Leaders at Closed-Door UK Meeting on “Inevitable” Peak Oil Crisis Weigh Possible Solutions to Energy Scarcity
According to a summary of proceedings, the secret meeting that took place Monday between the British energy minister and the business taskforce responsible for last month’s provocative peak oil report was indeed the beginning of an ongoing process to understand and prepare for the end of cheap oil.
“Although Chatham House rules prevent me from stating what the Minister said, there is clearly a desire to continue this dialogue on peak oil,” Rob Hopkins wrote on Wednesday on his blog Transition Culture. A prominent promoter of a movement that actively encourages and monitors societal structures based on a low-energy future, Hopkins joined colleague Peter Lipman as representatives of the Transition network at the closed-door meeting.
The meeting acknowledged the inevitability of both peak oil and government intervention, but focused on the role of transportation and technology-based solutions.
According to Hopkins’ summary, the presentations included an overview of the 2009 study from the UK Energy Research Centre, which concluded that peak oil was a near-term hazard; an oil industry perspective warning that $150 a barrel prices trigger recessions but also stating that high oil prices are necessary incentives for energy transitions; the Peak Oil Task Force report that inspired the meeting; and a talk by himself and Lipman that shared case histories of “Transition Towns”—communities that have already developed measures to increase their energy efficiency and self-sufficiency in preparation for a world in which outside energy sources are decreasingly reliable.
The discussions that followed explored both national and local-scale implications of an oil price spike or shortage. The group agreed that the exact date of a global peak in oil production was irrelevant compared to its inevitability and associated risks, but the working estimate during the meeting was 3-4 years from now, as the world recovers from its present recession. While one participant questioned the power of government to best handle a crisis (instead looking to market forces), the assembly ultimately saw government intervention in several forms as a necessary response, deeming an overhaul of the transportation infrastructure a special priority. Other concrete proposals meant to address resource scarcity, though less attractive, included land-use planning and fuel rationing.
The fact that the British government is considering these issues at all is a historic step forward. The press’ exclusion from the meeting can also be interpreted as a sign of the government’s sincerity in dealing with the peak oil issue, as it allowed attendees to speak frankly. Hopkins himself implies that the meeting was meant to be secret, and that the Guardian reportage was a leak.
In terms of his own impressions, Hopkins uses the word “fascinating” to describe the proceedings, particularly the respect and credibility suddenly given to Transition Towns (which have operated outside of government support or recognition). However, he criticizes a perceived narrow-mindedness in the solutions that were under discussion. The concept that cheap oil is the foundation of our economic structure, and therefore a requisite for economic growth, was “largely glossed over.” Even the crown jewel of the talks, the resolution to transform transportation by replacing gas-powered cars with an electric fleet and recharging infrastructure, ignored pragmatic issues such as the source of required electricity, and “how a nation which is the second most indebted in the world, which has become a net energy importer at a time of increasing price volatility and little remaining indigenous energy, is actually going to pay for such an infrastructure.”
In short, Hopkins saw that the government officials and business leaders present were not thinking outside of what he deems “the techno-fix” mindset. These leaders could and should initiate a true paradigm shift, he hints, if they promoted “the idea that part of a response might include the intentional refocusing of the scale of economic activity.” In other words, a partial withdrawal from the sprawling transportation network on which inter-province trade and globalization depend is a consequence to prepare for. That’s a lot for anyone swallow, much less the government of one of the most powerful countries in the world.
For now, to simply agree that the post-peak future needs a plan is an achievement.