What do we do as oil begins to run out?

When I was at school, I remember being told that the Earth only had about 30 years of oil and gas left. The question was what were we going to do when supplies began to run out. Well, now that is happening, a process dubbed “Peak Oil”, where supply can no longer meet demand.

In this post, I haven’t begun to consider the potential loss of the by-products of oil: plastics, fertilisers, drugs, etc. – that is a topic for another discussion. I am concentrating simply on where our energy will come from.

There is a question mark over peak oil, as countries and oil companies do not publish accurate figures. They argue that exploration is expensive and new fields may be found – however, it is in their interests not to panic the stock markets and investors. Strong signs are, however, that we have reached the peak of oil production, as we have had to put more and more resources into getting back the same amount of energy.

Energy companies are turning to what has been called “extreme energy” – fracking (hydraulic fracturing) or UCG (Underground Coal Gasification). In the UK, the government is also turning towards nuclear energy. There is still relatively little effort going into the development of renewable resources, and this tends to be relatively small scale and in private hands. “Extreme energy” is very inefficient, with a low energy yield. It involves tens of thousands of tanker trips, there is a risk of groundwater contamination with carcinogenic compounds, the process involves seismic shocks. It exacerbates the greenhouse effect – 1kg of methane (CH4) has the same effect as 21kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) on our climate.

Another extreme energy is Underground Coal Gasification (UCG), a process to extract energy from coal, where it cannot be conventionally mined. There is plenty of coal, enough to meet hundreds of years of the world’s energy needs – if we don’t mind the risks of catastrophic underground fires which cannot be extinguished The town of Centralia, for example, had to be deserted due to deadly carbon monoxide emissions after a fire in a rubbish heap set fire to a coal seam. This happened in 1963, and the fire is still raging.

UCG involves heating coal in a controlled manner underground, harvesting the gases produced, and the vacant space is intended to capture CO2 emissions underground. However this is inherently extremely dangerous. It is likely to cause collapse of rocks above the coal seam, there is the risk of earthquakes, and what happens if – through the natural movements of rock, the man-made reservoirs of underground carbon emissions are suddenly released? The technology required is completely untested.

So is the alternative to turn to nuclear power?

Nuclear power stations tend to be sited near the coast, due to their demand for water as a coolant. With global warming and more extremes of weather – this is inherently risky, with the potential for more Fukushimas. There is also the problem of nuclear waste. At present, there is no safe way to dispose of high-level radioactive waste with half-lives in the order of tens, hundreds or millions of thousands of years. You can bury this underground, but at some stage it will resurface, due to plate tectonics, seismic effects or vulcanism.

It is also questionable how much nuclear power would contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, once CO2 emissions from mining and processing yellowcake (Uranium ore) are taken into consideration. Thorium is more common than Uranium  and produces less waste, with no risk of a meltdown (it needs to be bombarded with neutrons to work as a nuclear fuel, and the design of a thorium reactor is inherently much safer). However, apart from a few pilot plants in India, this technology is again untried and untested.

Why? Thorium is of no use in making bombs! However, it is still energy-intensive to mine, there are technical difficulties which still need to be overcome and there remains the problem of nuclear waste.

So why don’t we change our reliance on oil or nuclear and move to renewables?

Goverments across the world are corrupt. The neo-liberal concerns of David Cameron, Ed Milliband, Barack Obama, et al are driven by demands from lobbyists of big business. There is no voice of ordinary people in Parliament. We are not properly informed of the dangers. In the US, landowners were simply bought out to release land for fracking. However, when farm animals’ fur starts falling out, they find that they can now set fire to their tap water and they begin to become ill, people soon start to think again . . .

But nuclear fusion could solve the world’s energy crisis, couldn’t it?

In theory, yes. However, there are still many technical obstacles to overcome and the technology remains decades away.

So what happens next?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (representing an international consensus of the scientific community) project a rise in temperature by 2100 of  4°C. However, this heating is worst at the North Pole – where the temperature is increasing twice as fast, partly due to the albedo effect. Already there has been a massive decline in sea ice (observed by satellites over last 40 years).

The best computer model we have is provided by the Met Office – see a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h88WF4wOqwI

According to the IPCC, it is possible, in the best-case scenario, to limit global warming to 2°C. However, this would depend on an unprecedented, multinational effort to switch to renewable energy, very quickly. I would argue that this is impossible under capitalism. We have had 120 years to solve the problem since the principle behind global warming was discovered and 40 years of satellite data showing the effects of burning petrochemicals. International summits so far have been useless. Countries have sought to blame each other and minimise their own responsibility. US and China (the biggest greenhouse emitters) opted out of the Kyoto Treaty altogether.

So what can we do?

We urgently need to move away from an economy in which the need to make a profit over-rides all other concerns. We need democratic input from the bottom, with a real say by ordinary people in how things should be run and where resources should go. This would allow long-term, environmental consequences to be taken into account, whereas at the moment the need for short-term profit is the only consideration for companies as they seek to exploit the last of our oil.

We must urgently invest in renewable energy – tried and tested, simple technology, which is far safer than nuclear or oil. Of course, this will require the production of greenhouse gases in the meantime, as solar panels don’t build themselves – but there is the idea of a “solar breeder”, a factory powered by solar energy, which produces solar panels. There is the potential for wind power, hydrothermal, tidal power and wave power. The technology behind the latter, Salter’s duck, a pendulum driven by the waves which powers a generator was invented in the 1970s and could be highly efficient.

Why hasn’t this been done before?

Simply put, the vested interests of multinational companies in making a profit. Where legislation got in the way, governments were simply bought off – George Bush and Dick Cheney introduced the “Halliburton loophole”, for example, making fracking exempt from legislation that protected groundwater.

So we need to get rid of the government?

Yes. We need a socialist, planned economy. However, there is the potential for a mass movement of people, angry at what is being done to the environment, angry at growing inequality and falling living standards for the vast majority of the world’s population, angry at the exploitation of workers and governments’ repression of our democratic right to protest, in order to build that alternative model.

I am a member of the Socialist Party in the UK, which is building movements in 50 countries around the world to make real change happen and overthrow the rotten system of capitalism, which can no longer meet our needs. Join us here – http://www.socialistworld.net

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