105. A crisis of energy

It was a less of a bang, and more of a low thud, which woke me on Sunday morning just after 6 am.

tarifa-windfarm-buncefield-fire-bp-alternative-energy.jpgSomething had fallen off a shelf downstairs somewhere, I thought, and I went back to sleep.

I’d never really believed those stories about the Krakatoa explosion being heard in India, 5,000 km away, or of Londoners being able to hear the First World War guns in France, but now I do.

Because that sound which woke me early on Sunday wasn’t generated in the house at all, but by an exploding oil storage facility on the other side of London, over 100 km away. Remarkable.

The skies were fantastic all day long – and from our vantage point high on the Downs we gazed upon wondrously wintry, foggy pastels, with layers of wispy white mist floating down the Wey valley. There was a slightly darker grey fog hanging to the north over London, but I didn’t give it another thought, not then. Not even when I tried to fill up with petrol in mid-afternoon and found a mystifyingly long queue of cars all doing the same. I gave up and went home, and it was only in the evening when I turned on the news that the day’s events all fell into place.

nuclear-energy-wrong-answer.jpgThe biggest peacetime explosion, ever, in Western Europe. Shredded, but mercifully empty, office blocks. Hundreds of houses with windows blown in and doors blown clean off their hinges. A huge black cloud diverting planes into Heathrow, forcing the closure of 70 schools and the evacuation of thousands. A light black rain falling as late as Wednesday morning, coating the pavement and cars in the street as I headed to the station just before dawn.

That’s the price of oil, I hear you say. And so it is. But what we have to be thankful for, this time, is that it was only a fuel dump, and not Sizewell nuclear power station. That the clouds of smoke hanging over London were full of black oily fallout rather than a nuclear rain. We’d have been in so much more trouble, then, and probably forced to flee to France or Cornwall by now.

Energy. It’s been in the news so much. A full year has passed since I wrote my first piece on the energy crisis, and the subject has never been out of the headlines since then. A constant stream of revelations from the natural environment, confirming the growing scale of the global warming problem. Thinning ice sheets on Greenland. Shrinking glaciers in the Alps. The complete disappearance of the famous ice fields on the Eiger North Face. A ship (not even an icebreaker) making its way through the Arctic ice to reach the North Pole through open seas for the first time. A measurable weakening in the strength of the Gulf Stream. Record sea temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. Icebergs as big as New Jersey breaking off Antarctica. The first year I can ever remember the US National Hurricane Center completely running through the entire alphabet of storm names, and having to start all over again. Devastating storms in New Orleans and Galveston, and the casting of Katrina and Rita as some of the worst girls ever to have hit the Deep South.

Panic buying of petrol in London on one winter Sunday afternoon.

It’s been a frustrating year, in so many ways. Not much has changed, in the past twelve months, for all of the fact that the evidence is there, and it’s undeniable. We’re still sleepwalking into the abyss, all of us together. No matter what President Bush’s misguided cronies, and the inestimable Harlan Watson might try to say, on behalf of a few wilfully blind American oil and coal corporations. It’s true that those paid to testify against the scientific tide have done a long and effective task. Those few that still stand, and are now so slowly beginning to fall, lie within a cynically well-rewarded minority, but they’re less than a handful, now.

Because there just is no doubt. Not any more. The world’s climate is changing – we all know that. Each and every one of us. ‘The scientists are divided’ – that’s the spin. Well, let me tell you now, that real scientists, like me – no, we’re not divided at all.

And if you don’t yet believe that we are running dangerously low on our reserves of hydrocarbon-based fuels, with the supply and demand balance perilously thin, then think, just for a minute, about what would happen, if we actually were. We’d see escalating energy prices, wouldn’t we ? Our utility bills would be going up, relentlessly. Petrol would be dearer at the pumps. And the market would become so much more jittery. All of those things – we’ve seen them this year. And when it snowed in the US Northeast last week, the oil price went up FIVE DOLLARS, the very same day. Globally. For just one snowstorm. Thirty oil tanks blew up in London on Sunday, and my entire country spent the afternoon at the petrol station. So let’s admit it. Supply is desperately tight.

There’s still plenty of oil there, but we’re reaching the peak of world production. We can pump it for years to come, but not at the same rate as we have done. And certainly not faster, however much more oil we need to supply economic growth in our own countries and the fantastically accelerating demand in the developing ones. Saudi Arabia – yes, they have a lot of oil, but not as much as they did have. And they haven’t found any more, not on the scale we need it. The motivation for oil-producing nations to declare massive untapped and non-existent reserves couldn’t possibly have anything to do with OPEC setting its production quotas on exactly that basis, could it ? Well, yes, it could, and it almost certainly does.

We need to find more oil, and gas – we have no choice about that, not really, since we’re so desperately reliant on them, for now. But over time, and not very much time, we’re all going to have to ways to eke out what we have, a little bit longer, to win time for alternatives and renewables to come in.

And despite all of the condemnatory criticism that the rest of the world so justly places on the United States for its profligate and wasteful energy consumption, above all for its mule-like refusal to wake up and take any sort of responsibility for the welfare of the planet, there have been some minute grains of comfort to be had this year, at a different kind of level.

The massive growth in the numbers of hybrid cars being sold to concerned and thoughtful Americans, at the very same time that the White House denies any need for them. The number of individuals who have taken an ecological stance in their own energy decisions, whatever their governments might say. The e-mail I received from a running colleague in Chicago telling of his new pellet-burning stove and energy-efficient dwelling. The book Twilight in the Desert published in 2005 by the Houston-based energy investment banker, Matt Simmons, laying out the firmest of evidence that there’s nowhere near as much oil in the Middle East as we thought. The so-belated realisation in a nation of $ 3 gasoline that gas-guzzling SUVs make a style statement about the driver as subtle as a windshield-sticker saying cheerfully ‘I’m raping the planet and it’s fun’. The successful pressure put by citizens and media on the US administration finally and reluctantly to sign the Montreal Accord last week. The decision to take just one small step closer to the other 157 (yes, that’s one hundred and fifty seven) nations who have already signed the Kyoto agreement, regardless of US truculence. Eight years late it might be, but let me confirm that now – it’s a fantastically positive and important move.

So what are the alternatives ? Can they deliver ? That’s a very good question, since we’re all just about to find out. Tony Blair may have been putting out feelers about replacing our nuclear power stations in the UK, but we all know that’s the wrong answer. There’s no known geological way of safely storing the waste, not now, and not ever. And for all those people who always tell me that those plants are safe, then just let them look at our oil fire in London last week. Fuel dumps don’t blow up, do they ? Well, yes they do. And so do nuclear power stations. It might be 20 years since Tschernobyl and even longer since Three Mile Island, but those things happen, in even the most safety-conscious of installations. We hope they won’t and we’ll try to stop those incidents occurring. But we can’t stop them happening altogether. Just ask the residents of Texas City how they felt when their ever-so-safe BP oil refinery blew up earlier this year.

There are plenty who’d see the threat to our conventional energy supplies as the deathknell of economic growth, but at least we don’t all see it that way. There are huge opportunities, too. If you’ve read just one newspaper this fortnight, or visited one city, you can’t possibly have missed the global publicity blitz on alternative energy which BP has just embarked upon. I’ve no idea what that huge campaign has cost, but it’s massive. It’s a change of direction which could well make BP one of the most successful corporations of our time. The investments are still small, by the scale of the conventional energy business, but the important thing is that they’re growing, and growing fast. It’s just as well they are, because believe me, we’ll need those technologies to work, very soon.

I’m sad to admit it, but I’m absolutely not blameless, myself, not in any of this. I burn fossil fuels, just like the rest of us. I do my best to find them, too. And for all the fact that our electricity comes from an offshore wind farm and is zero carbon rated, our household still has a carbon footprint which is above the national average. Partly because it’s a hundred year old house, with single brick walls and draughty old windows. But also because I drive too much, about 12 000 miles on my way to work, even if my choice of car gives me 40 miles per gallon. I fly too much, as well, mostly on business, but on holiday, too. No personal long-haul flights, this year, but still it adds up to about 12 tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere on our behalf this year – and that’s well over two Olympic-sized swimming pools of the stuff.

So I went out last month and bought some draught-excluder for those ill-fitting doors and windows. I walked home from the station last night, however much my session in the pub left me feeling like taking a taxi. We’ve turned the heating down, again, just a little. These are such small steps, really, like throwing a single bucket of foam over a raging oil fire.

My London Marathon ballot place arrived last week. After three straight rejections, I’m finally in. After the disappointment I felt last year, and the decision to race in Abingdon last October instead, the offer of a place in the greatest race in the world seemed strangely anticlimactical, this time. I’ve been out running a few times since then. The longest was seven miles, and the slowest was six. Work has been busy, and there’ve been too many parties to go to. Too many dark evenings and shivery lunchtimes to enjoy it very much. I’ve felt very listless, and worryingly unenthusiastic, really. Cold, and uncertain of where I’m headed.

But they all add up, those small steps. They do make a difference. It’s the only way to get there, with any kind of energy crisis.

It was Arthur Ashe who said that the path to success is always to start right now, from here, using what we have (and what we know) to get there.

And we can all do it, really we can.

Related articles:
69. Running low on fuel
133. Tomorrow – Avril Lavigne and global warming
98. Off the shoulder of Orion – Costa de la Luz
140. The Great Global Warming Swindle
128. October is a summer month

2 responses to “105. A crisis of energy

  1. Your argument is weak and your knowledge of nuclear physics and radiation is little more than an assumption. nuclear energy is not some sort of evil black magic, however it does have its dangers. So too does just above every other form of energy in some way. Things that are powerful are potentially dangerous thats just nature. The coal industry has killed far more than the nuclear industry has and nobody whines about the coal industry in particular it just gets lumped into the carbon footprint campaign.

  2. Thank you, Joey, for your comment on this post now over two years old. The topic is now every bit as urgent, just as Gordon Brown is poised to endorse the building of a new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK.

    There’s a legal challenge to the review of nuclear energy in this country which is currently underway. The first public consultation concluded some time ago, but was deemed flawed and seriously misleading by our own legal system and had to be started all over again. Then part way through that new consultation, Gordon Brown stated publicly that the answers were already clear – which severely undermined the process by making it transparent that the decision was entirely pre-judged, as indeed it is.

    I’ll happily concede that your views on the subject may be different from my own, but despite your unfriendly assertion above, I’m no ignoramus on either nuclear physics or radiation, and I took courses in both at university.

    It’s true that many forms of energy have their dangers, although I’m not sure exactly what kind of hazards you imagine that a growth in renewable energy might bring ?

    Likewise, I’d be interested in any scientifically-based and geologically sound suggestions which you can propose for the long-term storage of nuclear waste which provides for the safe and effective isolation of radionuclides from the environment over the timescales required ?

    The crux of this argument lies in the fact that despite decades of study, the British government hasn’t come forward with any such solutions – most specifically because there are none.

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