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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Gas-guzzling blues

I’ve been trying to remember the words of an old advertising jingle.
Forever rattling out of the radio when I was a kid, it was a
petrol-pushing song for a company called Europa, then “the only
New Zealand oil company”.

After much Googling I finally found it:
“Clean burning Europa,
The petrol with pep.
Keeps your engine sweeter,
Makes your engine step.
All along the way,
Wise motorists say,
‘It’s clean-burning Europa for me’!”

It was sung by a very jolly, English-sounding men’s chorus, with a warbling trumpet at beginning and end.

I was puzzled by the engine-step reference in line four, but my brother (full of knowledge of the art and history of advertising) reminds me that in those days, everyone loved “stepping on it” as drivers strove to get more speed. And we loved cars that looked huge and sassy, like the Chevvy here.

Now that we can go plenty fast enough, we’re more interested in economy. And yet we’re still not thinking straight about oil and how much we need it.

It seems nobody (in New Zealand) is talking about the impending “peak oil” crisis. For a global view, mosey on over to http://www.theoildrum.com/, which recently featured a prediction by top Texas oil man T. Boone Pickens that oil, currently bobbing around at $US85 or so per barrel, will certainly rise to $100 sometime soon. If not this year, then certainly in 2008.
But blithely we go on as if everything’s fine, because we can’t think what else to do. We’ve created the business world the way it is, and only know how to make it hum by keeping on growing. Auckland airport, for instance, is busily investing millions in a new runway. And yet people with foresight, all over the planet, are saying that expensive plans for new airports and motorways and the developments of far-flung towns and suburbs requiring long commutes are pretty much doomed in the long term.

Why? Because oil, already at record highs, is never going to be cheap again. The world’s major oil fields are beginning to suck dry right at the time when consumption is going up and up and up. We, in the west’s developed nations, became completely oil-dependent in the 20th century, to the point where our lives are unthinkable without the stuff. And now China and India, the world’s new power economies, understandably want their turn.

Energy experts are saying we’re in for rough times as we adjust to this new reality. Australians are beginning to think about it. Just last month a headline in the Brisbane Courier Mail screamed: “It’s not Doomsday yet, but if we don’t act now it soon will be.”

The bottom line, wrote journalist Paul Syret is that “that the world’s oil production is close to peaking, with demand for the product soon to outstrip supply.”

The Queensland government has just produced a report following on from research by US energy analyst Robert Hirsch. He concluded two years ago that "as peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented".

Some pessimists reckon we’ll be in crisis very soon: optimists think the peak won’t hit hard until about 2025. But they all think it will hit.

Syret points out, “It will mean a dramatic change of life as we know it, as cheap fuel becomes a distant memory and supply of what is available is hotly contested.”

Some Griffith University wonks recently looked at which Queensland areas would be hardest hit by rising oil prices and flagged outlying urban areas and growth corridors such as Caboolture and Ipswich on Brisbane’s edge.

I live in a growth corridor, too. Our house is about 50km from most of my work activities and social life. I drive back and forth several times a week. My fuel bill is climbing and climbing. Maybe, at some stage, we’ll decide it would be smart to move closer to town. But by then, our house’s location might be a real liability in resale terms. Mmm. How will we know to pick the right time?

One of the Queensland report’s authors described the looming problem as a “double whammy, with higher fuel prices pushing up not just transport, but food prices and everything else as well. He argues that the government must “stop making things worse” with car-dependent suburbs, and start embarking on a “massive investment in outer suburban public transport services”.

There’s scant evidence that anyone in Wellington is thinking this way, even though New Zealand, so very far away from the world’s refineries, is even more vulnerable than Australia.
But a different future is so unimaginable that we all carry on, business as usual, as if cheapish oil will be here for ever.

The irony is that while arguments rage about global warming and the need to reduce carbon emissions, oil is getting scarcer all the time. Maybe that’s how the problem will get fixed – for waning oil flows, surely, will produce lower emissions. But if the supply problem does get really serious, our carbon footprints will pale into insignificance compared with the challenge of feeding and housing ourselves.

Just really cheer you up, the peak-oil people also point out that mass tourism is unlikely to last. When air fares rocket, all those nifty travel packages will be but a memory. So if you’re thinking about taking yourself off on (maybe your last) cheap world trip, right now could be a damn good time.

1 comment:

David MacGregor said...

Interesting to read your remarks about peak oil. It fascinates me that you conclude with an encouragement to take a trip now, before it becomes unattainable.

If everyone were to selfishly adopt the idea that it is the last chance to do the Grand Tour (or some such) then peak oil won't be accelerated - or 'stepped on'.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a 'denier', as a matter of fact I advocate careful use of every resource - natural or man made.

We have become obsessive consumers and I, for one, can't see the value in half of the tat we hoover up (what on earth do you want a plasma TV the size of Lichtenstein for?) There 's hardly much that's worth watching.

But, back to my point about peak oil.

Don't panic. The sky may not fall quite as soon as predicted. In the early 70s it was estimated we would have run out of oil by 2000. It didn't happen. Technology reframed a grim picture.

Not only could we discover oil through more advanced exploration techniques but we could also transport it from previously inaccessible locations (the Alaskan pipeline was an engineering wonder in its day). The electronic fuel injector meant that engines used far less fuel to accomplish far more - as do lightweight body parts and other components in modern cars compared to the multi-tonne tank (a 57 Chev if I'm not mistaken) in your picture.

And finally I have to express some hope that the message is getting through: conserving resources isn't a new idea being forced on us in a nihilistic panic. It is a more natural way for humans to behave to ensure survival. Call me old fashioned but let's encourage a general return to thrift and prudence over greed and immediate gratification.

...oh, and welcome to the blogosphere.