Running on empty ? The peak oil debate  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

The Australia Institute has released a paper - Running on empty ? The peak oil debate (pdf) - looking at peak oil and suggesting the best way of spurring early adaptation is to adopt a carbon tax, thus encouraging faster uptake of renewables and energy efficiency measures.

From the introduction :

Like climate change, the possibility of peak oil poses an uncomfortable challenge to citizens and governments alike in the 21st century. 'Peak oil' is the term first used by M K Hubbert in the 1950s to describe the point in time at which the worldwide production of crude oil extraction will be maximised. But while it is inevitable that production will peak at some point, it is uncertain when that point will be reached.

Peak oil concerns exploded during the rapid escalation of oil prices prior to the 2007 global financial crisis (GFC), and resurfaced recently when oil prices appeared to resume their upward trend. These concerns have been underscored by official bodies such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) warning of a possible 'supply crunch' brought about by a lack of new investment following the GFC.

The paper suggests that a carbon tax rather than a trading system is the optimal method for pricing carbon, but ultimately the method is not as important as the existence of a price that is relatively uniform across countries and is sufficiently high to materially affect production and consumption decisions, particularly the decision as to whether or not to pursue the development of emission-intensive alternatives to oil. In the medium term, the circumstances created by a price on carbon will likely expand the use of natural gas, both for power generation and transport; in the long term, it is likely to expand the role of electric vehicles and non-fossil forms of power generation.

As with climate change, the most cost-effective response to the inevitable but uncertain timing of peak oil is to invest in early adaptation. It will be impossible to redesign cities, switch the vehicle fleet to new forms of fuel and transform the location decisions of producers in a timely manner after the oil supply has peaked. Early investment in adaptation measures will pay high dividends in the future, whether in response to peak oil, climate change or simply better city design and reduced congestion on roads.

The paper concludes by suggesting that the peak-oil issue is sufficiently important for regular official re-assessments of the situation to be designed and implemented. If mitigation actions are not planned in advance, the alternative may be for a future where periodic price spikes and shortages affect the nation's ability to manage the economic cycle by causing the re-emergence of 'stop-start' economic conditions such as those experienced in the 1970s.

Crikey has some commentary on the paper - The dirty topic of peak oil: get ready to reduce your reliance.
Wouldn’t it be funny if we spent so long arguing about what to do about climate change that we ran out of cheap oil first? No, it wouldn’t really, it would be catastrophic.

But given the government’s delay in producing an Energy White Paper and the steady backsliding on the need to actually reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, it is not beyond the realms of possibility. Even the usually optimistic International Energy Agency (IEA) is starting to sound a little nervous.

No one can say with certainty how much oil is left in the ground nor how much it will cost to take it out. As with climate change, the search for certainty in relation to oil supply is a fool’s errand. But while no-one can say with certainty how much is left, virtually no economists or oil industry analysts disagree with the statement that oil production cannot keep growing forever. The notion that oil production must one day peak is now referred to as ‘peak oil’.

While there is virtually no debate that oil production must one day peak, there is much debate about the timing and significance of such a peak. For those who have become accustomed to talking about emission reduction targets for 2020 and 2050 it may come as some surprise to learn that the mid-range forecasts for the peak in global oil production are 10-15 years. This does not mean that there will be no oil in 10 or 15 years time, but it means oil is going to get a LOT more expensive. Put simply, if demand continues to rise and supply starts to fall the days of the average Australian driving their Landcruiser to work will be over.

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