Markwells Wood is hardly a name synonymous with crude oil production. Nevertheless, this small forested area, eight odd kilometres northeast of Havant in Hampshire is shortly to be the site of a spot of ‘hydrocarbon exploration’.
Oil company Northern Petroleum was granted permission by West Sussex County Council two years ago to set up a rig and drill a well, in order to establish the viability of further oil drilling in the area.
Their informed estimate suggests that there may be 35 million barrels of oil down there. Wonderful news…until you realise that this amount would only last the country just over three weeks at our current rate of consumption. 
An “overriding need”
The arguments made by the MD of the company and the Council’s Planning Committee, were that the case was “compelling” and “there is a clear and overriding need for oil exploration” respectively. With the lifeblood of our economy valued at $80 a barrel, they’re probably right in one way at least.
Oil is now scarce enough that both the oil company and the establishment deem it fit to uproot woodland in a supposedly protected National Park and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Years ago, such onshore pockets of oil in Southern England would have been considered too expensive to bother with, particularly when easier targets were available – such as offshore sources and those in other countries. The lower yield of barrels-to-investment meant lower profits, and it simply wasn’t worth it. Now though, there are a number of exploration sites popping up in places previously unthinkable.
The reason – at risk of stating the bleeding obvious – is we’re running out of oil.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not yet a crisis, but we’re advancing towards one with oil’s scarcity evidenced by rising prices and fewer reserves. 
A crude awakening
Even if you were to put aside the majority of scientific evidence that points to the conclusion that world is warming and the correlation placing us as the cause, and consequential ethical impetus to act on the inequity built into our modern global system of consumption, and the moral duty to behave responsibly towards other life-forms (i.e. ‘all that hippy eco-socialist hokum’), it seems nonsensical that even as pragmatic exploiters of global resources for our own self-interest, we remain with our heads firmly in the sand about peak oil.
All the attempted ‘debunking’ of ‘the global warming scam’ is irrelevant when faced with the imminent need to move towards a non-fossil fuel economy, whether by choice – with the foresight, investment and planning that such agency allows – or by force.
I dread to think what economic chaos and social turmoil will follow if we are unprepared when oil dwindles and we are left with a society and economy which depends on it at every level.
The point about the small ‘exploration’ rig/well being set up in Markswell Wood is that it is not being done for laughs – they are hoping to find a serious enough quantity of oil underneath there to warrant either Northern Petroleum or another company moving in and extracting it all. In short, the likelihood is that what was signed-off by the County Council is not going to be the end of it.
Is it worth destroying a hectare of ancient woodland to get at? Well Northern Petroleum says it is. But I would question the long-term usefulness of energy companies (though admittedly their long-term logic tends to defer to short-term profitability) and government continuing to focus upon energy-intensive and harder-to-acquire sources, like tar sands or Iraq’s oil fields, when we could be getting ahead of the game.
The logical self-interested choice
Faced with decreasing oil the two options available to us are: a reduction in use, or switching to alternative sources. They obviously aren’t mutually exclusive choices, and managing the inevitable transition will probably require both.
Policies for both use-reduction and alternatives are well known to many and are in practice around the world. The Netherlands long-ago committed themselves to a now thriving energy-light cycling culture. Meanwhile Japan’s government is more unconventional, beginning pilot versions of seaweed biofuel – a scheme which could eventually power their whole country both cheaply and sustainably. (Note: the UK is among the highest countries in the world for potential capacity for seaweed biofuel).
How long do we continue justifying the destruction of natural areas (and often carbon sinks) to appease the ‘overriding’ need for oil before addressing this very need?
Eventually either public will or sheer difficulty will force those companies and their shareholders (such as the publically-owned Royal Bank of Scotland), into the ‘free market innovation’ they extol between bailouts. I only hope that then it is not too late for Britain’s natural sites, and more importantly for runaway climate change.
Now, where’s a green investment bank when you need one?
 Northern Petroleum’s estimate is that there is a mean potential of 35m under Markwells Wood. Source: Northern Petroleum.
With UK’s daily 2009 consumption at 1.6m barrels a day, a reserve of 35m barrels would last 21.9 days. Source: BP Annual Statistical Review 2010.
 It was pointed out to me that cynically, one could suspect those in position of oil to be playing a long game, and perhaps manufacturing a condition of scarcity to force up prices. While I’m not qualified to offer an opinion on this, I still think that the actual scarcity of oil is enough to cause price rises and disruption to society on it’s own, and price-fixing would be secondary.