Oil fears should spur low-carbon innovation


When, last week The Engineer  reported on a new fast charging system for electric vehicles the technology was alternately hailed as “fatuous nonsense masquerading as green technology” and “just the type of thing the government should be investing in .” Confirmation, if any were needed, that few topics divide the opinion of Engineer readers like electric vehicles.

But with a host of factors conspiring to drive up oil prices, and global uncertainty over key oil producing regions growing, the case for electric and hydrogen powered vehicles is growing stronger by the week.

At home, yesterday’s news that the Coryton oil refinery in Essex, the UK’s largest independent oil refinery, has gone into administration, is perhaps the latest expression of the industry’s malaise. 

The refinery  provides a tenth of the country’s total fuel production and the shutdown has sparked panic fuel buying across some parts of the South-East and prompted fears that diesel prices could reach a record high.  The news follows Shell’s announcement, earlier this month, that it’s to close its main UK R&D base in Thornton, Cheshire, and adds to a general feeling of uncertainty that surrounds the UK oil industry.

Meanwhile, on the global stage, there are plenty of reminders of the uncomfortably tangled relationship between fuel supply and fragile geo-politics. The EU’s imposition of oil sanctions on Iran (in response to that country’s nuclear activities) has cut-off one of Europe’s  major sources of crude whilst the announcement that the commercial production of oil will soon begin off the Falkland Islands is inflaming old tensions between the UK and Argentina.

Against this uncertain backdrop the development of low carbon vehicles looks less an exercise in noble environmental intentions and more the compelling basis of a major UK industry – which is, unsurprisingly, how it’s viewed by a host of automotive OEMs including Nissan, Renault and BMW. 

Wherever you stand on the ever-emotive low carbon vehicle debate, it seems inevitable that drivers will be in for some painful moments at the petrol pumps over the coming months and years. The flip-side to this is that growing uncertainty in the oil industry should provide a spur for innovation in a sector that’s likely to become increasingly important to the UK.