UK ministers ignored 'peak oil' warnings, report shows

Fuel gauge on empty

The UK government has consistently downplayed concerns about 'peak oil' shortages

Report reveals threat of civil unrest from energy shortages, which has been played down as 'alarmist' by ministers

The government was warned by its own civil servants two years ago that there could be 'significant negative economic consequences' to the UK posed by near-term 'peak oil' energy shortages.

Ministers were told it was impossible to know exactly when production might fail to meet supply but when it did there could be global consequences, including "civil unrest".

Yet ministers consistently played down the threat with the contemporaneous Wicks review into energy security effectively dismissing peak oil as alarmist and irrelevant.

The report on the risks and impacts of a potential future decline in oil production has just been published – but only after the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) was repeatedly threatened under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act with forced disclosure.

The information is revealed at a critical time when oil prices have soared to historic highs of around $115 (£71) a barrel hitting motorists through higher petrol costs and helping to drive up household gas bills. The price of oil and gas tend to be linked due under the terms of many wholesale gas contracts.

This report admits it is not possible to predict with any accuracy when crude production will peak and go into steady but final decline.

But it goes on to say that 'if peak oil happened before 2015, this would have significant negative economic consequences for some of the main importers of UK goods and services resulting in a negative impact on the UK economy in the longer term.'

Civil servants from Decc argued that while global oil reserves were still plentiful, it is "clear" that existing fields are maturing and new production is being slowed by bottlenecks.

Yet it concludes that 'alternative technologies to oil will take a long time to develop and deploy at scale.'

And it says that the risk of high and volatile oil prices "provides a further rationale for pressing forward with policies that reduce our CO2 emissions in the transport sector."

The Decc report has been finally been published alongside other documents on peak oil as the government finally goes through a major rethink on the subject.

The department's chief scientist, David MacKay, recently called for information and views on peak oil amid rising pressure from industrialists to take it more seriously.

High-profile names such as Sir Richard Branson have joined an increasingly strident campaign group, the UK Industry Task Force on Peak Oil and Energy Security, pressing for change. It warned last year in its own report, The Oil Crunch, that there could be serious shortages of oil by 2015.

Meanwhile the US Military Joint Forces Command issued its own review in 2010 predicting surplus oil production could disappear as early as next year. And the University of Uppsala in Sweden argued in 'The Peak of the Oil Age' report that oil production may already have passed its maximum.

Energy academics there have repeatedly claimed that many governments and their watchdog, the International Energy Agency, have been playing down their fears for many years.

There has long been speculation that the UK government had its own worrying peak oil report from 2007 that it was refusing to publish.

Lionel Badal, who has been pursuing the subject while at Exeter University and then King's College, London, acquired the report, marked 'sensitive', through an FoI request. He was refused by Decc but won a ruling under the FoI appeals procedure that the information must be handed over.

The department insists it was going to make public some of the findings and denies the report's publication was triggered by the FoI demand.

The report was slipped out last Wednesday in the middle of one of the most important meetings in the history of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. That summit broke up in disarray after Saudi Arabia, the biggest oil producer, failed to win agreement from hardline states such as Iran to turn the taps on to help oil consuming countries in the west.

This article is reproduced courtesy of the Guardian Environment Network


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