Guest blogger Lisa Margonelli: A short history of the future of British oil

Monday, April 28, 2008 - 12:00 AM

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In 1988 I drove more than a thousand miles on a whim-fueled road trip to see an ichthysaur skeleton. The dirt cheap gas that enabled this ridiculous and ultimately unsuccessful project (the ichthysaur was closed when I got there) was partly and indirectly provided by the Forties Pipeline in the UK's North Sea, which was just closed by a strike at a Scottish refinery.

Few Americans know anything about the Forties Pipeline, but it enabled all of our road trips, changed history, and encouraged some unrealistic expectations. If today's already stressed out oil market heads beyond the stratosphere on news of the strike, the Forties may again be a game-changer, so I thought I'd give a short tour of the past.

The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 raised prices and scared oil consuming countries, who realized that outsourcing their oil supplies had left them vulnerable. Western Europe only produced half a million barrels of oil a day in 1974, importing everything else. The oil consuming countries decided to drill for more oil at home, to lessen their dependence. The Forties (named after the part of the North Sea it was located in) was the first really big field that the UK drilled in the North Sea. (Read a scary story about the difficulty of drilling in the North Sea.)

In 1975, the British energy minister waved a bottle of oil from Forties and said it was "Britain's future" and then Queen Elizabeth herself flipped a symbolic switch to start production. (Probably wearing color coordinated gloves — See the queen flipping the original switch here.) By 1985, the North Sea was producing 3.8 million barrels a day. North Sea oil did change Britain's future, and it also played a key role in the establishment of the oil spot market and the futures markets, which meant that A. embargoes became impossible because consumers could buy from other producers, and B. anyone could get upset about the price of oil simply by reading the paper. (Before the mid-1970's oil prices were set in long term contracts and were basically secret agreements.) More drilling and new technology meant that oil output from the North Sea continued to grow, and grow and grow until it was 9 percent of the world's oil production, around 6 million barrels a day in 1999. (For a dated version of the IMF's take on this history, click here.) And then North Sea production began to fall. In 2006 it was 4 million or so. Now it's less.

The Forties, the North Sea, and many other non-OPEC fields created a market that was favorable to consumers, allowing us to forget about vulnerability and concentrate on using gasoline, counting on the oil market to even things out. But as many of the non-OPEC producers see their production taper off, the era of cheap gas that the Forties ushered in is ending. The bulk of remaining oil reserves are under oil producers, who are working to make a market that favors them, which means high prices for us.

My question is: What is the next Forties, the next geo-techno-political concept that will change the way the energy game is played? In other words: If you could give Queen Elizabeth a new button to push, a switch that would start a new era, what would it be?

Lisa Margonelli is an Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank.


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Comments [16]


What's changed about my morning...I have another option for morning news. Rather than canned and seemingly practiced news, I get to listen to two well informed people discussing the issues as I would with friends at the water cooler.

So for all the naysayers, rushing to judgement after an hour (0.34 minutes for some of you) is a bummer. No, disappointing.

Does the show need some smoothing out, absolutely. We all do. The show will evolve, so give it a chance. Despite what you think, someone probably gave you one along the way. I encourage everyone to count the greats that were not great at first. Be glad someone is willing to take risks and be progressive.

Keep up the good work and thanks for leading us to something new.

Apr. 28 2008 09:50 PM
Jacqueline Cantwell

I am disappointed, too. Too much chirpy commentary. Please--why not interview and inform about the 300x changing of oil tankers.

Apr. 28 2008 07:12 PM
Katherine Scully

I don't like to criticize when the show is so new, and it's great to try something new. These are my concerns--the things that will keep me from listening:
--the background music when people are speaking
--I listened for 30 minutes and feel like there was very little actual content: too many sponsorship notices, too much back-and-forth between the hosts (I'm not really interested in their reactions to things) so that they're a little like television's morning hosts, not a good thing
--Is most of this show going to be about the reporting of other organizations, like the Times? If so, it's not that welcome. I would prefer to read the Times on my own and hear NPR's original reporting

Apr. 28 2008 06:29 PM

Wow! I knew NPR listeners were crusty and set-in-their-ways, but this first-day vitriol is still rather surprising. Put me among that minority of posters who say that any new show, especially one this ambitious, needs to be given a chance. And since I am here, let me add that the Takeaway's website has some fun stuff that -begins- to illustrate the possibilities of an interactive, multi-media show.

There's a lot more to do of course. Since I didn't hear the whole show live, I especially look forward to the addition of some robust features -- like being being able to catch on-line the morning segments I missed.

Best of luck. Here's hoping the cranks go back to sleep.

Apr. 28 2008 02:23 PM
John Ernst

Bring back Morning Edition on FM where I can hear it. Hockenberry's juvenuile sex jokes about tax rebate "stimulation" are insulting and relentless. This is supposed to be interactive, So spare me hearing about the listener who intends to use her rebate to buy a kitten. Give me a break! And what news pieces threre are get cut off after about three minutes when they threaten to get interesting.
This is a terrible substitute for the best program on radio: Morning Edition!

Apr. 28 2008 01:13 PM
Moshe Schmidt MD

I am very disappointed that you do not provide BBC world news at 6am as before.
Unfortunately this is the only program which in stead of kitchen-talk and talk and talk provides news from around the world in a direct,somewhat objective and brief format.It is strange that in our metropolis we shut ourselves from information from around the globe.

Apr. 28 2008 12:35 PM

First impression, You've almost got me late. Had to pull away from the radio as you were interviewing the Zimbabwe UN ambassador.

We'll see what I think in a month.

Besides - for all critics, you can just go to the other radio band.

Good luck!

Apr. 28 2008 10:49 AM
Marcia C.Maytner

Well, you have driven me away at last!After 30 years of waking up early to listen to Morning Edition, I have finally HAD IT!From that constant thumping noise in the background that accompanies interviews to the seemingly endless interruptions for station promos and sponser recognition, Iam sadly forced to find another source of morning news.( AM 820 does not come in clearly enough to make it a viable choice)
I gave up on your evening "classical music" several months ago. Jazz and contemporary are not my bag. Back to WQXR!

Apr. 28 2008 09:40 AM

I like it! This is the premiere episode, people. This means the show will grow and change. They are making it for YOU, after all. And it's supposed to be different.

NPR listeners are used to very predictable segments of a certain length, with a well-scripted host and soft transitions that evoke a nearly Pavlovian response in those of us who have been listening for years. For me, that response has been to hit "snooze," which is something I didn't do today. Hooray!

Apr. 28 2008 08:59 AM

The show is definitely rough, but I'm not sure it makes sense to make editorial comments until the kinks are worked out, the hosts relax, etc.

Here's a kink: please, please, please get rid of the computer blip that sounds throughout. Circa Wargames in 1983, that might have sounded "modern" but today it just sounds like Morning Edition competitor trying desperately to attract a younger demo.

Apr. 28 2008 08:56 AM

I second this expression of concern about the interview. There's very little substantive justification that can be offered by the Ambassador that holds up to scrutiny (which wasn't pressed). The Florida 2000 parallel, for instance, is a poor one: during those six weeks, the nation, Floridians, and the courts all had initial counts to work with and specific issues held out to address. Remember, too, the hours of painful TV news coverage of the recounting, hanging chads, and so forth. The racial issue adduced by the Ambassador, moreover, should have been probed, not so much as a matter of race, history, or neo-imperial collusion but as a paranoid political manipulation. Raising Angola was appropriate, but the larger Zanu PF/Mugabe contention -- that everyone is against the current regime -- from the UK and US to the UN to other southern Africans and internal Zimbabweans -- was voiced by the Ambassador himself but then left unexamined as the interview ended.

Apr. 28 2008 08:55 AM

I love how new yorkers (and probably liberals, this being public radio) are so resistant to change, unaccepting of things that are new, judgemental...why be judging something when, at the most, you've only heard 110 minutes?

I'm looking forward to seeing what happens when Adaora and John hit their stride. And if I don't like it, I can always switch to FM.

Apr. 28 2008 08:51 AM

I thought the interview regarding oil prices and what was driving them was more information that I have heard on the whole of coverage by most networks. Congrats and I look forward to listening.

Apr. 28 2008 08:35 AM

Heavy on Noise, Light on News

This “Takeaway” show is very disappointing--shouting, poorly-prepared hosts, intrusive bass-pumped music, and dumbed-down news nuggets.

“Takeaway” seems unfortunately accurate title, given that the program is doling out the news radio equivalent of take-out food--cheap, greasy, attention-grabbing, but not nearly as satisfying or nutritious as a meal in a good restaurant or a decent news program (such as BBC).

I was hoping WNYC would produce something that would cure the deficiencies and biases of NPR. This shallow noise is very disappointing. The half-hour I’ve been listening to on line is all I can stand. Good to hear Bob Edward’s voice, why can’t we have someone like him design and host?

Apr. 28 2008 08:34 AM

John Hochenberry's interview with the Ambassador of Zimbabwe was perhaps the worst I've ever heard on NPR. The ambassador represents possibly the stupidest regime of thugs anywhere on the planet; but he seemed downright reasonable when contrasted with a long-winded journalist substituting Western conventional wisdom for simple factual questions. Why _should_ the Ambabassador admit a journalist's presumption that the delay in election results is "excessive"?

Mr. Hochenberry should have stuck to factual questions and let his audience draw their own conclusions from the answers. Instead he injected his own conclusions, and was lost when his guest simply asked why those should be authoritative.

Apr. 28 2008 07:28 AM
david linton

please take it away...
this new program is shrill, clumsy and all together not what i want to hear at 6am

Apr. 28 2008 07:03 AM

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