Colin Campbell on the oil depletion protocol (transcript)

MediaColin Campbell on the oil depletion protocol

David Room: This is David Room for Global Public Media interviewing Dr. Colin Campbell on November 19th 2005.

David Room: What is the purpose of the oil depletion protocol?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: It simply says that importing countries shall top the imports to match world depletion rate. This issue of depletion, you know I don't think anyone would really deny the fact that the resource of oil is limited in nature - there's only so much of it - that means that there is a depletion rate. We're eating into what's left at a certain level. You can argue of course as what that level should be, but that's not the main issue. If you would once recognize that there was a limit and there was a certain amount being produced every year we should match what is produced in nature against what we consume. That would be a step forward. We would begin to come into equilibrium with what nature has to offer. There's many problems over creating an international protocol. Of course there are. Many countries would reject it and wouldn't want to follow it. But I don't think that matters so much, because any country that did follow the principles would soon find itself at an enormous advantage over those who were still living in the past.

David Room: How did the protocol come about and why did the name change?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: About 10 years ago I would say, I was invited to a conference in London. They said: don't always talk about the problem, why don't you offer some solutions. So it didn't take all of 10 minutes mature reflection to figure out that if supply is declining you have to match the decline with the consumption. So it became a very obvious solution to say: let's cut imports to match decline of what the world has to offer. It happened by chance in this conference the secretary general of OPEC was there in the audience and he came up afterwards and he expressed a lot of enthusiasm for this idea because at that time OPEC was under some kind of political pressure. He thought it was a good idea to match consumption with supply. That would leave the world in a reasonable sort of relationship. So the idea evolved and first it was called the Uppsala protocol because I gave some talk in Uppsala which attracted the media, so it seemed reasonable to call it that. Later we went to Rimini and it became - or it should have become - the prime subject of this last conference in Rimini. But in the event the "flat-earth" community, if we can call them that, the people who reject any notion of limits to nature they objected and they eventually influenced the committee and everything so the conference did not give the emphasis to the protocol which it originally hoped to do. That was the story of the Rimini protocol. But I'm glad to say, very glad to say in fact, that Richard Heinberg in the United States has got support and is opening an office to support this very simple notion that we have to cut demand to match whatever nature has to offer us. So there's a great movement building in the United States right now to adopt this general philosophy, and that's sort of the future for mankind you could say.

David Room: How does this protocol differ from the Kyoto protocol?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: The Kyoto protocol means that everyone has to sign-up to agree to it, because obviously the world's greatest pollutors have the greatest effect. But the Rimini protocol, if we can still call it that, doesn't need that. So any country that would adopt these principles would soon find itself at huge advantage over those who were living in the past. If you could cut your demand, if you could bring in renewables, if you could avoid waste, do all these rather simple things that can be done, it would obviously have an advantage. I don't know where the Rimini protocol is going really, I would say that there's an identification around the world of this issue, which is attracting attention.

David Room: What approximately is the average world depletion rate?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: The world depletion rate on the best numbers we can put together, and they're not exact, is between 2-3% a year. So if a hundred cars go by our windows today, we look out of the window and we see a hundred cars going by every hour, next year we would say there'd be 97. This doesn't strike me at least as an horrendous kind of objective to reach. We could do all kinds of things to help reduce this demand for oil. We could share cars, we could fill cars. People leaving a city could pick up hitch-hikers. Hitch-hiking is very good idea in a way.

David Room: Is it possible to accurately estimate the world depletion rate?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: You touch on very sensitive question. Of course, the international oil companies under-reported what they found in the past. The giant fields were under-reported by about 30% you could say. So we have the image of growing reserves, as reported. These reports were financial reports governed by the strict rules of the stock exchange that frowned on exaggeration, but smiled on conservative reporting. In a way that is the source of the confusion. On the other side we have OPEC who exaggerated its reserves in the '80s when they were competing for quota between each other. So in short one can say that the public database is extremely unreliable, but as far as we can do so we can dig through all the evidence. We need a detective to do it, but eventually we can come up with reasonable numbers of what is actually there and this should be the basis upon which we plan our future.

David Room: Do you encourage municipalities and/or states to adopt the protocols?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: Yes, I think in the pragmatic world of politics, and I'm no specialist on that, but it seems to me that the central governments of any country has to reflect the vision and the attitudes and the impressions and policies and all of those things of the individual communities that make up that country. So if indeed we had a movement in let's say in darkest Vermont who would start adopting these principles. So Vermont would begin to adopt the right policy that in turn would influence the central government and gradually would have a movement, a consensus, a direction, which at the lowest possible level would start, but it would filter upwards through communities to regions and eventually to the central government. I think that is the way to go, yes.

David Room: Once a country adopts the protocol, or a locale adopts the protocol, how do you expect them to meet their consumption reduction commitment?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: I'm aware of here in Ireland there's a town called Kinsale. They are having a deliberate policy, a strategy, to say power-down, to figure out exactly what this town uses, figure out how they can improve their efficiency, how they can cut back on these demands, how they can find alternative sources of energy. You can speak of the tides. The tides deliver a lot of energy if they could be captured. The waves. Sun, solar panels are quite possible for many people. You can make a long list of all kinds of renewable energies that can kick in given the incentive to use them.

David Room: What do you think of the transport demand restraint strategies in IEA Saving Oil in a Hurry report?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: The IEA, International Energy Agency, really if you are frank about it, is the agency controlled by the OECD governments to deliver them a kind of curtain behind which they can hide. They put out these bland scenarios, business as usual, and all this is words. But if you dig through their reports and you look at the footnotes and you look at the qualifiers you find that in fact they are trying to tell the truth but in a very oblique way. So I think the IEA does a good job, but behind the scenes I think there's a growing awareness of this issue. The governments, the European Union, the United States, all kinds of governments around the world are beginning to realize what is happening. They can't exactly come out and say it up front, but behind the scenes they are beginning to adopt policies that address this issue.

David Room: How can the cutbacks be accomplished and what happens beyond that?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: Obviously the first step any country can do is to cut its waste. We are an extraordinarily wasteful society. We have huge Mercedes driving down the roads every day occupied by one person. We're moving a ton of metal around the world, driven by one person. This isn't sustainable, this is living in the past. There's many things we could do. We could be much more efficient. Houses could be insulated better, solar heating, geothermal things, heat-pumps. There's many things that could be done, but it's a long trail to adopt to a changed world. To add to that I would say that really over the last 150 years during the first half of the age of oil the banks were lending more than they on deposit, confident that expansion based on economic parameters was adequate collateral for today's debt. So everybody began to think that it was money that made the world go round. In reality it was the cheap abundant supply of cheap energy. I would say that we are coming to the end of an epoch in a way. The financial and economic and banking and all of those things become rather delicate these days. So we may face the onset of what I would call the second half of the age of oil. We may face the second great depression, because the economic prosperity of the past which was driven by this cheap energy is no longer there. This sounds as a sort of doomsday story, and in a way I would say that really at the end of the day we may find a rather good situation, the benign situation may unfold. When people live again in rural circumstances with a good respect for themselves, for each other and for the environment in which nature has ordained them to live. I think we come to the end of a certain chapter in history, and with a bit of luck, I wouldn't say we'd make it, but with a little bit of luck we might go back to a rather more sensible way to live.

David Room: Is it fair to say that we need to begin reconfiguring our economies and cities so that they require much less transported energy?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: Of course, the cities are the most vulnerable places we can picture. To live, people need to eat. Don't forget you have to eat. What we eat comes from fields, fields comes from agriculture, agriculture comes from rural places, and so the cities in a sense are the most vulnerable because they depend on cheap oil-based energy to ship the food from the country to the city. I would say that the crises we face right now is indeed the cities. It may well be a very violent reaction. Already we see riots in France, we see riots in England, we see riots all over the place as the new world begins to open. But eventually we have to have a world that lives in some sustainable relationship between the agriculture that gives the food and the people who eat it. I would say the urban world in which we live right now is sort of vulnerable and has to change in some way.

David Room: How would the protocol affect countries like the United States?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: I think United States is a very exceptional part of the world. From the second world war it emerged triumphant. It had a great economy; the dollar runs the world you could say. So they've lived in the brief epoch of expansion and growth and all those good things. The peak of discovery in the United States was in 1930. The peak of production was in 1970. It's in a long-term decline right now. For a while nobody noticed this, because they were able to import as much as they wanted from other countries. But gradually every country around the world is beginning to meet its limits and begin to decline too, so it's getting more difficult for the United States to import. The first reaction of the United States is, they are very pragmatic people in the United States so they say: well, hell, if the middle-east has it, we better control it. So we have this invasion of Iraq, which I don't think anybody doubts really had a certain oil subtext you could say. But it doesn't work really, because people who live there are still living there. You face the limit of what is available and possible. I think that quite soon United States will wake up to the reality of what it faces. It's no use trying to take it from the middle-east, it must cut its own demand. Cutting its own demand, well it wouldn't be difficult because it's so profligate in its use of energy these days. Nobody needs one of these SUV or whatever they're called. They could be much more economical in their use of oil. I'm quite optimistic for the United States, because once people in general were told about what the situation was you'd find an enormous popular reaction. People are not so stupid you know. People can understand this very well, and once they were told the truth they would react positively and support a new kind of policy to cut demand. So once United States understood the issue, which is coming close now I think, well everybody would react in a very positive. They would cut their demand. Speeding on motorways would be reduced. All kinds of measures quite simple and quite easy and not very dramatic could be introduced. With a bit of luck they might lead the world again in figuring out how to deal with nature offers them.

David Room: Over the past six months the US has imported between 750 and more than 1,500 barrels of gasoline per day. How does the protocol handle imports of petroleum-based products such as gasoline and diesel?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: Well, there's a lot of details of the protocol that's yet to be worked out, so I don't exactly know. But the United States have faced these hurricanes lately, and Europe came to its rescue in way and opened its reserves and its storage and everything to try to tight that over. The hurricanes are and incident. In the longer term the United States has to live within the world depletion regime you could say, so I think that whether you import crude oil or fine product is really immaterial, it's only two sides of the same coin you could say.

David Room: Have you received positive feedback from American politicians?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: Yes indeed, there are intelligent and wise politicians in the United States. Schlesinger, James Schlesinger, the former secretary of state and I think he was head of the CIA or something. He's come out absolutely in favor of this protocol, and understands the position absolutely. Roscoe Bartlett is a really fine man, he's an old man. When you're old you don't have to bow to anybody, you tell the truth. He's trying to lead in this direction. Sure, the United States can solve its problem fairly well if it would accept the reality of what it's imposed. This is a very dynamic society. It's a lot of initiative and enthusiasm, all those things. So if ever the people were properly informed of what the true situation was, they would react positively and support these political moves. Nobody blames any politician for an earthquake, this is an act of nature. So I would say that the peak of oil and the decline of oil is similar to an earthquake in a way, it's imposed by nature, it's nobody's fault. This is something that we have to live with. I think that there are political elements within the United States who begin to accept this and begin to do their best to try to move the country in the right direction.

David Room: In the last ASPO newsletters you've reported that the leaders of France and Venezuela have acknowledged the end of cheap oil. Can you comment on that and its significance?

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: Yes, it's very strange. There are many people in denial. Politicians find it easier to react to crises rather than prepare for them. But that said, we do have the statement from the prime-minister of France who said: look, we're entering the second half of the age of oil. President Chavez in Venezuela, he's not everybody's favorite politician, but that said, he does accept the limits. He says his country cannot keep on producing more and more oil. While he has all sorts of social programs in his own domain. But he is telling the truth in a certain way. It's not very palatable and people try to assassinate poor old Chavez. Generally speaking I would have certain faith in what he tells us.

David Room: Given that Venezuela is such a large source of United States' oil that's bad news for business as usual in the United States.

Dr. Colin J. Campbell: The problem of Venezuela is that Venezuela has a lot of heavy oil. This stuff is slow to produce, expensive, difficult, and all those things. So it's not so easy to know precisely what Venezuela has, but as you say it's a major producer for the United States. Chavez in Venezuela is trying to make some sort of union of Latin America who would try to preserve its reserves to the benefit of Latin America. Not such a stupid idea really, but he in a sense threatens the United States by saying he won't supply as much as he would, so you can't tell. You're entering a very sensitive subject on this old subject.

David Room: Absolutely. Do you have any more comments to me? We're entering the second half of the age of oil you could say. The first half lasted all these years, 150 years we've been living under the epoch of growth based on cheap oil. Now we face the beginning of the second half when oil will decline and all that is dependent upon it. We are facing some sort of transition. It ain't easy to know how this will exactly go.

David Room: This has been David Room interviewing Dr. Colin Campbell on November 19th 2005.

MediaColin Campbell on the oil depletion protocol