14 September 2009: Is the ‘peak oil’ debate relevant?

Should we worry about oil and gas running out? No – for three reasons:

  • Firstly, we don’t actually know how much oil and gas are left. A major new oil field has been found off Brazil, another off the US, another in Uganda and a major new gas field off Venezuela. If oil and gas prices increase, as they will as the global economy recovers and demand increases, it becomes more worthwhile for companies to explore in more inaccessible places, so even more will almost certainly be found.
  • Secondly, because alternatives exist. As the old joke goes: “The Stone Age didn’t end because the world ran out of stone and the oil age won’t end because the world runs out of oil”. Surface transport can run on electricity, which even with the current energy mix is better for the climate than is oil. Most current biofuels are worse for the climate (see Biofuels), particularly if food then has to be grown on land that was previously pasture or forest. Biofuels that are better in direct climate terms should be used only for essential aviation (see Policy Exchange: Green skies thinking: Promoting the development and commercialisation of sustainable bio-jet fuels).
  • Thirdly, and most importantly, we cannot afford to burn all the oil and gas that we already know about. If we do, many millions of people will be killed by uncontrolled climate change. So the argument about peak oil is effectively saying: ‘Humanity will only stop destroying itself when it has run out of the self-destructive implements’. Humanity certainly isn’t perfect, but we aren’t necessarily as bad as that!

So, do new oil and gas fields in developing countries pose a dilemma? That is, development needs versus the need to protect the climate? Again the answer is ‘no’. Developing countries, being nearer the equator, are already suffering more from climate change than Europe or North America and they would be devastated by uncontrolled climate change. Countries that have found oil and gas have also suffered extensively from consequent corruption – the so-called ‘resource curse’ (see IPS: GHANA: Report Warns of ‘Resource Curse’ Ahead of Oil Boom). And the way fossil fuels are extracted too often leads to serious health and environmental effects.

A strong example of this is Nigeria. The impacts of climate change are being felt strongly:

While excessive flooding during the past decade has hurt farming in coastal communities, desertification is ravaging the Sahel. Rainfall in the Sahel has been declining steadily since the 1960s. The result has been the loss of farmlands and conflicts between farmers and herdsmen over ever decreasing land. Many different communities, including fishermen, farmers and herdsmen, are now confronted with difficulties arising from climatic changes. Peoples’ livelihoods are being harmed, and people who are already poor are becoming even more impoverished.

(See Global Warming in Nigeria.)

The gas from the oil fields in the Delta region is, absurdly and inexcusably, simply flared off. Flaring causes respiratory illnesses, blindness, cancer and birth defects among local people. And the pollution reduces the fishing and farming on which many people depend. Yet, Nigeria is very short of electricity, even to meet the demand from those Nigerians already on the grid. There are some gas power stations – over half the electricity generated in the country is from gas. Gas could also be used for cooking fuel. To stop the wastage and pollution of flaring, improve the economy and improve the quality of Nigerians’ lives, all the gas from Nigeria’s oil fields should be used to generate electricity and to provide cooking fuel. (For more on Nigerian energy, see Nigeria: energy and climate statistics.)

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