piqued by peak oil planning

10 Apr 2008

In the last of his series of events as Visiting Professor at Oxford Brookes University, journalist, activist and People & Planet patron George Monbiot last night declared the impending climate chaos as catastrophic.

George Monbiot

George Monbiot

George Monbiot last night declared recent environmental developments as cause for great concern. In over twenty years of activism, he said that he had fought against becoming too pessimistic and had always thought that although Government rarely did much to tackle problems directly, he was comforted by the thought that should a ‘serious problem’ arise then the Government would work out what needed to be done and do it. No longer.

What appears to have pushed Monbiot over the edge is the Government’s lack of planning for the end of oil. He had contacted the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) to ask them what assessments they had made of world oil reserves and had received a succinct if frightening reply: none. He returned to DBERR to enquire what contingency plans they had put in place in case of difficulties in maintaining the supply of oil that greases the international economy, allowing us to buy food from all over the world whenever we want to and to jet off anywhere in the world on a whim, and he received the same reply. The Government has seemingly given no thought to oil production declining and eventually running out, and what we might do when that happens.

Instead, Monbiot discovered, the UK Government depends for its information upon a 2005 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that ridicules those who question the plausibility of an oil-powered future as ‘doomsayers’. This report, in turn, uses data supplied by the countries in OPEC (the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries). Yet this data is not reliable. When, in 1985, the amount a country could pump out each day was dependent on its stated reserves, Kuwait immediately increased its stated reserves in an attempt to obtain as much of OPEC’s daily allowance - and as much of the cash windfall - as possible. Saudi Arabia quickly followed, as did everyone else. To maintain this facade (and the proportion that each country can extract), these figures have remained pretty much unchanged ever since; Kuwait still claims to have the same amount of oil reserves as it had in 1985. So what we have is a cartel based on inflated, nationalistic, twenty-year old estimates of how much oil each country is sitting on. That situation informs the IEA’s report which, in turn, informs the UK Government.

A report published the same year by the US Department of Energy and written by Robert Hirsch is more promising for the environmentalist looking for more reasoned judgement. It concludes that the known world supply of oil is going to peak and that it will be “abrupt and revolutionary.” It goes on to say that economic upheaval is not inevitable, that “given enough lead-time, the problems are soluble with existing technologies”, but that Government intervention will be required. This intervention must come twenty years before oil production peaks, however, otherwise its impact will be negligible. This is what infuriates Monbiot so greatly: the production of oil will likely peak within the next twenty years, the evidence is there, the reports have been written and delivered and yet Government does nothing.

Monbiot also poured scorn on the confusion and hypocrisy at the heart of Government. We are being fed conflicting messages from different Ministers, he said. We are told that Britain needs to maximise our extraction of coal, oil, gas, while simultaneously we get the message that the world needs to stop using fossil fuels. Monbiot highlighted the obvious: if they are extracted then they will be used; after all “they’re not extracted for a hobby.”

During the post-lecture questions, Monbiot expounded his position on a number of issues. On nuclear power, he claimed to be against it for three reasons. Firstly, we have not resolved the problem of disposing with the waste that nuclear power stations produce. Secondly, and although the importance of this point has lessened to his mind, there are potential difficulties over sourcing the uranium in the first instance. Finally, and most importantly for Monbiot, nuclear power cannot be separated from nuclear weapons. If one is against nuclear weapons, the argument ran, then one must necessarily be against nuclear power. This is because all states that have developed nuclear weapons since the signing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 have done so by diverting supplies from their nuclear civil programmes. Monbiot provided an ample list to illustrate his point: South Africa, Israel, India, Pakistan, and Brazil.

Concerning Alaska and the possibility of drilling for oil in this most precious of environments Monbiot expressed his despair. This had come about because of climate change - warmer temperatures caused by burning fossil fuels means melting glaciers and ice caps, which allows for previously inaccessible oil and gas fields to be exploited. This catastrophe, potentially the first “economic climate feedback”, particularly exasperated Monbiot.

Monbiot also talked of how the environmental movement had progressed since the early 1990s. Now, he said, there was incredibly detailed knowledge of the issues and this was coupled with direct action. He talked of PhD students at last year’s Climate Camp at Heathrow discussing policy in great detail one day before chaining themselves to the Headquarters of British Airports Authority the next.

He proposed that two things must happen for change to come about. First, the target needs to be identified; second, action needs to be taken against that target. He finished by saying that he hoped his work over the past five years and previously had gone some way to identifying the targets and that now the action part of the deal was up to us all. He cited Climate Camp and the actions on Fossil Fool’s Day, of which People & Planet played a large part, as possible routes of action.