Robert Mann: Euphoric Cornucopianism Mischievous
Euphoric Cornucopianism is Mischievous
By Robert Mann
Owen McShane tries (Owen McShane: If Stone Age had run out of rocks... - 'NZ' Herald 15 April) to pour oil on the troubled waters of energy policy, especially wishing to soothe fears of the oil peak - the imminent maximum supply rate after which oil production will decline.
Mr McShane avers "for the past few decades the world has enjoyed incredibly cheap oil". True, bulk easily-extracted oil from the middle east and Indonesia keeps the average price down to a mere U$55 per barrel - so far; but averaged in are the 164 killed on the Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea. The margins of oil exploitation have been for decades now dangerous and, from time to time, severely polluting.
McShane says New Zealand sits in the middle of an "ocean" of natural gas, including "frozen methane" offshore. It is wrong to promote offshore exploration, with its dangers of marine blowouts, while ignoring the deep gas theory of Professor Gold, which predicts literally astronomical lodes of natural gas onshore in Taranaki - but very deep (8-10 km).
McShane's "bunch of new technologies ... which delivers petrol at about $2.50 a litre" does not exist, and the concepts he mentions are mostly science fiction, especially his notions of GM-trees and GM garden plants exuding hi-octane fuel from their roots. On this basis he says household income may increase 20-fold this century while oil supply decreases only enough to double the price of petrol.
Compressed natural gas (CNG, for those who don't remember the brief limited encouragement of this indigenous vehicle fuel) should for several strong reasons be re-instated and extended. The NZ CNG equipment industry is still turning over $6m/y - all for export. The technical infrastructure for safe installations has largely lapsed but can be revived in polytechs.
But the basic fact must be faced, the sooner the better: decreasing consumption is in many ways better than trying to deplete resource more rapidly. We must recover skills of consuming less while enjoying it more. Decreasing waste has been clearly identified for many years as the first step. Diverting to use resources now going down a great variety of waste channels is the fastest, cheapest way to decrease consumption of resources. Professor D J Rose, MIT nuclear engineer, finished his review 'Nuclear Eclectic Power' in Science 3 decades ago remarking that, to date, increasing amounts of energy had been used mainly to turn resources into junk. "What are we going to do now?" he finally asked. So far, the governmental and corporate answers have been almost entirely pathetic.
What is needed if we are to face up to the oil peak is not euphoric cornucopianism but technologically informed planning such as the Government abandoned in the 1980s. Oil supplies are liable to be interrupted &/or made much more expensive by market forces; there is no time to lose in making alternative arrangements for transport fuels.