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By Dick Lawrence

The seventh annual European conference on Peak Oil was held in Barcelona, Spain on October 20-21.  The conference theme was “Peak Oil: From Below Ground to Above Ground”.   This could probably be classified as the first conference of the formally-incorporated organization ASPO- International, which came into being following the Cork (Ireland) conference in 2007.

“Below Ground” topics included updated presentations covering the standard fare of previous ASPO-Europe conferences, from some well-known speakers and some new faces.

“Above Ground” presentations and panel sessions turned their attention to renewable energy supply, local solutions, and social aspects of Peak Oil.  Also on Day 2, Colin Campbell delivered the keynote address “Peak Oil: A Turning Point for Mankind”.

For the “below ground” discussion, several presentations linked oil production to the economy.  Kjell Aleklett presented “Peak Oil and Economic Growth in Africa”, looking at the “reverse export model” of African nations, wealthy in oil but at the bottom of the world economic ladder, exporting their resources to 1st-world nations with no benefit to their citizens.  This constitutes robbery, on a global scale.  If the problems of these nations are not addressed, they will eventually impact Europe in negative ways.

Jean Laherrere and colleague Jean-Luc Wingert looked at world oil production.  We’ve been on a bumpy plateau for over 3 years, and may have peaked in July 2008 (Aug, Sept. were down).  “Peak Oil” for these purposes means all liquids including NGL but excluding “heavy”.  Jean estimated ultimate recoverable (URR) will total 2000-2200 billion barrels.

Jean noted that Colin Campbell predicted the coincidence of PO and an economic crisis. The crisis may lead to a short downturn in production followed by a secondary, somewhat higher peak relative to the not-produced oil of the downturn period. This rebound effect will make it difficult for the peak oil message to get heard.  In the current economic crisis it may be very hard to see the “signal” of oil peak in all the “noise” of financial chaos.

Ed Schreyer discussed “North America Energy Policy” in light of the NAFTA agreement between U.S. and Canada.  Schreyer recalled the concept and history of “the commons” and Commonwealth in the U.S. (reference to this month’s bailouts of major companies and financial industries).  Now the party is over, it’s time to grow up.  It seems we knew better in the 1960s – resource stewardship, protection of public property – but then we forgot what we learned.

Once it seemed the world was too vast for humans to have an impact.  Now we’re clearly changing the world – the IEA projects CO2 emissions rising 35-40% by 2030.  If that happens, we’ve failed.   North America has seen a rise in the use of fossil fuels since 1985, while the technology (renewable power) was there to grow in a less fossil-fuel-intensive way. Climate and Fossil Fuels are joined at the hip; we must decarbonize.

To produce renewable energy on a scale that would make a serious reduction in CO2 emissions is mind-boggling.  Scale itself is part of the problem.  Any country that doesn’t take advantage of their renewable resources is being irresponsible.  The time to start is now.

In the Q&A, Ed noted that tar sands are now 50% of Canadian oil supply, as conventional production is declining steeply. With the current financial crisis and very high capital costs for tar sands development, turbulent times are coming for the oil & gas industry in Canada.

Day 2, “above ground”:

Spain was an interesting choice of venue in part because its government, along with Germany and Japan, has set some of the most aggressive goals in the world for ramping up renewable energy industries and supplies.  They have enacted policies to encourage renewable development including subsidies and feed-in tariffs for electrical power supplied to the grid by renewable sources.

Richard Meyer from Germany discussed “Potential of solar energy to replace decreasing extraction rates for fossil fuels”.  This explored the potential for utility-scale concentrating solar power (CSP) projects, technology in which Spain is rapidly gaining world leadership.  These systems use solar-tracking reflective arrays to heat a working fluid (oil, water, or molten salts) which drives a conventional steam turbine to make electricity.  Recent developments use oversized arrays and store excess thermal energy in molten salt, which can continue to heat water to steam and keep the generators spinning for up to 8 hours after the sun goes down, providing a better match to peak demand.

An impressive application of renewable energy is described in “Wind/Pumped-Hydro Power Station for El Hierro Island.”  Like many islands, this member of the Canary Islands (Spanish possession) is heavily dependent on diesel fuel to power generators for electrical power.  The island’s favorable wind regime and unique topographical features enable a system that pumps water to a high reservoir when the wind is blowing and there is excess power; later, when there is high demand or less wind, the water is released, passing through power-generating turbines to a lower storage basin.  Their long-term plan is to convert to 100% renewable supply.

Jose Luis Garcia Ortega of Greenpeace Spain looked at the potential for Spain to go to 100% renewable energy supply by 2050 (50% by 2020).  The solar / wind potential is there, and combined with aggressive efficiency programs, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, and hydrogen generation as a stored energy supply, the goal is achievable – technically and economically.  Jose concludes that the obstacles are mainly political.  Time is growing short, and the solution will have to revolutionize existing systems.

Pedro Perez asked “Can Wind and Solar Close the Gap?”  80% of our energy now is from fossil fuels; GDP, standard of living, and energy consumption are tightly correlated.  Energy consumption, like financial assets, is distributed very unequally around the globe – 20% of the population consumes 80% of world energy.  This is one of the motivators for massive human migration across borders.  “If you see George Bush embracing a 3rd-world leader and promising 1st-world benefits for trade with the U.S., don’t believe him” – it’s not possible, nor sustainable.

Spain gets 10% of its electrical power from wind, and there’s potential for much more (as well as hydro).  Obstacles take the form of supply not being near big-city consumers, so substantial grid upgrades are needed.  Since wind is intermittent, the system also needs rapid-dispatchable backup power behind the wind farms.  SCALE is the big issue however; to offset anticipated rates of oil / gas decline will take massive renewable-energy programs, having huge requirements for concrete, steel, other basic materials as well as up-front energy investments that will take a long time to pay back.

In the “social dimension” was a talk by Bob Lloyd from Australia.  He explores territory similar to that illuminated by Nate Hagens (of The Oil Drum): “The Growth Delusion: Why we don’t want to believe in Peak Oil and Climate Change”.  Logical as we like to think ourselves, the human brain seems to have evolved in a way that permits us to accept, without question, nonsensical concepts such as perpetual growth of real stuff, and “trickle-down” economies that will somehow make everyone well-off.   Our attitudes toward issues like future energy scarcity and climate change seem to originate in the same region of the brain activated by religious belief.  Our brain seems to be poorly organized for planning ahead and for dealing with long-term, slowly-developing problems.  Our ability to solve complex problems may be compromised by the very structure of our brain, which does not bode well for anticipating and preparing for oil’s impending production decline, or for Climate Change.

Kjell Aleklett closed the conference with a summary.  On the “below-ground” front, little has changed since the 2002 conference at Uppsala.  Information indicates a peak in oil production is here, or imminent; the problem is communicating the message to policy makers.  They don’t like to think about, or talk about, Peak Oil, as it represents a decline in GDP and the end of growth.  “Peak exports” may be something they, and economists, can grasp more easily.  When decline is well underway, it will speak the message politicians can’t; if they still deny it, we may be in for some difficult times for democracy.

A special award was presented to Jean Laherrere and Colin Campbell recognizing 10 years have passed since their seminal paper in Scientific American in 1998.  They were each given a beautiful “fire alarm” bell to commemorate their role in raising the alarm a decade ago.

Dick Lawrence is a board member, a co-founder of ASPO-USA, and has attended all seven ASPO conferences in Europe, from 2002 through the Barcelona event.

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent ASPO-USA’s positions; they are personal statements and observations by informed commentators)