|Greenpeace tried to defeat Cairn Energy but in the end it was Arctic geology that won|
Two stories in the past couple of days days illustrate the way two very different political dogs can bark up the wrong tree. The first was from Denmark, where I currently live, in the form of the government setting out its 'roadmap to the future' with regard to energy. When most people think of Denmark they think of wind mills and bicycles. The country has been the poster child for sensible sustainable development since the 1970s, and the latest vision for the future would seem, at first glance, to be a continuation along that path.
The plan, as it stands, is to be entirely free of fossil fuels by 2050. Denmark is an oil producer and exporter, albeit a small player, and imports large amounts of coal to fuel its power stations. Renewable power makes up for a significant minority of energy and the rest is imported from Sweden. So how, one might ask, can it shake off the shackles of carbon? Well, no prizes for guessing that it will be smart grids, more wind power and sophisticated electricity storage systems all the way.
The climate minister (yes, Denmark has one), Martin Lidegaard, when he had finished conjuring up this hallucinatory future did concede at the press conference that the pesky actual details of how this was to be accomplished were not exactly apparent just yet. Smart grids, for example, are still in the chin-scratching phase, electricity storage seems to boil down to vast banks of low-tech batteries and nobody is even asking where the country will get all the rare earth minerals for building millions of new wind turbines. Perhaps they could strike a deal swapping them with China for designer furniture …
So it was a relief to turn to the UK and see that for the Conservative/Lib Dems coalition business as usual was being touted as the only business worth a damn. Chancellor George Osborne, in his Autumn Statement, airbrushed energy and environmental concerns away, announcing a grand new road building plan that would tarmac a fair bit of the remaining non-tarmacked bits of Britain. In a tough talking speech, the young millionaire told the rest of us to expect at least six more years of austerity measures before things get better. And the way to make things better and restore the nation to a path of growth, he seemed to be saying, was by building more roads and airports while slashing funds for renewable energy and environmental protection and letting big polluters and energy hogs off the hook. It wasn't the kind of speech that would go down well in Denmark.
And yet both of these politicians on different shores of the North Sea, in their own different ways, are pinning their chances of re-election on the prospect of growth on a finite planet. Okay, so the Danish version is a bit more fuzzy and warm and at least acknowledges that energy shortages and global warming are issues to be taken seriously, but do either one of them take into account their respective countries' abilities to pay for these grand projects?
To refit the whole of Denmark with smart this-and-thats, pay thousands of PHDs thousands of work years to come up with systems that attempt to bend the laws of thermodynamics and basically keep the whole show on the road is likely to be so expensive that bankruptcy looks a preferable, and altogether more likely, option. After all, it's not as if any country in Europe can particularly afford to squander large sums of money on anything at present and Denmark's North Sea oil bonanza has been declining at an terrific rate and is expected to hit zero in just six years (2018). Six years - that's practically tomorrow! (And Britain isn't far behind with production expected to fall to 1/3 of its peak by 2020.)
George Osborne is equally broke but in a state of denial. He thinks that growth can be restored if we all just man up and try really hard. Never mind that most of the manufacturing industry has been packed up, the service industry relies on consumer spending, consumers have no cash to spend and the much vaunted financial sector is under attack from both itself and everyone else. Where, exactly, is this growth going to come from?
Another story caught my eye today that ties the above two together. The darling drillers of the denialist press, Cairn Energy, who sailed to Greenland with a drilling rig have found, after three test wells and up to a billion dollars of trying … not a drop of oil. The British company, who had to be protected by the Danish navy from Greenpeace protesters, have finally given up and will be towing their rig to somewhere oil is easier and cheaper to get at. Unfortunately places such as those are getting harder to find on the map, and Cairn, whose share price has shot up about 1,000% in the last decade, can expect it to go back down to Earth again pretty soon.
The above is not to poke fun at politicians or oil companies, although God knows they deserve it. Rather it is to illustrate the likelihood that for the next few years and decades we will get to hear increasingly futile promises from politicians whose aim is to restore the energy bounty that we have had in the post war years. That they are no more able to deliver on those promises than I am able to conjure bananas from thin air is by-the-by, but most people will want to believe them and that is how they will retain political power.
But that energy isn't coming back, no matter how much blather is spouted in parliaments and how much City traders manage to talk up the share prices of exploration firms. Simply put, we've picked all the low hanging fruit and what is left will cost more – a lot more- to extract. And when I say 'more' I'm not just talking about money, I'm talking about energy, which is not the same thing.
The best thing for any rational person to do under such circumstances is stop believing the snake oil salesmen and get to work on the task of making their own lives more sustainable and resilient to future shocks in the energy – and by extension food - supply. It's not exactly straightforward to do so and once you embark on the process one realises quite how dependent one is on the fruits of three centuries of industrial materialism, thaumatergic marketing and cheap energy. But the sooner one can make a start the better, and that's what I will be talking about in future posts.