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Raffique Shah

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Alternative energy sources our only hope

June 27, 2004
By Raffique Shah

The tragedy of our energy policies in the past is that they misled us into believing that we could live comfortably off revenues from crude oil and bunker fuel. It was only in the early 1970s that Dr Eric Williams commissioned a team to look at the use of gas that was being flared offshore by the millions of cubic metres. That led to the downstream-thinking mode that would ultimately, though belatedly, see us use gas to power our electricity generating plants, and diversify into steel, methanol and now liquefied natural gas. That's where the real money is.

But it's also where a real problem-in-the-making lies. Even as we enjoy the best crude and gas prices ever, we know that these will be around for a limited period, they being finite resources. No one can say for sure how long our reserves will last given our current consumption patterns, but estimates range from 20 years to 50 years. Even if it's the latter, it's a frightening prospect. What it means is that our grandchildren will face life in a country stripped of its major revenue sources, and if we fail to plan properly for them, they will inherit a land little different to Haiti that today we either laugh at or cry for.

In fact, this myopia in energy consumption patterns and failure to plan for future generations is not confined to this country. It's a global phenomenon, with the worst offenders (on a per capita basis) being Singapore, the UAE, Qatar, the USA, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Israel. In overall terms, we can add Japan, Germany, South Korea, Canada and France as huge consumers. One would think that countries that are net importers of oil and gas would make concerted efforts to conserve energy, and to work feverishly towards developing alternative sources.

But the paltry sums of money allocated for the necessary research and development of alternatives is negligible. In Britain, for example, the use of wind to generate energy has proved to be workable if not altogether viable. Thus far, too few windmill-powered communities exist, and plans for expansion are being opposed by-believe it or not-environmental groups. Their grouse: expansive windmill-farms look unsightly! I should add, too, that at this stage, it's also a capital-expensive alternative.

Of course, coal has been around for as long as man has walked the earth, and it's still being used widely, even in developed countries. But its "greenhouse gases" effect has sidelined it as a major source of energy, although the negatives are not much worse than the problems with crude oil emissions. There is, however, an alternative, gas-to-liquids (GTL), which, I should add, is not new technology. It was used by Hitler during World War II when Germany had most of its oil supplies cut. Several companies and countries have been re-introducing the technology, but on a small scale. The US will need to invest around $300 billion to construct a 14-million bpd facility (it currently consumes close to 20 million bpd).

That may sound like big bucks, but compare it with what's being expended in that exercise in futility in Iraq. Of course, there's nuclear power, but that has its long-term downside that no one has been able to resolve. That's also another legacy of death that countries that opt for it will leave for their future generations. And then there's solar energy that is used on a very small scale in the global scheme of power generation and consumption. What is incomprehensible is that the world's poorer countries, rather than pursue any combination of these alternatives as a replacement for expensive oil and gas, have remained stagnated in their dependency on the latter. So they suffer most when oil prices rise, and they will suffer even more now that the pundits predict that high prices, above the US$50-mark, are here to stay.

Last week I focused on the energy-glutton of the world, the USA, suggesting that rather than seek to control oil prices through military might, war and threats of war, it should seek instead to lower its non-essential consumption of oil and gas. But there's little hope that a bully who is accustomed to satisfying his craving for any substance through brute force would want to change now, even as disaster looms large on the horizon. That was a principal reason for the US invasion of Iraq. And it was not out of concern for African suffering that Bush visited Angola and other West African countries a few months ago.

Short of trying to resuscitate Russia's ramshackle oil production facilities, or exercising complete control over Middle-East oil, Nigeria and Angola offer the US its best prospects as suppliers. Combined, they have around 30 billion barrels of reserves. Venezuela alone has 77 billion barrels, and with Mexico, is one of the fastest and most convenient suppliers to the US. But it also has one Hugo Chavez who is seeking to reverse 50 years of persistent poverty in this potentially prosperous country. That is of little comfort to the Pentagon, which has been behind the campaign to remove him from office.

Unless sometime in the near future we see a radical change in the thinking of America's leaders and its people, that they alone do not have exclusive rights or "first call" on the world's energy resources, we are moving ineluctably towards an unstable world, even the much-feared Armageddon. If it does come, it would be triggered by the naked greed of a nation that is selfish and self-centred to the point of gross stupidity. Just as it thought it could brutalise Iraq, subjugate the Arab world, and escape unscathed, the US is digging its own economic grave. And by extension, it's sowing the seeds of a global implosion. Kicking Bush out of the White House may well be the first step towards humanising America and saving the world from destruction.

Part I