The age of cheap oil is over

There is no time for denial. Governments and communities need to start adapting now.

We are now inhabiting a 'post-peak' world. That is the implication of the International Energy Agency's (IEA) new report, World Energy Outlook 2001, which in its 25-year 'New Policies Scenario' projects that it is most probable that conventional crude oil production "never regains its all-time peak of 70 million barrels per day reached in 2006." In this scenario, crude oil production is most likely to stay on a plateau of around 68-69 million barrels per day.

The IEA blames a number of factors for this - a combination of supply constraints due to below-ground geological resource limits, and above-ground factors such as political obstacles to fully exploiting existing reserves (such as in Iraq), as well as international commitments to reducing fossil fuel emissions to meet climate targets.

So is this the end of industrial civilization as we know it? Not quite. Or perhaps, not yet. Despite the peak of conventional oil production, the IEA concludes that total growth in liquid fuels from other unconventional sources - such as tar sands, oil shale and natural gas liquids - will continue to make-up for the short-fall in crude until around 2035. But while this means there will be no imminent fuel shortages as such, it also means, in the words of IEA chief economist Fatih Birol, "The age of cheap oil is over."

The problem is that unconventional sources of oil and gas are far more expensive to get out of the ground and process into usable petroleum, and environmentally problematic. This means that over the next decade, oil prices are likely to become more expensive. Driven largely by industrial growth in places like China and India demand is projected to grow by 36 per cent up to 2035 - at which point, the price of oil will rise beyond $200 a barrel. On the way, by around 2015, we could see price hikes above $100 a barrel.

Even if the 'post-peak' world by no means implies the End of the World, it will nevertheless be an extremely volatile one if business-as-usual continues. The convergence of food and financial crises we saw in 2008 was one of the first signs of a strained system. Oil price volatility due to peak oil was a major factor that induced the 2008 banking crash. The collapse of the mortgage house of cards was triggered by 'post-peak' oil price shocks, which escalated costs of living and led to a cascade of debt-defaults. A study by US economist James Hamilton for the US Congress Joint Economic Committee confirmed there would have been no recession without the oil price shocks.

The oil shocks also impacted on food prices. The global industrial food system is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, consuming ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every one calorie of food energy produced. As noted by Australian agricultural expert Julian Cribb in his book The Coming Famine (2010), the six-fold rise in food prices between 2003 and mid-2008 was triggered by escalating oil prices (among other factors), and impacting severely on "farmers' fuel, fertilizer, pesticide, and transportation costs." While "financial pain was high" in developed countries, in the less developed world - from where the developed countries import much of their food - "farmers simply could not afford to buy fertilizer, and crop yields began to slip."

All this was exacerbated by a debt-dependent economic system that systematized the very kinds of dodgy derivatives trading which generated subprime mortgage blowback - with speculators throwing money into futures markets for oil and staple food commodities, rocketing prices even higher. The recession that such price hikes partially inflicted, leading consumption and production to drastically contract, allowed prices to drop. But as economies tentatively recover, as populations grow, as demand rises, the danger that we once again hit the ceiling of the world's oil capacity limits will remain.

So if the IEA is anywhere near right, we are in for a rather rough ride. The volatility of the 'post-peak' world will be difficult to predict. It is a world not of easy abundance, but of declining - and increasingly expensive - carbon-based resources. If we are to develop sufficient resilience to the various price shocks and converging crises of the 'post-peak' world, we will need to recognize that they are symptomatic of an inevitable civilizational transition toward an emerging post-carbon age. There is no time for denial. Governments and communities need to start adapting now.

Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development. His latest book is A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (Pluto, 2010). He blogs at The Cutting Edge.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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