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Peak Oil Alarm: Growing Concern Over Critical Future Energy Supplies

Speculation that government ministers are far more concerned about a future supply crunch than they have admitted has been fueled by the revelation that they are canvassing views from industry and the scientific community about "peak oil".

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is also refusing to hand over policy documents about "peak oil" - the point at which oil production reaches its maximum and then declines - under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, despite releasing others in which it admits "secrecy around the topic is probably not good".

Experts say they have received a letter from David Mackay, chief scientific adviser to the DECC, asking for information and advice on peak oil amid a growing campaign from industrialists such as Sir Richard Branson for the government to put contingency plans in place to deal with any future crisis.

A spokeswoman for the department insisted the request from Mackay was "routine" and said there was no change of policy other than to keep the issue under review. The peak oil argument was effectively dismissed as alarmist by former energy minister Malcolm Wicks in a report to government last summer, while oil companies such as BP, which have major influence in Whitehall, take a similar line.

But documents obtained under the FoI Act seen by the Observer show that a "peak oil workshop" brought together staff from the DECC, the Bank of England and Ministry of Defence among others to discuss the issue.

A ministry note of that summit warned that "[Government] public lines on peak oil are 'not quite right'. They need to take account of climate change and put more emphasis on reducing demand and also the fact that peak oil may increase volatility in the market."

Those comments were written 12 months ago, but a letter in response to the FoI request written by DECC officials and dated 31 July 2010 says it can only release some information on what is currently under policy discussion because they are "ongoing" and "high profile" in nature.

The letter adds: "We recognize the public interest arguments in favor of disclosing this information. In particular we recognize that greater transparency makes government more open and accountable and could help provide an insight into peak oil.

"However any public interest in the disclosure of such information must be balanced with the need to ensure that ministers and advisers can discuss policy in a manner which allows for frank exchanges of views and opinions about important and sensitive issues."

Yet the note of the workshop distributed last year talks about secrecy around the topic being "probably not good", although it also suggests officials stick to the line that the "International Energy Agency is an authoritative source in this field" and stresses how the IEA believes there is sufficient reserves to meet demand till 2030 as long as investment in new reserves is maintained.