Crisis? What crisis?

First published in Leader

Are we running out of oil? The simple answer is yes'. As a controversial new film about our fuel crisis predicts imminent global meltdown, Ruth Campbell discovers what will happen when the last drop of black gold is spent

PREPARE to be scared. Very scared. A controversial new film released tomorrow reveals why we should all be worried about the world's oil supplies running out and it's much more frightening than a horror movie.

Most of our transportation, most of the goods in our shops, most of the food we produce is reliant on oil. So what will happen when it's all used up?

According to the makers of Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, our cosy world could be about to come to an end. And there will be no going back.

Oil, say the film's makers, is "the bloodstain of the earth's economy", and will soon trigger a global conflict that will cost millions of lives.

While North-East expert Andrew Aplin, professor of petroleum geoscience at Newcastle University, considers such language overly dramatic, the core point of the polemical documentary - that we are about to run out of oil - has, he confirms, the chilling ring of truth.

Since the 1950s alone, the world has used up half of all the oil stored underground, most of it in the Middle East.

"The world used little oil before 1850, but most of it will be gone in 50 years," he says. "It could be quicker - in the next decade. That means that in just 250 years of human history this resource will be gone. That is incredibly fast."

Recalling ugly scenes in the North-East and all over Britain during the petrol crisis just a few years ago, he says: "When people couldn't put petrol in their cars, they got very cross about it. The petrol crisis is a good indication of what can happen in situations that are not managed."

The film predicts pitched battles over dwindling oil supplies: "I could imagine squabbles as people have an insatiable desire for energy," says Prof Aplin. "Oil and gas are very important. There is a dependency on it."

And not being able to drive our cars, according to A Crude Awakening's makers, could be the least of our worries. A crash in oil production is, according the film, about to set off worldwide recession, economic collapse, food shortages and, ultimately, global meltdown.

Co-producer Basil Gelpke believes that, until now, the story has been ignored: "If there is even the slightest chance the world will soon run out of oil, which it will, then it is truly astonishing that we are still, in the main, wholly unconcerned. It will threaten every aspect of our lives."

The documentary, which includes interviews with notable academics and experts from all over the world, shows stark images of rusting Texan and Venezuelan wells and fuel riots in Asia and Africa. And it claims such scenes will soon be repeated thousands of times around the world.

Recent events like those in Burma, where protests over rising fuel prices led to a military crackdown and in China, where one man was shot recently for trying to jump a petrol queue, will be the norm everywhere, it predicts.

Such dramatic claims have, pertinently, been given more credence in Britain now, just as the film is released, as fuel prices hit a record high. Petrol and diesel at more than £1 a litre is now common.

And crude oil prices have soared to their highest level for decades - $96 a barrel now, compared to $10 a barrel ten years ago.

The debate over peak oil' - defined as the time when the world produces its maximum output and enters a period when prices start to soar as demand rises while supplies dwindle - is central to the film. Some experts say it has occurred, others say it is imminent.

"There is a debate about whether we are at peak oil position, there are two camps on that,"

says Prof Aplin. "Oil is a finite resource, whether it will run out now or in a few years, the general point of the film - that we are around the point of peak oil - is not too far from the truth."

Oil production in the North Sea has been in decline for years, America reached its maximum output decades ago and in other parts of the world, stocks are slowly being used up.

"It is hard to know the real truth," says Prof Aplin. "One problem is that many of the world's oil reserves are in Middle East states, with the production mostly owned by countries, so it is difficult to get accurate data."

With much of the world's supply being, arguably, in the hands of rogue or unstable governments, the fear is that oil will become a catalyst and magnet for war.

There are, however, alternatives. Prof Aplin points to the major reserves of poorer quality heavy, tar-like oil which could be exploited in Canada and Venezuela. Oil companies are also sizing up Arctic and Antarctic fields, which are being freed of ice and snow as the world heats up.

Other possibilities include nuclear power and renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydro power: "The question is how quickly we can bring on other energy sources. The key is to bring them in at an appropriate rate as oil declines," says Prof Aplin.

But it is a race against time. While supplies dwindle, demand for oil, thanks in part to the industrialisation of China and India, are constantly increasing: "If the economies of countries like China, India and Brazil continue to grow at the rate of ten per cent a year that will put significant demands on energy," says Prof Aplin.

Meanwhile, developing countries want to improve living standards for their populations. "That is an energy intensive process. It is hard to say no to that when we are sitting at home in well heated homes," says Prof Aplin.

"The world in general is ever thirsty for energy.

It is a major issue. How it will pan out and what the social implications will be is hard to know."

Transport and heating are just part of the problem.

Crude oil is also needed for the manufacture of materials like asphalt and plastic. Items like desktop computers could no longer be affordable.

IN India and Bangladesh, diesel generators are used to pump water in and out of fields. If oil prices soar and they are unable to afford to irrigate their crops, some experts predict starvation and food riots.

Faced by such a potentially huge global disaster, it is easy for individuals to feel disempowered, says Steve Hunter, director of the North-East Energy Saving Trust.

"As our energy use rises and oil is running out, there is even more reason to save it. We don't want people to go into despair. It's not too late, by reducing energy use we can avert calamity."

Prof Aplin agrees we should all consider travelling less, being more energy efficient in our homes and buildings and using oil and gas more sensibly.

But he stresses that action is needed on a global scale. "The situation is going to be playing out over the next few years. It is going to come to an end at some time, probably in our children's generation."

For all its controversy, the film provides a chilling wake-up call. But Prof Aplin doesn't underestimate the human capacity for technology: "Human beings have been very clever over the years at bringing on different forms of energy. But who knows what might happen in 50 years time?"

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