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No contingency plans

George Monbiot

In February 2008 I sent a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Business, asking what contingency plans the government has made for the eventuality that global supplies of crude oil might peak between now and 2020. The answer I received astonished me. "The government does not feel the need to hold contingency plans specifically for the eventuality of crude oil supplies peaking between now and 2020."

As it revealed in a parliamentary answer, the government relies primarily on the International Energy Agency for its assessment. When I made my first request, its cavalier attitude chimed with the IEA's. But at the end of last year the agency suddenly changed tack. Its World Energy Outlook report upgraded the annual rate of decline in output from the world's existing oilfields from 3.7% to 6.7%. Previously it had relied on guesswork. This time it had conducted the world's first comprehensive study of decline rates, covering the 800 largest fields.

The report also contained a word the agency had hitherto avoided: peak. It proposed that "although global oil production in total is not expected to peak before 2030, production of conventional oil ... is projected to level off towards the end of the projection period." When I interviewed the IEA's chief economist for the Guardian, he tightened this up: "In terms of non-Opec, we are expecting that in three, four years' time the production of conventional oil will come to a plateau, and start to decline ... In terms of the global picture, assuming that Opec will invest in a timely manner, global conventional oil can still continue, but we still expect that it will come around 2020 to a plateau as well ... I think time is not on our side here." He told me that we would need a "global energy revolution" to avert this prospect. Nothing of the kind is happening.

So I sent the British government a new request: in the light of what the IEA has revealed, what contingency plans has the government made? The response has now arrived. "With sufficient investment, the government does not believe that global oil production will peak between now and 2020, and consequently we do not have any contingency plans specific to a peak in oil production."

I just don't get it. Let us assume that there is only a 10% chance of the IEA, and everybody else predicting that global oil supplies will soon peak or plateau, being right. That still makes peak oil about 100,000 times more likely than an outbreak of smallpox in the United Kingdom.

As the report by Robert Hirsch - commissioned by the US department of energy - shows, the consequences of peak oil taking governments by surprise are at least as devastating as a smallpox epidemic. "Without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political costs will be unprecedented." Hirsch estimated that to avoid global economic collapse, we would need to begin "a mitigation crash programme 20 years before peaking". If he's right and the IEA is right, we are already 10 years too late. But my conversations with government officials suggest to me that they wear the absence of plans almost as a badge of honour, like the Viking berserkers who went into battle without armour to show how mad they were.

The only explanation I can suggest is that the concept of insufficient oil cannot be accommodated within the government's worldview. Its response to a smallpox epidemic accords with its messianic tendencies: government as superman, defending us from crackpots carrying vampire pathogens. The idea that we might be undone by an issue as mundane and unresponsive as resource depletion just doesn't fit.

But at least we know where we stand: we'll have to make our own contingency plans. Does anyone have a spare AK-47?

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