Scottish councils urged to get into peak oil practice

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AS THEY grapple with the implications of climate change and the imperatives of "going green", Scotland's local councils, as an integral part of their responses to these twin "missions", also need to come up with sustainable transport and energy solutions.

To help councils formulate their thinking, two organisations, the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre (ODAC) and the Post Carbon Institute, have got together to produce a guide aimed at local councils, outlining the implications of "peak oil" and the kinds of responsible options that are available to councils.

The ODAC is a charity aiming to improve the world's understanding of what the scenarios and options are as oil becomes scarcer, while the Post Carbon Institute has a similar focus but specialises, in its own words, "in helping communities make a smooth transition to the post carbon world".

The starting premise of the report, entitled Preparing for Peak Oil, is that oil production will peak and go into sustained decline in the next few years (just as it has already done in the UK North Sea). This in turn will create a deficit in fuels for transport and will result in large spikes and turbulence in energy prices, and hence in the price of gas and electricity.

The purpose of the report "is to summarise which local authorities are doing what, and to draw together the most promising policies for tackling peak oil, so that all British local authorities can benefit from best practices being developed both at home and abroad".

The most obvious starting point for local authorities, the report's authors suggest, are for them to:

a) conduct a detailed energy audit of all council activities and buildings; b) develop an emergency energy supply plan; c) introduce rigorous energy efficiency and conservation programmes; d) encourage a major shift from private to public transport, cycling and walking; e) promote the use of locally produced non-fossil transport fuels such as biogas and renewable electricity, in both council operations and public transport; f) set up a joint peak oil task force with other councils and partner closely with existing community-led initiatives.

The key point for councils to take on board, the report urges, is the fact that it takes years of advance planning to make a smooth change from a situation of plentiful oil to one of constrained and diminishing supplies.

Councils, the authors point out, consume millions of litres of petrol and diesel and large amounts of gas and electricity, and all these costs will rise as the price of oil is driven up. North Yorkshire County Council's direct energy spend, for example, rose by almost half between 2004 and 2008, and other councils have experienced similar rises. In addition, councils have to be prepared for the fact that other bought-in service costs will become more expensive as fuel prices rise, and these indirect costs will have an even bigger impact on council budgets.

One of the more controversial arguments is the – on the face of it – logical assertion that as oil gets scarcer, current efforts to expand the capacity of the UK's air and road networks will turn out to be wasted money. Airlines, the report points out, are uniquely exposed to peak oil. The authors, however, seem not to be aware of, for example, Virgin Airlines' pilot (no pun intended) project to run aircraft on biofuels (see our transport story, left).

British councils, the authors say, are beginning to consider the potential impact of peak oil on their services and communities, but they are not nearly as advanced in their thinking on this front as they are in their response to climate change.

They point out that what looks like a great response to climate change, such as Woking Council's move to generating 82 per cent of its own electricity through combined heat and power (CHP) generation, doesn't look so good when peak oil is factored into the equation. This is because the council's CHP generation is largely driven by gas. The council has reduced its reliance on the national grid, but only at the expense of becoming more reliant on imported gas, the authors say.