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03 June 2012

The last ASPO conference

On the evening of the first day of the 10th conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas (ASPO), in Vienna, Rembrandt asked me if I'd write again the usual summary. My immediate answer was "No". Lack of time and motivation let me far from such undertaking. Hours later a title popped up in my mind; the dead time at airports and air planes provided the necessary space for the content.

The title "last conference" can be interpreted in varied ways. It can refer simply to the latest, it can also allude to this being the last ever, or even the last I'll ever attend. I haven't quite decided which is it. Below the fold is a short account of my feelings about ASPO 10, may it shed some light on the title.

Straight on the first session were present Dennis Meadows and Nebojsa Nakicenovic; the latter being the man behind the fossil fuel reserves estimates and production forecasts produced by IIASA and used by the IEA and the IPCC. He played a decisive role on the creation of ASPO, when in 2000 he chose to ignore a report delivered by Jean Laherrère at IIASA. These days IIASA is considering CO2 emission scenarios in line with the many forecasts produced by ASPO associates, after a decade of failed infinite growth forecasts. But these case studies always assume voluntary actions to reduce fossil fuel consumption in order to keep atmospheric concentrations of CO2 below 450 ppm. This is the threshold that according to the IPCC guarantees with some confidence a global temperature rise below 2 ºC of what it is today. Essentialy, IIASA is still using the same reserves figures they where using 12 years ago, Nakicenovic claiming these are the numbers found in peer reviewed literature. Back in 2008, when I tried to replicate Nakicenovic's scenarios I found reserves estimates several times higher those published by the Industry, let alone those assessed by ASPO associates.

In the second day of conference one of the speakers claimed that Man is transforming Earth into something like Venus with CO2 emissions. Climatologists is one group that ASPO has so far failed to sensibilise to Peak Oil. These researchers seem totally unaware of the ongoing fossil fuel consumption shift from the OECD to emerging economies, where consumption per capita is much lower. They also seem miles away from acknowledging the potential economic consequences of further declines in oil production.

In more than one presentation the figure of 100 Mb/d for oil production in 2020 was put forth. The same old discourse sides these forecasts: technological development is unlocking new reserves, as long as the capital and the investment are there production can continue growing, or at least remain at present levels. This provided, of course, the incentive from high oil prices.

Strikingly this is the same rhetoric underlying the renewable energy optimistic thinking: as long as oil prices remain high and the capital is there, the infrastructure can expand to cover the gap left by declining fossil fuel production. Maybe even to support further economic growth. This is all supposed to happen within the current economic framework, in just a few years and without feed-in tariffs.

Conveniently, both industries completely ignore Net Energy, an issue that was only referenced by one of the speakers throughout the whole conference. Little attention is also paid to the specificities of the Transport sector, where according to Robert Hirsch, 100 T$ of infrastructure presently run petrol and diesel, not on electricity or light crudes from tight reservoirs.

And finally the politicians. We had the presence of another European parliament member, this time Yves Cochet, former Environment Minister of the French government. Many where the reasons discussed to justify the lack of acknowledgement, and in many cases action, from governments. But the most important words on this subject where proffered by Reiner Kummel: politicians end up doing what we demand from them, the problem is not the politicians, it's us!

Dont' get me wrong. While I feel this conference was disappointing in general, the organisers are not to blame. They did their best and produced the programme that had to be, with ASPO opening itself to the wider Society. But after 10 years of activity ASPO's message has failed to pass. Policy makers, Climatologists, Energy Industry, by and large are all yet to fully acknowledge the problem and its implications.

Nevertheless I had the opportunity to assist to some very good addresses. In no particular order I'd highlight Euans Mearns, Arthur Berman, Reiner Kummel, Werner Zittel, Nate Hagens, James Buckee; sadly all well established luminaries of the Peak Oil cause. Since we had again parallel sessions I missed a good deal of presentations; you should always stop by at the conference website and browse the videos, which should be posted there in the next few weeks.

But my sour feelings don't come just from a frustrating conference. My country has had its Peak Oil moment and is now undergoing a self destruction process. Energy consumption is declining to levels of 15 or 20 years back, with most mechanisms once put in place for the energy transition being rolled back one after the other. As founding member of ASPO-Portugal I can only take this as failure. It was precisely to avoid this kind of scenario that I started working on Peak Oil in 2005. But here we are; the efforts of the handful of people macking up our association are now largely irrelevant. The media and the politicians that once showed interest on the subject are gone, and so are we; sadly I'm not the only exiled member of ASPO-Portugal. Long seem the days when the Depletion Protocol was discussed and recommended by Parliament. Looking back I can only acknowledge that I was delusional thinking I could change anything.

My friends from ASPO-Spain tell a similar story. A 10 year regression in energy consumption, with the deliberate slow-down of economic activity. Unfortunately, the role oil, coal and food prices had (and still have) in the economic crisis is not acknowledge by everyone, not even within ASPO. This is a terrible mistake, for it is exactly this way Peak Oil looks like. Getting ourselves intertwined in the debt or peak demand discourse is a self defeating path, that will veer policy makers away from addressing the structural weakness of our economies. It is never too much to remind that the states today cut off from the European sovereign debt market are precisely those that were most dependent on oil before the crisis.

Many of us question ourselves what future ASPO can have in the present setting. It can either remain a loose scientific organisation or push a more political structure to lobby on the institutions that have the means to act. I don't think ASPO should take the latter path, but more than that, it seems that it is presently unable to do so. Is there place for ASPO after the peak? This is the question many of us are facing.

Notwithstanding, national ASPO organisations can still have relevant things to accomplished. It was quite good to see Olivier Rech now with ASPO-France, a man with great analytical skills and particular insight into the subject. Indeed someone capable of following the path of excellence trailed by Jean Laherrère. It was also fortunate to have Pierre-René Basquis back to the ASPO conferences, with his irreverent, but rational, optimism. Nuclear power became an unpopular energy source at the worst of times in France; a careful path must be drawn for the country to abandon this technology and still survive Peak Oil.

New faces also in the ASPO-Germany roster. The fast growing renewable electricity sector in Germany is bringing up very important questions. With a relatively small penetration in installed capacity, it is already large enough to bring spot prices to negative territory, day in, day out, whenever the sun shines. How can the renewable energy sector generate revenues in this market setting? Especially now with fed-in tariffs on track to be suspended? And how can the traditional thermal power generation utilities survive to negative prices? These are all questions to which ASPO-Germany can have an important contribution.

Here a parenthesis. Jeremy Leggett is presently working on the development of new financial instruments for investment on renewable energies. I sincerely hope he succeeds, for this will be a crucial problem, with government after government haplessly suspending feed-in tariffs.

Another national organisation that may strive in the future is ASPO-USA. The shale rush is heading for a predictable crash, with large consequences for the financial sector. When it comes, the thorough analysis by our American colleagues shall grant them a great deal of credit and public exposure. May they be able to seize the opportunity. By the way, thanks to Arthur for getting up so early.

But there is more. Kyell Aleklett seems to be well ahead in preparing the continuation of ASPO-Sweden, around the research group he built at Uppsala University, and from which he should retire later this year. It was also pleasant to meet new blood from ASPO-Italy or ASPO-South Africa. And for the first time I can remember we had a delegation from Poland. Though not yet formally linked to ASPO, things seem moving in the land of coal and unfulfilled shale dreams.

There will be an ASPO conference in 2013, with the work for its realisation already under way. And I will probably be there too. But not any more as an avid information seeker, dreaming of saving the world, it will be just to see old friends and make new ones. After all, that was always the best about ASPO conferences.

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