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Carbon Fear And Loathing In Riyadh

Politics / Crude Oil Oct 30, 2011 - 11:54 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleA little trip to Riyadh is interesting. There, young western educated planners and cadres are all rigorously indoctrinated, or self-indoctrinated with Postcarbon Sustainability themes and memes. All government agencies are full of them. The holy city of Mecca now boasts an urban rail system able to carry 60 000 passengers per hour, and Saudi railway boomers intend to rival American and Russia railway builders of the 19th century, with 2400 miles of rail track currently under construction. To be sure, the main goal is replacing and substituting oil in the Saudi economy. In their colorful powerpoints, the Postcarbon Prophets of the Kingdom show these rail networks lined by Super Grids fed with clean green energy from huge windfarms and glistening solar power plants, miraculously protected from airborne sandstorm grit and stones. Whatever it is, Future Energy is not oil.

This intellectual revolution, now somewhat dated and fatigued in its US and European heartlands, marks a perfect turning of the wheel. Some four or five decades ago, Saudi planners of the time abandoned their old mud-brick town centres for high rise, poured concrete, car intensive motopia. Themselves, being superior level cadres, they fled for an American-style villa with a two car, or three car garage on the horizon, in a process that is replicated worldwide in every other concrete motopia. Their old compact and walkable towns fell into decay, but it was supposedly inevitable, in the one-only high carbon present. Many Saudi cadres say their culture was sacrificed for the fleeting distractions and heavy stress of our oil fuelled Air-Conditioned Nightmare. In response to that grim outlook, they have the postcarbon future as an alternative-type notion to twiddle with and fill the powerpoints.

Motopia is above all real. Oil exports for motopias over the horizon supply 86% of Saudi revenues and pay the salaries of Postcarbon Planners. Daily gridlock is the real result of No Alternative economics, energy use and urban planning, like anywhere else on the planet. Since the city centre is however still the "right place to do business", millions of motorized zombies simply must pour into these uninhabited zones, in their cars, every day. Sitting in the daily traffic jam, uselessly burning fuel and breathing their own toxic fumes, these dedicatedly modern-minded persons can - for example - worry about global warming, and gasoline or diesel prices if they live outside Saudi Arabia. A few of them, even inside Saudi Arabia, can also worry about Peak Oil. What happens After Oil?

The basic problem is that thinking is gridlocked in every possible sense of the term, and the one-only "liberal economy model" has no solution at all. At all.  Pedal to the metal is its village idiot gung-ho message. Doing that needs oil.

What exactly Postcarbon is, or was, is now difficult to say. For Saudi planners still fresh to the idea, it could be a subset of what is called Arab Spring since the start of 2011. Our Postcarbon Planners of Saudi Arabia want to rebuild - save and restore - their ancestral heritage. It was built low rise, it used rammed earth and dried mud bricks and blocks, pozzolanic cements, techniques dating from the times of the Roman Empire. It was Long Life and Low Energy. It was rustic and only sometimes beautiful, but it worked. It lasted dozens of times longer than the Oil Age conceivably can or will last. The logic seems good.

The end of the Oil Age is of course a time of World Fear, and has its own little heritage. It dates back to even before Arab Spring, going back far as 2005, and even as far back as the 1970s Oil Shocks. After 2000 however, climate crisis surged forward. Oil prices were high. Oil wars in various places like Iraq were not going well.  The end of the world was nigh. To be sure this was fuzzy logic at best, but it has left proud and formal bath rings in the dark pools of the collective psyche, showing its ebb and swell.

The highwater version floating dangerously further up the empty bath than any other, is called the European Union's climate-energy package. This imperiously hypothesizes that Europeans could or might - and definitely should - use 80% less fossil fuel within 30 years, and perhaps 30% less in 10 years. Showing the strangely unreal datation, this second target is for the year 2020 which is not ten years but 8 years and 2 months from today, but this has almost no importance: the EU climate-energy package's goals, assumptions, methods and programmes are rigorously fantasist and unworkable. The countdown to failure is bravely recorded in various European Commission reports, but few persons now take the playact seriously.

The pure elitism of Postcarbon Dreaming, whether in Saudi Arabia, Europe, USA, Japan and South Korea or anywhere else is shown by the "we" problem: "we" have to use less energy because doing that will be so very good us, and above all "we" must do it to Save the Planet. Grown men and women, with fatly remunerated jobs, stand up to gurgle these slogans even today, so Saudi planners need not feel they are secondhand cousins gargling third rate slogans. If in fact it is the end of the world - "we" can do anything at all that "we" want, not so? To be sure, erudite professors are wheeled to the microphone to explain the dangerous depletion of fossil energy resources - like Europe's estimated 200-plus billion barrels oil equivalent of shale gas and coalseam gas, or its 200 billion tons of remaining coal reserves, for example. Details of course can be distracting.

This was the killer problem which slayed the December 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, or so-called summit, which ended in farce and marked the start of the downhill slope for Postcarbon. Neither China nor India feel they are "we", and do not feel particularly responsible for "oil greed" and frenetic overconsumption of oil, or CO2 emissions from burning oil, coal, gas, biomass, and from drying out peat bogs to plant palm for producing biodiesel fuel, clearing tropical forest to plant sugarcane to produce bioethanol, and what have you. This is a collective problem, but the biggest energy wasters, and the most oil greedy are countries like the USA, the European countries, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia.

Not only China and India, but Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey and other big industrialising countries do not vibrate to the royal "we" of Western consumers. To the former Have Nots who now Have Some, Western consumers merely panicked at paying more for the oil they totally depend on, and invented the Postcarbon fantasy future in a fit of mass hysteria. Figures prove that the royal "we" who consume too much oil are in the OECD countries and just a few, tiny population petromonarchies, living high up the barrel like Saudi Arabia. If you want to stretch the oil age, you know where to start.

This repeats the real question: who is the royal "we" ?  If  Al Gore and Sir Richard Branson were asked if they could consume 80% less oil the honest answer we would not get is: No problem ! They could do it overnight by selling their private airplane fleets, living in just one of the homes amongst their impressive property portfolios, and downsize their personal car fleets to only 3 or 4 cars, electric of course.  But they are somehow exempt because No Alternative economics says that Greed is Good.

Being more generous with our definitions, the 14% of the world's population living in the OECD countries, consuming about 50% of all present supplies of oil and gas energy (but not coal or biomass energy) could cut back a lot. Putting this the other way round, if China and India consumed oil and gas like the average "postindustrial" consumer of the OECD countries there really would be a big resource depletion problem. If China and India consumed the average 14 barrels-per-year of OECD consumers in 2010, they could burn out Saudi Arabia's officila remaining 250 billion barrels rather fast - in about 7 years. Unfortunately however, the OECD oil swillers can probably only cut their oil and energy demand by 10% or 15% without much sweat, but not by 30%, and even less so 80%, unless they went into drastic energy saving mode. Above all however, they have to do it, not talk about it.

"Deep saving" energy modes are rarely if ever spelled out by the royal "we", but they exist already. The official EU climate-energy package target of cutting European CO2 emissions by 20% to 30% "within 10 years", in fact 8 years and 2 months from now, is basically economic suicide. And we have economic suicide. Saying that Postcarbon means economic growth "as we know it" is finished is in fact only a detail - since 2008 economic growth is a threatened species of rare animal in the OECD countries, in any case. De-growth could be achieved, but not with No Alternative economics and the fatuous Consensus Politics of today.

Since 2008 we find there is exemplary energy saving in Europe. Oil saving in particular, but also energy saving in general has been impressive in the more debt-strapped and economically destroyed European countries. As their unemployment rates rack up to 12%, then 15%, then 20% of their adult population - and of course 40% for youth unemployment - their oil demand simply shrinks and shrivels like cheery Al Gore and vibrant Richard Branson told us it must. For at least 90% of affected persons this is not at all amusing. Not at all. Stampeding to save energy this way will end in social disaster.

Postcarbon was always a flimsy and elitist concept suited to the most wasteful and greedy. The game plan was set in stone from as far back as 2005 or before. Private sector corporate greed of the Silicon Valley type, and vintage high level government corruption were twinned in a Green Energy Crusade based on handing out subsidies over the table, in return for sweetener bakchish under the table: this was going to "transform" the global energy system almost overnight. Using media blitzkrieg of Stalinist intensity, the ever-stupid general public would supposedly believe that cash grubbers like Bill Gates, Bill Joy, Vinod Khosla, Peter Thiel and good old Steve Jobs (RIP) would "act to save the planet" - and be rewarded by some very quick bucks for themselves. In fact their Silicon Valley-type green energy ventures folded one after the another because they were rubbish, and even lost money for these Great Heroes of small screen PCs and tiny screen Dumb Phones.

The interest of these rightly named "players" in saving the planet can be set at close to Absolute Zero. Their sole interest is to keep geeks shuffling into Apple stores to buy high priced, energy intensive and energy dependent gimmicks. When the gravy train of fat government subsidies and easily fooled investors disappears, these New Wave entrepreneurs also disappear. Result? Nothing.

The global warming talkshow of today is now wondrously downsized and muted, a real pleasure to no longer hear or see, and shows how far it has come since its heydays and highwater mark. The evil and toxic gas CO2 was going to be banished forever. This gas was a sort of latter day Zyklon B for sensitive persons. So sensitive they reeled with fake horror at starting up their 6-cylinder BMW to drive down to the nearest traffic jam every single day of their working lives. But of course they kept on doing it, you bet they kept on doing it: their earning power depends on massive waste of energy. Waste is sacred - if they are doing it. Otherwise you are a Loser.

This paradox applies mightily in Saudi Arabia.

Our Wahabi Postcarbon planners, gurgling slogans of 2009 vintage and getting them almost word perfect (if not completely), are still today flashing powerpoints on the wall which show whirring windmills (when the wind blows) and glistening solar farms (daytime only), miraculously protected from airborne dust and dirt, and economizing oil by the minute. Harry Potter And The Green Machine, we might call it.

Upstream however, where these fragile ideas came from, this pathetic farce fools less and less persons, including adults able to vote, unlike in Saudi Arabia. The electoral power of Postcarbon is now in freefall for the very simple reason it ran out of luck. It was revealed as a scam. As any snakeoil salesboy like Al Gore will tell you, it is better to be first with the Big Lie and to then smartly move on to new frauds and new confidence tricks, when the game is mature. When it starts smelling too much.

When Al Gore or Richard Branson preach oil saving, or the ECB and US Fed preach austerity the response must be: You do it first. Until then trim the rhetoric and keep it shut.

Let us take only the 20% to 30% fossil energy cut demanded by the EU's climate-energy package by 2020. We could playfully imagine this would extend "by popular demand" to similar fossil energy consumption cuts by 2020 in all OECD countries including the US, EU and Japan. Unable to do anything serious with their gigantic and oppressive, oil guzzling private car fleets in 8 years, there would need to be about a 20% or 30% cut in the number of cars on the roads. This would mean fewer traffic jams for the surviving consumer faithful who managed to keep their jobs, but would also mean that as many as 125 million cars would be junked in the trash heaps of the Oil Greedy World, by 2020 ! Only about 20 million persons would lose their jobs, as if that matters.

The car industry will of course be like Steve Jobs - RIP -  so recycling the lost jobs in this industry will be somewhat high priority. Victory farms producing Victory Food could or might be one way out, building and working in forced labour camps might be another, but unlike Al Gore I am not paid to dream aloud on this subject.

One serious threat exists: Postcarbon dreamers might do a Comeback Kid number. About their only salvation would be sky-high oil prices, for any reason like an Army putsch or Princely cabal overthrowing the Saudi throne - kicking oil prices high into the hundreds of dollars a barrel. Almost nothing else can save their flimsy but dangerous pet fantasy. Under any scenario their elitist fantasy will meet resistance. The designated Losers - at least 90% of the population - do not appreciate being thrown in the gutter, and gutter people tend to be disrespectful and unsympathetic with the rich who live, eat, think and worry aloud for them. When the New Gutter people also have a vote, they can use them. This is starting to happen right now, and the biggest mouthed politicians who signed on to the Postcarbon charade are among the most detested and despised in the OECD countries.

In any case Postcarbon boomers in Saudi Arabia can do what they say they want: live in a mud brick house and travel by train, coal-fired if necessary. To this magnificent goal we must say: Bettawfeeq !

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2011 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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