There’s been a lot of investment and deployment in renewable energy technologies for power generation and for displacing petroleum products, but as far as we’ve come over such a short time, and as much as triple-digit oil prices are helping to accelerate the transition, the disturbing fact is that higher-priced oil is leading to dramatically more investment in dirtier, harder to access and riskier to extract heavy oil. So while we may be experiencing the beginnings of “peak” conventional oil we’re also seeing the word “conventional” being refined to include heavier crude, starting with the oil sands and now moving toward oil shale and heavy oil trapped in aging oil fields of the Middle East. My Clean Break column takes a closer look at this issue and comes to the conclusion that higher fossil fuel prices alone won’t wean us off fossil fuels, it will only make us go for deeper, heavier and more remote resources in an effort to feed our petro addiction. The answer is to put a meaningful price on carbon, impose stricter environmental regulations and eliminate unnecessary incentives for the oil industry. Sadly, we’re heading in the wrong direction and there’s no sign in Canada or the United States of the political will, or public pressure, required to shift course. What we’ve seen so far is window dressing.
George Monbiot raised this issue in one of his recent columns. He cited the fact that Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, revealed in late April that crude oil production peaked in 2006. Yet the global economy didn’t collapse as predicted. Why not? “The reason, as Birol went on to explain, is that natural gas liquids and tar sands are already filling the gap,” Monbiot wrote. “Not only does the economy appear to be more resistant to resource shocks than we assumed, but the result of those shocks is an increase, not a decline, in environmental destruction.” The problem, Monbiot continued, isn’t that we have too little fossil fuel but too much. “As oil declines, economies will switch to tar sands, shale gas and coal; as accessible coal declines they’ll switch to ultra-deep reserves (using underground gasification to exploit them) and methane clathrates. The same probably applies to almost all minerals: we will find them, but exploiting them will mean trashing an ever greater proportion of the world’s surface.”
We’re letting it happen. Until we stop letting it happen, things will continue as they are, despite talk of peak oil and despite rising oil and commodity prices.