Why isn’t oil $1,000 a barrel? And what would happen if it was?

This is more of a thought experiment as I read through Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, the industry-changing book by the late former government energy advisor Professor David Mackay.

For the purposes of this thought experiment “oil” will stand for all fossil fuels, including gas, methane, coal and other non-renewable combustibles.

Without cheap oil greasing infrastructure, we have nothing.

Oil is a precious commodity. Once it runs out, it is gone from us forever. I know what you’re thinking: if it runs out we’ll just use nuclear or wind power. But we’ll only be able to do this if the infrastructure is already in place. Right now it is oil that carries the wind turbines to the fields and powers the cranes to hoist them, it is oil which supplies the welding equipment to set the machines in place, it is oil which allows for the power stations to be built and it is oil which builds solar panels. It is from oil that all of the little plastic parts are created that we need to build the bigger machines.

Oil on tarmac creates beautiful patterns

Without cheap oil greasing infrastructure, we have nothing. No more easy energy.

Any infrastructure not built by the time oil runs out will not be built. Ever.

And remember, energy from wind is only created when the wind blows. Solar panels only generate electricity during the day. To store wind or solar energy requires batteries, and batteries have a short shelf-life. The chemical inside batteries corrode, just ask the old mobile phone in your drawer that can’t hold a charge for more than a few minutes anymore.

Is nuclear energy future-proof?

Nuclear is a powerful solution to our future energy crisis, but nuclear is – it might surprise you – a non-renewable source of energy. Once the uranium has been mined and used up, re-energised and used up again, it has to be buried somewhere deep, deep down in the dirt, where it will remain, useless and incredibly dangerous.

Oil is too good

Oil is currently our safest, most flexible and cheapest way of harnessing energy. It can be shipped all over the world, stored in barrels for years at a time and be purchased for a few dollars a barrel.

Oil is too cheap

One day our great-grandchildren might look back on our days of oil and ask themselves:

“Did they really just use oil to get around?

Oil has an incredible number of uses. It’s used to create plastic  – a waterproof, flexible and incredibly strong material with billions of positive iterations. Oil is used to send space-ships out of our orbit (something we may need to do one day to escape our dying planet). Oil powers our life support systems, our water pumps, the machines that pick and clean and sort our food, the heating in our home which keeps us from freezing to death when it’s -20DegC outside.

And yet we squander oil, taking long, unnecessary journeys in fuel-inefficient vehicles to places we don’t need to go to. We waste oil by demanding strawberries, kumquats and mangoes be flown around the world in aeroplanes rather than eating the fruits and vegetables local to us. We squander oil every time we choose to drive to the shops a mile down the road instead of walking or cycling there.

When did humans become incapable of walking a few miles? Why do we walk for miles in the gym on treadmills but wouldn’t dream of walking to the gym itself?

If oil was $1,000 a barrel…

If we paid £20 a litre to fill up our car with petrol would we drive to the shops?

I don’t think we would. We would cycle to work, or take an electric train or tram powered by nuclear or solar power stations.

In London people drive to work in the same long traffic queues as buses because they “need” their cars. Oil at $1,000 a barrel would eradicate that need.

But if you did need a car, it would not be a huge SUV or sports car people bought, but something smaller and more fuel efficient.

We would shop locally and grow our own vegetables. Strawberries grow in England in the summer, and that’s when we would eat them.

We would insulate our properties with energy-efficient materials, concentrating on conserving energy rather than using it.

Oil would be diverted to the energy-critical industries that need it most. We wouldn’t have so many cheap plastic products in our homes. Bottles of water wouldn’t be made from plastic, but reusable glass. Proper nationwide recycling programmes would be launched to limit how much we threw away.

No more kumquats

The cost of living would rise as we adjusted to the new economy. Businesses that thrived on cheap transport and delivery costs would fold. Fruits and vegetables imported from South America and Southeast Asia would be incredibly expensive in the UK, or they would be grown in greenhouses in France and Spain and delivered over here.

The global shipping industry would sink in its waters. No longer would it be cheaper to ship freshly-caught salmon from Alaska to China to be filleted and packaged and sent back to America to be sold than simply filleted in Alaska and sold where it was.

Industry would return to the UK. Steel smelted here would be used to build bicycles and cars for the UK market. Japanese cars would be built in Japan. Cheap Chinese steel would stay in China. The cost of technology would rise but it would be built to last, it would be repaired when it failed and recycled when it died.

We would travel more within our homeland. We would gradually re-adapt to what it was to be human, to live within the boundaries of our own ability to put one foot in front of the other. The air would become cleaner and we would no longer breathe in the toxic particulates that London is smothered with everyday.

Using oil for energy is a very good thing

Oil is an incredible gift to the human race. Harnessing energy that has been two billion years’ in the making is something we were always meant to do. But its cheapness has made it dirty, and we have misused it to make us thoughtless and wasteful.

Oil would no longer be a dirty term in our low-oil world. It would be used properly, in industries that would enhance our lifestyle and the maintenance of the human race for thousands of years to come. Our planet ecosystem would return to some semblance of normality. The earth breathes by the seasons; it knows how to deal with CO2 emissions naturally. Plants would grow and the world would become greener.

The end of oil will not be upon us for a long time. But let’s not use it up so cheaply.  




  1. The threat of diminishing oil supplies (currently estimated to run out in about 50 years from now) have forced us to look for alternative sources of energy, and we do have the infrastructure in place. However, I don’t think enough is being done worldwide in terms of education. The third world tries to catch up with the first world through the consumption of energy, while the first world demands more energy to power their ever increasing stash of gadgetry and travel needs.

    From a financial standpoint, renewable energy (RE) was becoming cheap as compared to oil. With the recent supply glut, oil prices tanked, RE has become expensive again and attention on RE dwindled. However, setting the prices of oil artificially would bring on an apocalypse too fast too soon and humans are not prepared for that.

    We know that the supply of oil will run out in our lifetime, and that there are people out there trying to make social and environmental changes in the world. Demand in RE technologies are on the rise thanks to increasing awareness on mitigating climate change. The question here should be, are we doing enough to transition from non-renewables to renewables?

    • Completely agree. Despite the huge upsurge in solar energy microgeneration here in the UK (it now overtakes coal in supplying the UK’s energy needs), with oil so cheap it has distorted the market. The UK government has done well to stimulate the photovoltaic industry with solar panel subsidies over the past six years that has taken our energy generation by the sun from zero to 30 gigawatt hours – or 4% of national demand – per day, and hopefully despite cutting subsidies to the bone, this will continue.

      We can always do more, Michelle. Thank you for your comment.

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