Peak Oil: RIP

The idea that seized the imaginations of the bien pensant chattering classes in the Noughties – “Peak Oil” – is no longer relevant. So says the commodities team at Citigroup, and policy-makers would be wise to examine the trends they’ve identified.

“Peak Oil” is the point at which the production of conventional crude oil begins an irreversible decline. The effect of this, some say, is that scarcity-induced prices rises would require huge changes in modern industrial societies. For some, Peak Oil was the call of Mother Earth herself, requiring a return to pre-industrial lifestyles. One example of this response is the “Transition Towns” network, a middle-class phenomenon in commuter belt towns in the UK.

But in a must-read research note [PDF] issued this month (which is also implicitly critical of the industry) this is premature.

Thanks to “unconventional” oil and gas, which can be tapped thanks to technological advances, Peak Oil is dead.
Continue reading “Peak Oil: RIP”

Synthetic renewable oil: what’s not to like?

Craig Venter

“Rely on the sun and the other eco-friendly things that Mother Earth has given us. We need to stop being dependent on the corrupting effect that is oil now!”

– HuffPost Super User “ProgressivePicon86”

The next energy revolution is coming – and promises the biggest disruption since the industrial revolution.

Today we assume that oil is a finite resource. The “Peak Oil” argument, for example, is not that it runs out, but that conventional sources run down, and it becomes prohibitively expensive. This obliges us to think about re-ordering society. The other assumption is that the exploitation of fossil fuels creates the rapid release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, changing the climate. Along with this, too, are arguments for re-ordering society. But with the next generations of fuels, these assumptions go out of the window. Policies based on these assumptions lose their relevance and appeal.

This promises a fundamental change in how we think about man, industry and nature. Just as Karl Marx anticipated a future of machines, where manual labour had been replaced by automation, we need new political thinking.

Replacing oil, however, isn’t so simple. The problem is that oil is a terrifically energy-dense material, and useful in many other ways. Entire industries are founded on the byproducts alone, such as fertilisers and plastics. We tend to take this for granted.

But what if oil could be created in your backyard? Or by your children as a school project? What if we thought of oil as a renewable energy? What if it was a low-carbon renewable? With cheap hydrocarbons it becomes just that, and within 15 years much of our oil will be produced this way: it’s simply an open bet on who’ll get there first.
Continue reading “Synthetic renewable oil: what’s not to like?”

The League of Handicapping Gentlemen

Energy Minister Christopher Huhne has an opinion piece in the The Daily Telegraph today – and it’s really an 800-word explanation of why we need a new Energy Minister. The subject of Huhne’s essay is new, cheap gas.

The article finds the minister on the defensive about shale gas: it’s why he’s taking his argument into print. Huhne doesn’t like this exciting new development, but he doesn’t have the power to kill it. He welcomes it through gritted teeth before explaining how many handicaps could be put in its place: the ownership of the land, the regulatory framework, the planning hurdles, and so on.

(France has bowed to its powerful nuclear lobby by imposing a moratorium on unconventional gas exploration, but since France’s electricity is already so cheap – the cheapest in Europe, in fact – it doesn’t need shale anything like as much as the rest of Europe does.)

Huhne writes that the Coalition’s energy policy is “technology neutral” – a claim guaranteed to invite widespread public ridicule. The UK’s energy policy is anything but “technology neutral”. It’s full of measures created by lobby groups for their respective energy sectors.
Continue reading “The League of Handicapping Gentlemen”

At Esquire: Alien Oil


For Esquire‘s May edition, an in-depth feature on the implications of new synthetic hydrocarbons, including interviews with Dr Craig Venter, and Vladimir Koutcherov. An excerpt

We’ll have to get used to thinking of oil as a renewable, low carbon energy source. The difference is this oil is harvested, not excavated.  Oil will be something you’ll create in a back garden, next to the composter and bonfire pile.  Kids will brew up some diesel for their school project. There will be huge implications for military strategy and foreign policy…

It’s not online so you’ll have to buy a copy: £4.25 from all good newsagents.

Shale ignorance

Is it time to decouple “Climate Change” from the Department of Energy and Climate Change? If it was the plain old “Department of Energy” again, it might spend more time researching new fuel sources.

Is it time to decouple “Climate Change” from the Department of Energy and Climate Change? If it was the plain old “Department of Energy” again, it might spend more time researching new fuel sources. Two peers last week took aim at the department because its latest energy blueprints are ignoring the potential impact of shale gas.

The government is “re-consulting” (in its own words) on national energy blueprints, also known as the Revised Draft National Policy Statements, up to 2050. But one of the Lords expressed surprise during the gathering that the latest didn’t mention shale at all.

“There is the possibility that potentially abundant supplies of unconventional gas will result in considerably lower gas prices,” said Lord Reay, continuing:

“The Government apparently cannot find space in several hundred pages of their energy national policy statements to acknowledge the existence of this potentially game-changing development. Gas is now cheap, the price having decoupled from the oil price, and it is going to be accessible in many countries worldwide, not least in Europe. “It emits 50 per cent to 70 per cent less carbon than coal, with the result that when the previous ‘dash for gas’ took place in the 1990s and gas to some extent took over from coal, our power station carbon emissions fell overall by some 30 per cent.”
Continue reading “Shale ignorance”

Why recycling is rubbish

In a utopian report, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) says the UK needs £20bn additional spending on recycling infrastructure over the next decade. The recommendation is made in a report today that proposes “unlocking value locked up in the UK’s current waste” – which sounds great – but the report fails to tell us whether the value unlocked will exceed £20bn. Alas, no attempt at all is made to quantity the costs and benefits of the recommendations – which are grand indeed.

Localism met gesture politics, and authorities rushed through mandatory recycling targets, even though these offered only “short-term benefits to a few groups – politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organisations, waste-handling corporations” and imposed a serious opportunity cost, “diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems”.

No new public money is likely for waste infrastructure once the current PFI-funded projects are complete, which worries the engineering trade group. It has expressed concerns that current technologies are immature and unreliable, which can only deter investors. But, in a splendid bit of utopian speculation, the State of the Nation report proposes that by 2050, “the circular economy is a reality and the waste industry has fully converted into a materials supply sector”.

This is a lofty ambition: only 9 per cent of British waste comes from households to begin with. And, the ICE notes ominously, China may stop taking our recycling as it advances economically. The engineers also advocate new tiers of administration to co-ordinate waste management.
Continue reading “Why recycling is rubbish”

Personalised power cuts and pricey meat: Grey Britain in 2030

One of the few surviving cows gives its opinion of the Climate Change Act

It’s full steam ahead for a low carbon Britain, the UK Committee on Climate Change says in its fourth report [1], published today.

The CCC is the Government’s primary advisory panel on cutting CO2 and was established in the 2008 Climate Change Act. But there will be a price to pay for this utopia.

The CCC recommends a carbon tax on food, leading to higher beef and sheep prices – and “rebalancing diets” away from red meat. Meanwhile, household access to electricity will be restricted – thanks to smart grids – or taken away completely, with electricity rationed via a completely automated supply. You’ll do the laundry when you’re told to, not when you want to.
Continue reading “Personalised power cuts and pricey meat: Grey Britain in 2030”

What’s next for nuclear?

This year, Imperial College graduated its first nuclear scientists for a very long time. After years in the doldrums, other universities are also increasing their activity. Is this a sign of a Nuclear Renaissance?

Perhaps it is. Even deep Greens are dropping long-standing objections [1] to nuclear power generation. I got in touch with Imperial’s Professor Robin Grimes, who recently co-authored a Science paper with William Nuttall indicating how the nuclear industry could re-emerge. Here’s an interview that encompasses the current state of play, and some ideas about how the next 40 years could take shape.
Continue reading “What’s next for nuclear?”