Reasoning is running riot

23 April 1998

So Peter Odell was right. He was the maverick Dutchman who, during the OPEC 'energy crises' of the seventies, derided the world authorities' pessimistic estimates of oil and gas resources and promised that – far from being a two- or three-decade flash in the pan, only marginally challenging Middle Eastern dominance – the North Sea fields portended cornucopias to come: and not only off European shores but all over the globe.

The European petroleum industry is today reported as renascent. Norway is tabled as second only to Saudi Arabia among the world's oil exporters. North Sea hydrocarbon fluid production is predicted to reach new peaks around the turn of the century. Other European prospects seem to be glowing along continental shelves in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Hopes are just as high in comparable regions, such as the immensely rich Caspian Sea, elsewhere in the world. And as the real price of crude falls, prospects receed for tar sands and the other intractable hydrocarbon resources that were being anxiously counted during the seventies. They are still there but the panic to exploit them is not.

Environmentalists are not all best pleased about this potential fuel wealth. Some of them are actively resisting exploration, with Greenpeace in the van. Greenpeace wants to stop Atlantic probes and thus protect both the regional marine ecology and the overall planetary climate. Instead of prolonging the fossil fuel era, says the pressure group, oil and gas majors should be developing the means to tap the renewable energy resources upon which civilization must eventually depend for a sustainable future.

Many environmentalists' kneejerk rejection of the nuclear option is resignedly expected by the nuclear power industry but the latter is still calling upon reason in its attempts to win over a wider public. At the last annual symposium of the Uranium Institute, Hans Blix, the retiring director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, appealed to 'think-tank thinkers' and other rational beings 'to throw a glance at the real world'. Blix noted that politicians have so far feared to lose more than they gain by examining antinukes' concerns but he thought that this could change as the public confronted the risks of increasing carbon dioxide emissions.†

Might such confrontation raise support rather for Greenpeace and its renewables than for the nuclear industry? Fissioneers detest the thought. One of their best (though perhaps least well recognized) persuasive organs, the newsletter Nuclear Issues, regularly pours scorn on the renewables, for example pointing out the minuscule contribution made so far by wind turbine generators and detailing the carcinogenic hazards of biomass combustion. Meanwhile another persuasive public epistle, International Coal Letter, dismisses the threat of global warming as a scientifically unfounded invention of funding-hungry research institutions. No love is lost, I might add, by either of these eminently readable and informative newsletters for the solid fuel espoused by the other.*

Lugubriously, I doubt whether rational scientific or technological arguments will decide the issue. The power system market, in all its worldwide variety, may in practice produce a patchwork outcome. That might be for the best in the best of all possible worlds, but whoever could describe the behaviour of markets as rational?

Kampala shows the way

A standard objection to renewable sources of energy is that they are too variable and unreliable. But in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, they have seen through that argument and they have subtly turned it on its head. The municipal authorities have concluded that, in 34 places dotted round the city, the traffic signals should be converted to solar electricity in order to save their light bulbs. The bulbs have been found unable to withstand the rigours of Kampala's conventional power supply: it fluctuates too much.

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