The “Solvay Conference” on the future of oil

Posted on June 23, 2011


“Friends of Europe” is a think tank based in Brussels. It is concerned mainly with European affairs. In April 2011 I received an invitation to participate in a round table discussion on 15 June 2011. The theme for the discussion was to be, “The future of oil” (lots of photos). The venue for the event was the Biblothèque Solvay in Brussels.

When I received the invitation I did not remember the significance of the Biblothèque Solvay but once there it suddenly struck me that I was on historic ground. Probably nobody else in the room shared my revelation but if one is a physicist and has worked with fundamental research in nuclear physics for 30 years then one knows that it was here that the world’s first international physics conference was held in 1911, Conseil Solvay. The meeting was attended by legendary scientists such as Curie, de Broglie, Einstein, Lorentz and Rutherford. The world’s most famous inernational conference of physics was the fifth Solvay Conference in 1927 when Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle was discussed. Einstein’s comment was that “God does not play dice” and Bohr answered, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do”. 17 of the 29 delegates at the fifth Solvay Conference received the Nobel Prize. Clearly one wishes one could have been there to take part.

The invitation to participate in this “Solvay Conference” on the future of oil suddenly became very significant for me. Those invited to the round table meeting’s first session, “How much oil is there and how long will it last?” were 26 in number (why not 29?) and included, among others, representatives of the EU Commission and the EU Parliament, the International Energy Agency (IEA), oil companies, the petroleum, plastics and chemical industries, environmental organisations, the renewable energy sector and EU observers from near and far. There were five of us that each had 5 minutes to present out viewpoints and time was kept using a sand-glass. First to speak was Mechthild Woersoloerfer who has responsibility for the EU’s Energy Road Map 2050. There are still some areas to be clarified but the Road Map is to be ready on 23 November. Then it was my turn and I concentrated on our article “Peak of the Oil Age”. I explained where the IEA and we were in agreement but also where we had different views. Five minutes is a short time and the sand in the timer seemed to run very fast!

Then it was time for the IEA to give its version of the future and J. Corbin performed that task. He presented their classic assertion that an additional 2000 to 2500 billion barrels of crude oil should exist to consume as well as an equal volume of non-conventional oil. In the next breath he said that we consumed 31 billion barrels last year but that the oil industry discovered only 14 billion. He also discussed whether a Peak Price of oil might exist. Phillippe Lamberts represented the politicians. He implied that the fact that the world is a finite system and that finite fuel resources exist means that Peak Oil is a reality. Whether Peak Oil is 10 or 20 years off is of less significance. We must act on the basis of oil’s finite nature now. The last of the introductory speakers to present their viewpoint in 5 minutes was Isabella Muller who respresented those that sell gasoline and diesel fuel. She noted that her organisation relies on the IEA’s prognoses and plans future activities according to them. She concluded by saying that it was much too early to divorce ourselves from oil.

Then it was time for all the other delegates to ask questions and 10 people did so in the first round. The panel members were permitted to answer the questions but, once again, a five minute time limit applied. My answer was that all the questions required a longer answer and that I would use this meeting as a framework for the last chapter in my book that will be titled, “Living with Peak Oil” and where answers to most of the questions will be found.

The afternoon’s session was titled “How do we manage a smooth transition to a low-carbon economy?” The introductory speakers represented environmental research, the chemical industry, oil companies, WWF and the transport industry. Once again there were many questions but few answers. That could also become a long chapter in my book “Peeking at Peak Oil”.

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