26 Apr, 2004 | Non-fictionWorld AffairsTdp

There has been plenty of coverage of the status of the world's oil reserves of late. This has brought concern from various sources (mainly the press) and grandstanding from the pro- and anti-oil lobbies. There are reports abound, many say we will soon run out of oil, prices will skyrocket and this building block of western power will crumble, possibly taking our societies, certainly our way of life, with it. Others say that current estimates will change over time; 50 years ago the oil industry claimed it would run out of oil in 50 years, that figure has not changed. This has been due to new discoveries and improvements in extraction techniques, something that will continue say many. So you have those worried about stocks, those who aren't concerned, and then those who believe we should dump oil anyway, mainly for environmental reasons.

Oil has influenced the lives of everyone in the developed world. Our technologies, our transport, and many of the products we consume are powered or derived from oil. Quite simply, our economies, technologies and societies could not have been built without it, nor could they be maintained. We have gone to war, created alliances, performed immoral and illegal activities all to ensure it's continual supply. It has, and continues to have, massive impact on our political systems too. Just look at how much the US administration fears fuel price rises and the demonstrations regarding high prices that undermined Tony Blairs reign.

Many anti-oil campaigners argue we should ban it, or restrict its use, for environmental reasons, but they don't seem to see that no government is going to commit political suicide by doing that. The populace likes their cars, their pleasure boats, their frequent trips to foreign climes, their makeup, their plastic containers, and all the other pleasures oil affords us. We like the economic stability and wealth it has brought us too. We aren't going to give it up lightly.

We must, however, kick our addiction to oil. I don’t understand why we haven't done something about this before. The largest oil reserves, and the main supplier to the west, is the Middle East, the OPEC countries to be exact. We have all seen what the developed world is prepared to do should those supplies be threatened. History shows us that everyone, the western powers especially, are ready to go to war for control of those oil fields. The supply routes are long and fragile, yet we have relied on them for more than half a century. Fostering allegiances, making alliances, using military force and straightforward bribery where necessary. We're like a 40-a-day smoker: aware of our addiction, we know it's bad for us, but we seem ill prepared to do anything about it, and before we know it, it's too late and we're suffering the consequences. You only have to look at the price surges around the Iraq wars, and more obviously to the cut in production OPEC enforced that caused the chaos in 1973. Terrorists need not strike our heartlands, hitting the oil fields would ruin us more effectively than any amount of explosives on our home soil. And should any sizeable country decide they wanted to take on the world, hitting our oil supply would cripple our armed forces astoundingly quickly. It seems obvious that oil is our Achilles heel and that while we certainly cannot eradicate it, we must lessen our reliance on it.

So, that brings us back to other solutions to providing cheap, reliable power. Some people argue that we can continue on for much longer if we use our current technologies more efficiently. This may be true and greater efficiency should be an ongoing goal, but realistically, we will need to replace oil sooner or later, sooner is better. Many of the alternatives are environmentally more favourable as an added benefit. Unfortunately, these alternatives are currently too expensive.

Water fuel cells are the ideal way forward, simple, cheap ingredients, clean, renewable, and refillable. Currently they are just too expensive, not to mention too big and bulky for everyday use. There are no other fuels that are suitable to replace oil, and so many have turned to electricity to provide the way forward. Electricity has limitations for transportation as batteries, recharging, range and electric motors mean that electric vehicles cannot compete with their oil driven predecessors, but can be created far more efficiently in large power stations using current fuel sources for a start. Using alternative generation methods such as tidal, wind, solar and organic power sources (for example, methane from manure) could help replace much of the current generation techniques (incidentally, many countries rely heavily on others for their electricity supplies, another weak point in their infrastructure). Unfortunately these have problems in terms of proving their economic viability, their reliability and their cost, especially for large-scale generation. Other alternatives to oil include nuclear power. This falls into two types: fission and fusion. Nuclear fission is what powers all modern day reactors. It has lost political favour though, as the population has always distrusted it, and with events like Chernobyl proving that it only takes one mistake to result in horrendous consequences; consequences that last for centuries, not just decades. Added to that is the continuing problem of security and disposal of radioactive waste. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, seems to be the Holy Grail of clean energy. Though the technology is still in its infancy, and so is not commercially feasible, and may not be for some time, if ever.

Obviously then, there are no real alternatives to oil when it comes to cost, reliability, availability and flexibility. Even other fossil fuels, which are faced with the same problems as oil in that they too have finite amounts, cannot fulfil all of the roles oil does. This is why the move from oil will not be swift, and needs to be started early. The alternatives provide answers, but they need investment. This investment needs to come from government sources because business cannot and will not fund this sort of development over the time scales involved before it becomes commercially viable. We're also going to have to start thinking of other ways to solve the energy crisis. Ideas like making use of the vast road network by making the tarmac a solar energy collector/converter (i.e. one big solar panel); by having the roofs of every household likewise embedded with solar cells; perhaps ensuring homes have their own wind turbine; making use of our sewer system to generate methane and many more besides will be needed. What governments need to realise is that this is in their interests. It will provide greater stability within their nations once in place, with less reliance on external sources and, therefore, less fluctuation in price and availability. It will release them of their ties to the oil companies and the dependence there of. Those that invest now stand a good chance of breaking away and making themselves into market leaders, securing economic investment and manufacturing for the future.

So, tell your respective governments what you want, tell them you want to kick the oil addiction and you want to do it now. Like giving up anything else, it won't be a short, easy or pain free exercise, but it will be worth it in the end.