The Guardian: Are we ready for when the oil runs out?
Saturday June 19, 2004
Shell's chairman, Lord Oxburgh, hit the front page this week when he told the Guardian that oil- and gas-burning threatens the planet, and that unless emissions can be captured and stored below ground or under the sea, there is "very little hope for the world". Quite a confession from the head of one of the world's largest oil and gas companies.
I agree about the magnitude of the threat - global warming is an inspector-proven weapon of mass destruction - but I have a big question about the survival mechanism. Why didn't Lord Oxburgh mention the words "renewable energy"? It is a strange omission, given that Shell also owns one of the biggest renewable energy companies in the world.
Renewable energy can replace oil, gas and coal completely, and power the world without the emissions that cause global warming. Vehicles can be powered by hydrogen and batteries. Hydrogen can be derived from renewable electricity by passing a current through water. There is no need to face the costly, tricky, perhaps impossible challenge of pumping greenhouse gases underground.
The renewable energy family is big, varied and packed with promise. Take solar. Launching the government's energy white paper, Tony Blair concluded: "Solar energy alone could meet world energy demand by using less than 1% of land currently used for agriculture." Solar cells could generate all global electricity demand using an area of the Sahara desert 600km square. Even the cloudy UK could supply more electricity than it currently consumes simply by putting solar rooftiles on every household.
By mixing and matching renewable technologies any aspect of modern life could be powered reliably by renewables. All we need is imagination, the will government's usually reserve for waging war, the leadership from responsible companies and time to make the switch.
Shell tells us the topping-out point for oil depletion lies far away in the 2030s. Until that point is passed, we can expect growing amounts of our drug of choice at cheap prices. Just as well, most economists say, because the world economy has evolved to a dependence on oil and gas that is akin to the animal kingdom's dependence on oxygen. Between now and 2030, they say, we have time to develop alternatives and enable a smooth transition. But suppose peak-depletion is not in 2030 but 2007, as the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas now says. If this group of pessimistic ex-oilmen and academics is right, we are close to permanent high-and-rising oil prices, with no time to develop alternatives. Global depression is around the corner.
If sober Shell can sink so low as to lie about its reserves, then who else? Could the pessimists be right? Shareholders, governments, or both, need to force the oil industry to open its books.
And has Shell been sitting on the survival technologies, ensuring that they stay locked up in tiny markets for the foreseeable future? At the very least, Shell has not been showing the entrepreneurial zeal for renewable energy that it has shown for a century on the frontiers of the hydrocarbon age. Shareholders, consumers and governments must force them, and all the oil companies, to change course. Unless we do, there will indeed be little hope for the world.
· Dr Jeremy Leggett is the chief executive of solarcentury and a member of the government's Renewables Advisory Board