Melting icebergs in the path of rigs in the Arctic, the latest oil frontier

Melting icebergs in the path of rigs in the Arctic, the latest oil frontier.
© Will Rose / Greenpeace

Disquiet around fuel prices always makes ministers sit up and take notice. This is the fourth time in a decade that spiraling oil prices have left politicians facing angry motorists demanding ministers do something about petrol prices. This time round, the debate has been given further urgency by the impact of political unrest in the Middle East on already volatile oil markets - raising questions about how much military, financial and moral capital we are prepared to expend to keep open our access to oil supplies.

Usually, politicians resort to tinkering with the tax regime, knocking a penny or two off a litre of petrol in an attempt to mollify voters.  Rarely, however, do they dare to mention the root cause of the problem – Britain’s chronic dependence on oil. This is why Chris Huhne has been bolder and more far-reaching than most, in saying that we would be "crazy" not to have a long-term plan for moving beyond the oil age, to a more secure, low-carbon economy.

The Gulf of Mexico spill shone a light on the lengths to which oil companies will go to chase the last drops of black stuff – whether that’s drilling deep into our oceans and the pristine Arctic wilderness or ravaging an area the size of England over in Canada, in order to sift the oil out of Alberta’s tar sands.

While our economy is so completely geared towards oil, we will be forced to pay whatever price the market sets. Unless we have policies which dramatically reduce consumption, we will continue to be exposed to the whims of oil companies and the cartel of the oil producing countries that make up Opec.

Yet whilst Chris Huhne has rightly identified the problem, there is little sign that his government is serious about the solution.  His department has fallen over themselves to allow oil companies to drill in the deep waters west of Shetland, with a reckless disregard for the lessons of the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

A few months ago, Huhne made a point of witnessing the signing of a deal between BP and a Russian oil giant, Rosneft, to drill for oil in the pristine Arctic wilderness. Meanwhile, his cabinet colleague Phillip Hammond, the transport minister, was presiding over savage cuts to public transport budgets, higher rail fares, and a proposal to increase the motorway speed limit to 80 miles an hour – a set of policies which will force more people into cars, to burn oil at record rates, at prices they can barely afford.

Right now, ministers across Whitehall are deliberating whether or not to support a new long-term carbon budget for the UK, including a new target to cut the UK’s carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2030.

These goals, recommended by the independent Committee on Climate Change, would help drive the radical clean energy and transport policies which are the only real way to ‘go beyond oil’.  This would mean 11 million electric vehicles on our roads by 2030, bringing cleaner air to our cities, and supporting the creation of thousands of new jobs. Tough new vehicle efficiency standards in Europe, also necessary to meet the target, would save over a million barrels of oil a day.

The alternative is to keep chasing after the next fix of oil – bending our foreign and defence policies to fit the shape of our cravings, sacrificing the natural environment and the lives of local people to keep ourselves supplied, and willing to pay the spiraling costs, which these choices entail.

It's time to go beyond oil – and to go beyond words, too. If Chris Huhne’s government accepts the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee, and comes up with the energy and transport policies to match, it will mark the start of a new era. 

Otherwise, it’s business as usual in the world of blood and oil.