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Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

A  protestor holds up her own version of the BP logo, dripping with oil.As names go, the First Exploitation Company sounds like an inspired slight dreamed up by an angry anti-oil campaigner. In fact, it was the original title, coined in 1903, of the troubled company we now know as BP. But then, public relations have never been its strong point.

Over the course of a century BP, in its various guises, has managed to outrage everyone from revolutionary nationalist leaders in the Middle East to Britain’s supposedly closest ally. Now Barack Obama has ensured that BP is Public Enemy No 1 in the United States (tonight, he will make his first address to the nation direct from the White House to stress the point).

In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP is being freely compared in the US to those poster boys of corporate malfeasance, Enron and Worldcom. Beleaguered chief-executive Tony Hayward may not be Bernie Madoff, but hate mail and threatening phone calls have been directed at him and his family. Hayward is now reportedly undergoing training in front of a so-called “murder board” of legal experts to prepare him for the aggressive questioning he will face from the Congressional Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee in Washington on Thursday.

BP’s share price is tumbling, as its expected liabilities from the spill – estimated at anywhere up to $40bn (£27bn) – climb so high that the financial markets are giving the company’s debt a “junk” rating. Speculation over BP’s future has ranged from filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to a possible takeover by one of its giant rivals, Exxon Mobil or Chevron.

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Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

The word spill doesn’t really do justice to the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, brought to you by oil giant BP. A spill, as Sophie Elmhirst has pointed out, is what happens to milk: “There’s no point crying over it, as the saying goes”.

But before you start wondering whether to call it a slick, a disaster, a catastrophe, be sure to pay a visit to IfItWasMyHome.com. Enter your home town and watch as the big black blot of oil is superimposed on where you live. Here’s what it looks like dumped on nef HQ in London, engulfing most of East Anglia, and stretching right across to the Breacon Beacons.

At this point, most words feels like an understatement.

(Hat-tip to @JohnHitchin for the link)

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

We may be in the grip of the worst economic upheaval for half a century, but the UK is still at heart a forward-looking, modern economy, isn’t it? Smogs and satanic mills are things of the past and we have a model that is resource-light and service driven, don’t we?

Perhaps not. In the UK for the first quarter of this year, £1 in every £4 paid in dividends to shareholders came from a single industry: oil and gas. And, from that sector, just two companies – BP and Shell – accounted for the vast majority.

If the banking crisis taught us one thing, it is that putting too many of your economic eggs in one sector’s basket is a very bad idea. In banking it was a bad idea because they practised Narnia-nomics (which is probably a slur on Narnia). With the oil and gas sector it is a bad idea for two reasons, which may seem contradictory: the products are both very damaging and have no long-term future. Unfortunately, however, there’s still enough oil and gas left to cause more damage than the planet can handle (and an awful lot of coal, which people may turn to as the other fossil fuels become more expensive and harder to get).

Where the damage is concerned emissions continue to drive the loss of a climate system conducive to stable, flourishing societies. A combination of steadily rising greenhouse gas concentrations and temperatures suggest that in around 78 months we will enter a new, more dangerous category of risk for creeping climatic instability, reason enough perhaps, to disinvest in fossil fuels.

The second reason is that an economy so hard-wired to the oil and gas sector is hitching its future to a long-term loser. We are already decades past the point of peak global oil discoveries, and on the cusp of the peak of oil production.

A new assessment of 14 forecasts of global oil supply underlines how the short-lived empire of oil is already well into its dotage, with the end in sight during our own lifetimes.

Some speculate that the moment at which production levels-off and begins its inexorable decline is already with us. If so, it may be only the recession, which temporarily reduces demand, that is hiding it. Several more forecasts suggest it will happen over the course of this decade – mere seconds away in the calibration of economic planning. Crucially, the study concluded that no credible forecast could put the date more than 20 years away.

Expect to see repeats of BP’s disaster at its Deepwater Horizon rig as companies seek to extend their lives of by exploiting ever-more marginal and hard-to-get reserves. Accidents happen when limits get pushed and an industry becomes increasingly desperate.

While companies like Shell, BP and Exxon may dominate the current economic landscape like leviathans, it is a feature of the end of empires that they seem permanent (especially from within) until, suddenly, they are gone.

All the more important, then, to plan for the inevitable. This is starting to happen. As the peak, plateau and decline of oil production approaches, its price will rise dramatically. Companies that are heavily exposed or, in other words, dependent on the old oil economy, will be at risk. Thinking back to the oil price spike of 2008, the ratings agency Fitch recently reassessed a range of industrial sectors for how vulnerable they will be when oil again knocks on the door of $150 per barrel. Airlines, trucking, chemicals and various consumer goods sectors look to be in big trouble. But railways and renewable energy cash-in.

It’s not just the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico that have fallen victim to our economic dependence on oil, its the climate that we depend on, for example, to grow our food, and will soon also be huge chunks of the economy.

The quicker we arrange a separation between society, the economy and the oil and gas sector, the better. This era-defining problem falls on the watch of the new coalition government. They could start by substantially capitalising the proposed new green investment bank and turning the taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland – that once proudly called itself the “oil and gas bank” and is still up to its neck in fossil-fuel financing – into a Royal Bank of Sustainability. More or less we have just the lifetime of this parliament to get money out of oil and into renewables and low-energy infrastructure.

After the bank bailout, we were left with the question, “where did the money go?”. At least if we put our resources into the great transition away from fossil fuels there would be tangible results. We would be looking at a great wave of new employment opportunities, more energy security, a less vulnerable economy and the chance for a better future.

78 months and counting …

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.