Oil, Rust and Global Crises. Ten Years On…

Ten years ago British Petroleum closed Prudhoe Bay, the largest oilfield in the USA. Rusted, leaking oil pipes heavily polluted a region already suffering from accelerating global warming. At the same time, melting permafrost had started to cause forests, roads and homes to start sinking into mud. Methane gas, once frozen under the ice, started fuelling a potent global warming feedback loop.

When I wrote an article ‘All Hands in the Soil’ about the importance of sustainable home food production, most Australians were more worried about the cost of food and petrol than the environmental consequences of fossil fuel use. What happened after the shutdown?

Back in August 2006, I wrote:

“On the 8th of August 2006, British Petroleum (BP) closed Prudhoe Bay, the largest oilfield in the USA.

BP’s public relations claimed this was due to ‘corroding pipelines’. They hadn’t checked them for over a decade, but no one gets nervous when you hear about a bit of rust in a refinery.

The future for petrol... A Morningside petrol station, Brisbane

The future for petrol… A Morningside petrol station, Brisbane

Environmentalists know the arctic tundra is warming and melting at an alarming rate and warming is faster and more extreme towards the poles than the equator.

Those rusted pipelines are also buckling – sinking in the squelchy morass left as the tundra warms. Houses are sinking in mire and across the whole of the circumboreal conifer forests – forest as significant in scale as the Amazon rainforest. Trees are literally falling down, forests are looking drunken and shagged out. Warming winters and longer summers allow timber pests to breed explosively, decimating surviving trees. Forest, once firmly supported on top a bed of permafrost, are now unsupported and sliding into ooze. And that ooze has vast pockets of ancient trapped methane in climate shifting quantities.

As Prudhoe oil field slips slowly into the mire of its own creation the definitive tipping point of irreversible climate change is so close to being passed.

If you’re focussed on carbon dioxide trapping heat, methane gas is twenty five times more potent and once there’s enough of it in the atmosphere it won’t matter if humanity transitions to zero greenhouse emissions: that’s where runaway chemistry and physics take over.  The tipping point is less than ten years off and we’ll know when we’ve reached it.

The loss of Prudhoe Bay oil production meant a loss of 8% of US daily oil use and the ‘repairs’, including installing pontoons and using summertime tankers for squelchy, buckled roads, could take some time to get things working again. Then there’s the leakage which is polluting Prudhoe Bay.

The economic shock caused the New York Mercantile Exchange to register an immediate US$2 a barrel rise in crude oil prices, which had knock on effects for the rest of the world.

Refineries in California and Washington had trouble finding additional short term sources of oil to process, bringing a negative impact on their respective state economies. At the time, other sources of crude oil were affected by political problems involving Iran, Nigeria and Venezuela. As a consequence, the US government released oil from its emergency stockpiles*.

The US federal government and the State of Alaska sued BP for the environmental damage to Prudhoe Bay.

On 9th August 2006, Australia’s National Roads and Motorists’ Association (NRMA) predicted retail petrol prices would rise to A$1.80 a litre**. Around the same time, Queensland’s Courier Mail reported on the continuing decline in petrol station numbers as multinationals used cost-cutting as a way to kill off competition from local independent petrol stations. Every environmentalist who runs a car should consider buying petrol from a local, independent petrol station.

Other sources predict that petrol will rise to A$3 a litre during 2007. Since the cost of supermarket food is directly linked to the cost of oil, the price of food, artificial fertilisers and pesticides will rise significantly.

After the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Britain experienced 25% inflation, so maybe it’s time to pay off the credit card, support local, Australian-owned businesses, and learn how to sow dinner”.

* Ref: ABC AM Show, 8.8.06 reporter Andrew Geoghegan

** Ref: ABC News Online, 9.8.06

Ten years later, what happened?
November 2016

At the time of writing the magnitude of the spike in oil prices was, in some ways, hard to predict.

The unfolding crisis ended up being known as the 2007-08 Oil Price Spikes, which caused the 2007-08 World Food Price Crisis for industrial agriculture – which cascaded into the Global Economic Crisis (GFC).

Consequences of rising fuel prices included the setting aside of food growing land to instead grow biofuel. Less grain was grown, so food harvests and strategic food storage fell as biofuel production rose.

The cost of petrochemical pesticide production, the operation of farm machinery, food refrigeration and food transport costs all rose.

The cost of petrochemical fertilisers tripled: urea, diammonium phosphate, muriate of potash and superphosphate – the chemical fertilisers that cheap industrial food production leans on – their prices rose by 300%. This impacted heavily on many Australian family-owned farms, most of which were already suffering hardship from the low farm gate prices they get paid by supermarket contracts. About 20,000 family farms ceased trading.

The affordability of food impacted on working families in the developed world, not just the poor in developing countries. See The 2007/08 Agricultural Price Spikes: Causes and Policy Implications’, published by the British Government.

In developing countries an extra 200 million people experienced malnutrition for the first time.

Social and economic crises occurred in many countries. Years of unprecedented drought in Syria, exacerbated by the draining of aquifers for intensive cotton farming, left smallholders with empty wells, eroded topsoil, no income and malnutrition. Large parts of rural Syria were depopulated.

Prudhoe Bay oil field re-opened in July 2007. About 2 billion barrels of recoverable oil remain but by 2013 Prudhoe Bay had slipped from the USA’s biggest oil producer to third place. It’s peaked.

For the past two years, world oil production has suffered from a price collapse, this time due to an oversupply of fossil fuels, a consequence of rapidly rising gas production by fracking.

“Alaska’s problems go deeper than the current oil price collapse though. Simply put, the state is getting long in the tooth – at least as far as its productive assets go. The Prudhoe Bay Oil field, once the largest such field in North America, is starting to reach the end of its life. In 1985, the Prudhoe Bay field was pumping 2 million barrels per day – roughly a quarter of the total U.S. output. Today it is pumping 500,000 barrels a day. That’s leaving the 800 mile Trans-Alaska pipeline seriously under-utilized” – see: “Is the end in sight for Alaska’s Oil Based Economy?”.

“If you’re younger than 30, you’ve never experienced a month in which the average surface temperature of the Earth was below average”, says the World Economic Forum (February 2015).

Ten years ago, when I wrote  ‘All Hands in the Soil’, for ‘The Organic Gardener’ magazine. I argued how home food production can help ordinary households reduce their cost of living and secure their health. And how seed saving is a way to adapt annual crops to changing growing conditions.

In Australia, it takes five years to create fertile soil from either heavy clay or deep sand, and it takes about ten years for an orchard to achieve its productive potential. Society has a decade, at best, of comfortable living to get organised before the end of cheap food.

I’ve transitioned from a potato-reliant cropping system to a more climate-appropriate one based on various yams, sweetpotato, cassava, arrowroot, green banana and green pawpaw. I’ve spent ten years rehearsing my household food security. I have a reliable supply of low GI starch, whatever the weather, and it’s more nutritious than potato.

Over the last decade the kind of people visiting my garden has altered. Initially it was enthusiasts, students, technocrats and survivalists and amateurs garden clubs. About 2-3 thousand people visit my annual Open Day, held every Mother’s Day Weekend.  Now the majority of visitors are families who garden together, growing food and going on garden-related holidays and excursions.

This last point is one of the few things that reassures me. Ten years ago, who would have thought that over 50% of all households would use renewable energy as part of their energy mix? Who would have thought that rainwater tanks, once banned by Brisbane City Council (BCC) for ‘health’ reasons, would have returned in even greater numbers? Or that BCC would finally allow its ratepayers to legally garden on footpaths? Over the past decade it is at the household level that Australia has proven to be socially, environmentally and economically responsible, leading transformation and preparing in earnest for the challenges of the 21st century.

Warming weather in Brisbane now means three or four chilly weekends instead of eight cool weeks. Cold-loving crops, like potatoes, watercress, cauliflower and broad beans, have become pretty unreliable and unproductive. In their place I have kaffir limes and eggplant all year round, not just in the warm seasons. I can ripen tropical bananas in the subtropics during mid-winter, and chillies (almost) escape winter cold damage.

An orchard planted ten years ago – as mine was – should now be yielding a decent harvest. I’m getting six crops a year from my Tahitian lime and others, like jackfruit, jaboticaba and pawpaw just get better each year. You don’t need lots of money or a large garden. You just need to be organised. See what 300 square metres of good soil can produce in the subcoastal subtropics at Bellis.


Learn how to adapt your crops as our climate changes. Available from: http://www.seedsavers.net

Since ‘All Hands in the Soil’ was published, how did you spend those ten years? Did you rehearse home food production?

Now 2017 looks like being the first Arctic summer to see no continuous ice cover for a time – the definitive climate Tipping Point for society. It is already an average of 5C warmer in the Arctic than elsewhere and this is generating 50 million tonnes of methane a year (1 billion tonnes CO2 equivalent) and it’s rising.

Once these warming processes generate more greenhouse gases than society does it won’t matter if we stop completely, it’s going to keep going under its own momentum. These processes are called positive feedback loops. And by the way, none of them are in climate models.

As a general recommendation, create that personal bucket list and see how much you can achieve. We have, at best, ten to perfect sustainable home food production before supermarkets have less food to sell, irrespective of the price of fuel – or your willingness to pay the price.

Give someone a useful gift for Christmas – a copy of the Seed Savers’ Handbook – so they can secure their own healthy diet and start acclimatising crops in our continually surprising climate.

“By each crime and every kindness, we birth our future”. Cloud Atlas, movie.

This is not a drill.

Jerry Coleby-Williams
25th November 2016