Fuel, power and the politics of moral outrage

Most days now I do not drive anywhere. One tank of diesel normally lasts over a month, but at 142 pence or so a litre a full tank costs over £50. There are so many of us trying to use less oil that the local filling station is having a tough time. The filling station is also the shop, which feels the knock-on effect of less custom at the pumps.

Before Japan, before Libya, I had a scenario in my head, of tighter and tighter energy supplies forcing us to rethink we way we live – a return to living and working in the same locality, producing more of our own needs and reserving long-distance trade for high-value items that cannot be obtained nearby. We like to think that we can plan for the future.

Climate change has already made forward planning a far greater challenge. The 2010 floods in Pakistan, disastrous for the people who lost everything, showed the vulnerability to flooding of low-lying farmland. Forest fires in Russia, fanned by furnace winds, killed about 56,000 people. As 2010 became 2011, floods in Queensland, Australia, spread over a huge area the size of France and Germany.

The reinsurance company Munich Re has reported[i] that nine-tenths of the 950 natural disasters that occurred in 2010 were weather-related. Losses resulting from these disasters reached $130 billion, but only $37 billion of this was insured. Professor Peter Hoppe, head of Geo Risks Research at Munich Re, called for the world to move as quickly as possible to 100% renewable energy, so that emissions of greenhouse gases can be slashed.

Then came Japan, the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident. No link with climate change, surely? There might be. I looked up a report by Richard Meares[ii], on a conference held in 2009 on the topic of climate change and geology. The report quoted Professor Bill McGuire of University College, London, as saying: “Climate change doesn’t just affect the atmosphere and the oceans but the earth’s crust as well.” He explained that when ice is lost, the earth’s crust rebounds up, in the process triggering earthquakes, which in turn cause submarine landslides and then tsunamis.

“In the political community people are almost completely unaware of any geological aspects to climate change,” said Professor McGuire.

Climate change might or might not have been a causal factor of the earthquake that traumatised Japan on March 11th, but scientists are indicating that global warming will result in greater frequency and possibly intensity of earthquakes and tsunamis. This will have implications for human settlements, for farming in often fertile coastal zones, and for energy infrastructure. Japan’s nuclear power stations ring the coasts. The earthquake damage to the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, which triggered the nuclear accident that featured in the UK’s daily news headlines until Libya took over on March 19th, is in no way resolved.  Will it be too dangerous in future for Japan to operate nuclear power stations? If so, how will Japan power its huge reconstruction task, let alone its energy-intensive economy? Japan is the world’s third largest consumer of electricity, 1.080 trillion kWh (kilowatt hours) in 2009, according to the CIA World Factbook. About 30% of that electricity is generated using nuclear power. If nuclear power stations become too risky, either Japan will have to slash electricity consumption, or use other fuels. Another 30% of electricity comes from coal-fired power stations. Raising that percentage would increase the emissions that are heating up the atmosphere. Electricity generated from coal emits over a third more carbon dioxide per kWh than electricity generated from oil.[iii] If not more coal, then what? More gas and oil? Japan has to import both, and extra demand would accelerate the price rises that will force radical reappraisals of the world’s energy use and trade flows.

Libya has a great deal of oil, the largest reserves in Africa – about 43 billion barrels of oil[iv] and over 1.3 trillion cubic metres of gas, according to the National Oil Company of Libya. The National Oil Company is state owned and furnishes about three-quarters of the Libyan governments income. The National Oil Company thus funds President Muammar Gaddafi ‘s administration. It would be very attractive to oil importing nations to gain direct control over Libya’s oil, to divert the income that currently flows to the national government.

This thought leads to a consideration of the ‘rebels’ who have gained the military support of France, the UK, the USA and countries of the Arab League (minus Libya, whose membership has been suspended). Who are the ‘rebels’? What do they want? Why should we take sides when we apparently know so little about the rebels and their political aspirations? Do more Libyans oppose Gaddafi than support him? Why are the USA and UK siding  — at least for the time being — with the Arab League to try and push Gaddafi aside? Or is the Arab League co-operating with the US, France, UK et. al., for members’ varied reasons and quite possibly only temporarily?

The 22 member countries of the oil-rich Arab League include many that are definitely not renowned for their tolerance of democracy: Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Syria, and several more.  It is hard to believe that the Arab League opposes Gaddafi because of his alleged suppression of democracy. I cannot chase away the thought that oil is at the centre of this new conflict, as it was at the heart of the invasion of Iraq by the ‘coalition of the willing’. At the very least, I wish that our governments would stop covering perceived self-interest in a cloak of moral outrage, hiding the web of energy and climate issues that threaten our wellbeing. It’s a complex web that needs to be fully in the open before we can start to untangle the strands.

[i] Natural Catastrophes 2010: analyses, assessments, positions.

[ii]Global warming may bring tsunami and quakes: scientists’, by Richard Meares, September 17th 2009, http://in.reuters.com.

[iii] ‘Combustion fuels – carbon dioxide emission’, www.engineeringtoolbox.com.

[iv] Although it is a vast quantity, 43 billion barrels would be sufficient to supply the world’s oil needs for less than 18 months.


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