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oil, black gold, texas tea: riding the long decline

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eia-oil-price

the volatile oil price, based on Brent Crude

 

Canto: The price of oil, if you’re looking at Brent Crude, is just over $35 per barrel. That’s today, February 4 2016. But what’s Brent Crude, and whose dollars are we talking about, and who if anyone controls the oil price?

Jacinta: Don’t look at me. So we’re going to talk OPEC and Saudi Arabia, and gluts and reserves and peak supply and peak demand and carbon emissions and oil geopolitics now are we?

Canto: Why not? The oil price has just picked up slightly from a 12-year low of just under $30 a barrel, and nobody seems to know what’s causing the volatility, because there are so many players and factors affecting the global market. The uncertainty is as much long-term as short-term. It’s probably fair to say that the glory days of oil, that ineluctably diverse commodity, are behind us, but the decline will be slow, and we’re still a long way from finding a viable alternative in the transport sector.

Jacinta: Well, especially in air transport. So it’s hard to know where to start, but what’s OPEC?

Canto: Well you probably know that it’s an organisation of the major petroleum exporting countries, an organisation with a slightly shifting membership but always centred around the principal exporter, Saudi Arabia. It was founded in 1960, at a time when it was becoming clear that oil was the world’s most bankable commodity, and that most of that commodity was to be found in the Middle East – in Saudi in particular.

Jacinta: Right, and of course OPEC was formed to protect the interests of suppliers, and to ensure sovereignty over supply, against a background of exploitation and corruption. Not that the new ‘owners’ of the oil are any less corrupt than the previous ones.

Canto: I don’t know how useful it is for us to go into all this, I mean surely we don’t want to get caught up in the labyrinthine politics of the Middle East and its antagonists…

Jacinta: No no you’re right, though I do find it all very intriguing. I mean, this oil dependence we have is a recent phenomenon, essentially a 20th century issue, and it has had extraordinary consequences. To take just one example, it is the absolute basis of the wahabist Saud dynasty’s stranglehold on power, and I think it’s fair to say that this hasn’t been a good thing – particularly for the women of the region. I know I’m not alone in finding it demoralising that the rise to riches of Saudi Arabia in recent decades has seen no increase in freedom or in education outside of some narrow technical areas.

Canto: Yes, it’s depressing, so shall we instead focus on the commodity itself, and its future?

what this graph doesn't tell you is most of this oil is costly, dirty, hard-to-extract oil, from fracking, tar sands, ocean drilling etc

what this graph doesn’t tell you is most of this new oil is costly, dirty, hard-to-extract oil, from fracking, tar sands, ocean drilling etc

Jacinta: Fine well its immediate future was secured in the past with the invention of the automobile and the aeroplane. Before that the stuff was mostly used for kerosine, for heating.

Canto: And don’t forget plastics.

Jacinta: Absolutely but as I’ve said, it’s the transport sector that’s most dependent on oil, so how do we solve that problem, assuming we want to wean ourselves from the stuff?

Canto: But are there really any serious alternatives? I mean you mentioned air travel. We’ve heard of electric cars, solar cars, hydrogen cars, but air travel? Remember the Hindenburg?

Jacinta: Well I heard one expert put it this way. The world is largely tooled for liquid fuel – that’s petrol, LPG, diesel etc. That’s an investment of multi-trillions of dollars, an investment that continues every day. And there’s no viable alternative ready to go now or in the foreseeable, and even if there was, trashing all this perfectly functional machinery and all the ancillary technology and business that connects to the oil and gas industry – the consequences need to be realistically considered. You can’t be too simplistic about this stuff. So it is going to be incremental change no matter what.

Canto: So you mean a continual tinkering with current fuels to minimise their environmental impact while experimenting with new forms of fuel which we might be able to exploit without too much retooling.

Jacinta: Yes, at least not in the short term.

Canto: So how does LPG compare with petrol in terms of viability and environmental impact? I know there are those in the oil and gas industries who point to gas as a ‘green’ alternative, while others like Naomi Klein dismiss it as just another fossil fuel. Is it plausible or sensible to aim for LPG as the predominant road fuel while developing renewable alternatives?

Jacinta: Well there seems to be quite a few problems with LPG technology in cars – lots of extra plumbing and wiring, things to go wrong, high costs to fix problems, no doubt largely due to it being a minority system. And that’s the main problem – LPG has been around for a long time now but has never really taken off and been seriously competitive with petrol. That means availability is limited – a major inconvenience – and maintenance costs will be higher. That doesn’t look like changing.

Canto: How about biofuels? They were all the rage a while back but they seem to have gone out of fashion. Something about wasting good food, or grain or whatever, and the precious land to grow it on, on something so trivial as travel.

Jacinta: Well yes, there are those problems but there’s a new, or newish idea being worked on re biofuels – the use of algae. But I plan to write about that, and other possible solutions, on our other blog, Solutions OK.

Canto: Yes, and that’s also the place to consider the future of autonomous vehicles, and even autonomous electric vehicles, because it’s quite likely, isn’t it, that if these vehicles eventually take off (and I don’t mean flying vehicles, though they’ve also been developed), they could revolutionise our road usage, and why wouldn’t we use a better source of energy, such as electricity – already a proven technology for road transport, pre-dating the infernal combustion engine, or at least its use in motor vehicles.

the future - vehicles so autonomous they refuse to have passengers

the future – vehicles so autonomous they refuse to have passengers

Jacinta: Yes, so talk about future energy solutions is verboten here, and talk about geopolitics is obviously beneath us, so what’s left?

Canto: We’ll think of something, next time.

 

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Written by stewart henderson

February 12, 2016 at 7:39 pm

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