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Nyar, Annsilla  (2007) Who’s worried about rising petrol prices?. Centre for Civil Society : -.

Recently South African motorists have been feeling the pinch at the petrol pumps. We’ve been filling up our tanks at higher prices than ever before. Yet beyond our habitual moaning, most of us rarely trouble to question the cost increases and the extreme volatility we’ve been experiencing in the pricing of petrol. There is clearly a problem at hand in the supply and pricing of oil-and handcuffed as we are to the prices set by the world’s oil producers, it’s a problem far more sobering and profound than consumers realize.

This year a study by Swedish physicist Frederik Robelius controversially predicted a ‘peak oil scenario’ ie that global oil production will peak sometime between next year and 2018 and then decline. In fact the term ‘peak oil’ came into usage since the 1950s when an American geophysicist working for Shell, Marion King Hubbert, developed a method of calculating a peak rate of maximum oil production based on different factors as discovery and production. Hubbert discovered that oil discoveries graphed over time resembled a bell-shaped curve-known as ‘Hubbert’s peak’-and theorized that oil production would follow a similar curve. Hubbert further predicted a worldwide oil peak within the timespan of approximately 50 years.

‘Hubbert’s peak’ therefore refers to the peaking of production in a particular field or region but Hubbert is responsible for the phenomenon of ‘peak oil’, which tends to refer exclusively to the peaking of global oil production- a frightening scenario for the planet.

Pressured by Shell not to make his theories public, Hubbert did so anyway but was greeted with deep skepticism. But years later in 1970 his prediction for a peak in US oil reserves would reach a peak within 20 years, bore fruit and his work was recognized with hindsight. The peak occurred in 1970. Yet the peak did not reach crisis proportions in the US because the US was able to import oil. The 1970 oil crisis has mostly largely gone unnoticed in global politics, but it may well be seen one of the most significant geopolitical events in recent history. It set the stage for the resource wars of the 1970s and clearly emphasized the strategic imperative for the US to control foreign sources of oil-hence the bitter wars to come in oil hotspots such as Iraq.

‘Peak oil’ is a subject of furious debate in the geological and corporate world. Oil executives and geologists differ in their perceptions of the extent of the ‘crisis’. It is argued that smaller undiscovered oil fields may yet yield further oil reserves and that new technologies could save the day.

But it is a statistical fact that oil production has declined in 33 of the 48 largest oil producing countries. Other countries have also passed their individual oil production peaks. Of the 3 largest oil fields in the world, 2 have already peaked. We are consuming oil faster than we are finding it.

No, it does not mean that the world is running out of oil as we know it. But what it does mean is that the world is rapidly running out of its ability to produce inexpensive oil on demand. Oil is a finite resource and no one has ever found a replacement for it. The old truism that supply adjusts to meet demand, does not hold with oil. Oil companies have mined all the easiest to reach oil and the remaining oil-in smaller harder to reach fields and of lesser quality- requires greater resources and energy to extract and refine. Increasingly extreme measures are being taken to recover oil, and in the process, cause wars and uncontrolled habitat destruction.

Whatever the skepticism of peak oil theories, there is no doubt about the fact that the era of easy oil is over. The lifestyles we take so for granted, and the cheap and abundant oil supplies which is its basis, are no longer guaranteed. Oil with its non-renewable nature, is not going to last forever. We drive petrol-gulping SUVs without a qualm about the cost to the earth. We want our cars bigger, better and faster. We blithely use air travel without a thought to the cost to the environment. We consume energy wastefully in hundreds of different ways. Our present levels of consumption and production are quite simply, grossly unsustainable.

What it will mean is not just higher prices at the pump. It will cause fundamental change to human society as know it. It will cause major shocks to the world economy and power blackouts, food shortages and resource wars can easily be envisaged as a fall-out of the energy crises.

There are a number of technological alternatives at hand-solar energy, fuel cells, hydrogen- but some are better alternatives than others and all require petroleum sources to operate. It will be difficult to replicate an energy source like oil.

The extent of the energy crisis is pretty much unknown to the average citizen. With our blind trust in the open market, most of us are unaware that it is really big business which runs our lives. Between the oil producers, industry and the politicians, (and our own ignorance) we are pushing the tired planet ever further toward depletion and eventual extinction. There’s never a better time than now to start educating ourselves about the realities of oil and its fundamental importance to our lives and the planet.

Annsilla Nyar is a Research Fellow at the Center for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu Natal. She can be reached at

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