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13 Mar 2007

Peak Oil and Beyond – Q&A with Heinberg, Campbell and Leggett – Part 1.

d1At January’s Soil Association conference “One Planet Agriculture”, I chaired a session called **”Peak Oil And Beyond – a Discussion Circle”**, which gave delegates the opportunity to question Richard Heinberg and Colin Campbell, and later Jeremy Leggett, about peak oil and related issues. The session ran for over an hour, so rather than bombard you with it all at once, I will run it in installments over the next few days. It was a fascinating discussion, ranging over peak oil, climate change, agriculture, land reform, and much more. Many thanks to Tamzin for nobly transcribing all this! I hope you find it useful.

The key for telling who is talking is as follows;

**R – Rob Hopkins
Ri – Richard Heinberg
C – Colin Campbell
J – Jeremy Leggett**

R. Good morning everybody and welcome to this morning’s workshop, which is called the ‘Peak Oil and Beyond – A Discussion Circle’, though it’s not quite a circle, but I don’t think the room quite allows for that, so we’ll go for whatever we have! The idea for this workshop arose from a conference that we ran in Ireland a couple of years ago which both Richard and Colin spoke at, which was called ‘Fuelling the Future’.

One of the things we had at that was a little session which was an audience with Colin, which gave people the opportunity just to follow on from the first session, which was largely about peak oil and what it’s all about, and gave people the opportunity to ask questions and explore the question deeper. The main thing I remember from that session was there was an American gentleman who’d come to the conference, whose solution to the peak oil challenge was to buy gold, and I remember him coming to Colin’s discussion group, and every time it came back round to him, that was his suggestion – to buy gold! Never mind all this depletion stuff – buy gold and we’ll all be fine.

So if you’re here to tell us all to buy gold, we’d love to hear from you! We don’t have anything especially planned for this morning, but the idea is basically just…if you’ve come with questions, as I talked about yesterday, I’m sure Post-Petroleum Stress Disorder has already affected you in varying ways since yesterday morning, and there’ll be lots of questions that have been bubbling up and brewing and being talked about over dinner and over the last couple of days. So really the idea is to just throw it open to questions which Richard and Colin will deal with. Who’d like to start us off?

**Q1. Thank you. My name’s Sue, I’m a chartered surveyor. Yesterday Richard, at the end of your presentation, you suggested that land reform would be needed, but you didn’t have time to expand on that, and I was interested in your thoughts on that.**

Ri. It’s a bit difficult to talk about because we need more models as to how that could proceed. The need for it is clear enough. As we transition from an industrial model of agriculture to a truly post-industrial model of agriculture, there are really two routes that we could go down. One could be called the new serfdom – if land continues to be owned in enormous parcels by a few people, then as the need for human labour in agricultural production grows, we could end up in a situation where many people work on large manorial estates for a small number of land holders (a situation which I gather is not entirely unprecedented in this country and elsewhere around the world!).

I don’t think that would be the best way for events to unfold, but in order for them to unfold in another way, we’re going to have to find some means of breaking up the large land-holdings and enabling people. First of all we need people who are motivated to grow food, in large numbers. Then we need a means of educating those people, so that they know how to produce food. And then we need to have those people enabled with the finances and land, so that they can go about doing that.

**Q1. I wonder if I could pursue that issue, because if you say a land-holding company is broken up in to small individual properties, or my sense is actually that large estates work pretty well – what they need to do is to enable more people, for the land to be used differently. In other words, it’s not so much the ownership of it, but the way it’s used which is important. And actually large land holdings can take advantage of the different categories of land and woodland…and actually to be held in big blocks, one way or another, is actually a good thing rather than a bad thing.**

saRi Yes, farming co-ops are a very viable possibility. If you have many small land holders working together, then there’s the possibility of sharing access to farm equipment that a single farming family wouldn’t be able to afford to maintain, and so on. So there are lots of possibilities.

**Q2. I’m an engineer. The prospects for people will depend fairly critically on how slow we go down the other side. I’ve seen various estimates – I was wondering what Colin and Richard think will be the speed that goes down and what will be the effects of it.**

C. The model that I have is based on depletion rate, being defined as the annual production as a percent of what is left. I’ve done this for every country in the world, and the rate varies from country to country obviously. The highest rate is somewhere like the North Sea or Norway, which has very sophisticated technology and they really get at it fast, and old Texas is going down at about 3 % and the high people at say 7 or 8%. But as a world as a whole, the latest number comes out at 2.7% a year. So you have a decline rate at something of that level.

**Q2. So that’s something like 2 billion barrels a day per year, to replace or not use?**

Ri. Not quite…close to it.

C. I’m not good at Mathematics in my head, but anyway 2% of 28 roughly today…

Ri. Yeah, regular conventional would be about 72 million barrels a day.

C. Something like that.

**Q2. So 1½?**

C. That sort of order of magnitude. It’s not a cliff – I think the importance is there’s so much debate about the date of the peak. People are arguing was it last year, next year, 10 years after and so on, and that really isn’t the point – it’s the change from something that’s growing to declining, and it’s only declining at a very shallow rate. But it is a fundamental change from going up to coming down.

R. And how do you think that change in direction will manifest?… what will that look like, do you think?

C. Well I guess we’ll have to go over the top and go down a certain way before we see we’re past the peak, and it’s truly recognised by everybody. But I suppose it’s hard to know what will happen exactly, and of course, it’s not equally distributed. Much is left in the Middle East, which gives rise to the wars and everything to try to secure that. But I think as people perceive this and it’s no longer…well it’s moved already from being a fringe crack-o-jack bloke in the West of Ireland to sitting here in a conference – so it has advanced to some degree. But it’s a difficult thing for people to really get in to their heads – it’s such a different mind-set that it’s not easy to know what will happen.

Ri. Maybe I could say a couple of things – it’s an unknowable scenario at this point, first of all. But also, it’s going to be very complex. We’re likely to see different kinds of effects in different geographical areas – for example, countries that are oil exporters are going to have a very different situation from countries that are oil importers. Oil exporting nations of course will probably see an influx of income, and the result of that will probably be their economies continue to grow, and with increasing economic activity that will probably mean more consumption of energy, more consumption of their own oil. So less will be going to exports.

Now this could create considerable political tension in the world, because that would mean that the oil exporting countries would be continuing to grow, and using more of their own resources, and exporting less. So the importing countries would be feeling the pinch even more than might be expected. And that’s likely to create even more animosity between big oil importers – and I can actually think of one country in that regard! – and major oil exporters, which tend to be collected in one part of the world. So the scenarios there are actually unfolding before our very eyes.

C. Also I think it’s interesting…take Britain for example – the rights to the North Sea are largely owned by foreign companies. So these foreign companies have the contractual right to export Britain’s oil to whoever they wish to, under the famous principles of the open market. So we have a situation where…let’s say a French oil company owning rights to the British North Sea will say, “well we prefer to take this oil to our home country and we don’t care what happens in Britain.

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1 Comment

Walter Fryers
17 Mar 1:54am

The efficient use of available energy will be the foremost consideration. The production of most food, fibre and other essentials will continue to be carried out with large scale, automated technologies, as now. North America’s 300 million plus citizens can be supported in no other way. Localized efforts may make marginal contributions if they do not interfere with the most efficient use of available energy.