Saturday, 9 January 2010

Daddy or Chips? Tough choices in the week that gas went short.

Most posts are framed in a timetable of a few days, weeks or months. But Bunnco’s been thinking hard about a post from John Loony on 30th December that has an effect on how well we’re prepared to the challenges facing us in a few decades. .

The whole point of is that we’re all trying to look into the future. We look at the membership to be tipsters and provide insights that will help us predict what’s going to happen and how might this impact onto the Political careers and outcomes for parties and politicians. And bunnco's wondering whether Loony's got the crystal ball.

Loony wrote
48. General question to whoever: what happens when the oil / coal runs out? We’ve only got a few decades / centuries of it left. Whether it causes global warming or not, it will have to be replaced by something or else we’ll have to have some sort of mass extinction again. Triffids?
by JohnLoony December 30th, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Bunnco knows that it’s the nature of politics to make choices between competing priorities.

* We know we haven’t got unlimited money, so where should we spend what dosh we’ve got?
* We haven’t got unlimited grit, so which roads should be treated?
* We haven’t got unlimited oil/gas, so which factories should we close to eke out the supplies when things get short?

It’s the role of politics to answer these dilemmas and the responsibility of politicians to make the decisions that address them. In post 165 of that thread, madasafish had a go at answering the question as if he were a politician.

Simple. Priority to agriculture. Fertiliser, growing, collection, processing and distribution of food.
Then to armies: lots of wars to fight. Over food.
And then to police. Breakdown of law and order.
Undertakers: body burial.
Above all , no fertilisers = 5 billion surplus mouths not fed.
by madasafish December 30th, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Bunnco happens to think that madasafish is right-on-the-money, especially as he knows a thing or two about farming and fertilisers. And politics.

But what’s actually happened this week when the circumstances predicted by JohnLoony actually happened for the first time?
What was the Government’s knee-jerk response to the shortage of gas this week?

To divert the supplies of gas away from the factories on Teesside and in Cheshire that produce nitrogen fertilisers. Nitrogen fertilisers are produced from ammonia, in an energy-intensive process where natural gas is the feedstock.

I suppose it’s understandable to choke-back gas to factories help keep people warm in their homes in the cold snap. But what are we going to do in 15-20 years time when the gas is really running out and there’s a forced choice to be made between using gas to produce the fertilisers that feed the world or heating our homes? In the week when gas went short, Government cut back on the means to grow food with the spring growing season and peak usage just around the corner.

That’s not a long-term solution. It’s a road map to hunger. And we've just experienced the policy that will lead to it for the first time. We've just seen the future.

This week’s shortages of gas have shown what happens when there’s been a failure to formulate a proper energy policy with the ultimate result that we damage our ability to feed ourselves.

Say what you like, but it’s the role of Government to provide the framework where sufficient food, energy and raw materials [like salt] are available to support the population and economy.

Now fast forward a few years to a time when we’ve only got a few days supply of gas on-hand and we’re faced with either the lights going out or going hungry. That’s the legacy of 12 years of Labour chasing the 24 news cycle rather than planning for the future. Who said we were best prepared?

And the PB posters who pointed the way in a thread about the PB Tipsters of the Year were neither mad or loony. They were madasafish and JohnLoony. They're PB's long-term tipsters of the new Decade.

Bunnco – your man on the spot


Anonymous said...


Bunnco, excellent article. We really do need our government to get back to proper long-term thinking & planning (and not just the climate change).

Richard Nabavi said...

Up to a point, bunnco. Whilst your general point about the lack of long-term planning (especially on energy policy) is correct, I'm not sure your example is a particularly good one.

Fertiliser has a long shelf-life, and is something that can be and is stockpiled in the supply chain and by the end-users (farmers). Short-term disruptions in manufacturing are not a big issue, although of course the manufacturers will be hit financially (like many companies) in the short term.

History Boy said...

The last time a British government made a far-sighted decision about energy was in the 1980s when Mrs Thatcher decided to leave our coal in the ground for the benefit of future generations. There's still quite a lot of it down there, and as its value increases the economics of extraction will become more favourable.

On the more general question, if there were a free market in energy it would become progressively more expensive, and rational substitutions would be made as time goes by. Unfortunately, governments of every stripe can't resist getting involved and so energy policy lurches from one over-sold solution to another through a succession of divine revelations - Labour's switch to nuclear power being the most recent.

It's impossible to predict what the world's situation will be in 2100 and therefore pointless trying to prepare for it now. The best we can do is to ensure that our descendants remain as smart and adaptable as our ancestors. This link to a speech by Michael Crichton posted on the main site by Plato a couple of days ago, is well worth reading, particularly the paragraphs beginning "Let's think back to people in 1900..."

Ian Stewart said...

serendipity that the two adverts folowing the article are currently British Gas & another energy one!
ha ha ha

OK where is Malthus in this discussion?

robert said...

Hmmmm (son of OGH here): I've written at length on this subject at The Oil Drum.

We have a very effective system of rationing scarce resources: it's called the price mechanism. As things become more scarce, they become more expensive and we react by using less of them. It's why the Ford F Series pickup is the best selling car in the US (doing 18 mpg), and why small cars doing twice that mileage are the best selling cars in the UK. (The consequence of petrol being much more expensive in the UK than the US.)

As oil and gas become more scarce (and gas really isn't that scarce, given the likelihood of substantial shale gas discoveries in Europe), we will seek out alternatives. So, that means more nuclear, more wind, more solar, more pumped storage. It means more expensive electricity, and it means more energy efficient cars and houses.

History Boy: no, our coal was uneconomic. We could remove it, but our industry and our power stations would be paying twice as much for British coal as for Colombian coal. Jobs might have been saved in South Wales, but they would have been lost in other industries where electricity was an input.