Fossil fuels: is the world ready to go cold turkey?

Exploring the future via a road trip through Bahrain in a hybrid Porsche Panamera

No camping beyond this sign, reads the least necessary warning in the history of mankind. I move in for a closer look – no quad biking or motocross either. Fortunately, neither Mark nor I fancy sleeping under canvas or breaking out the fast, flammable toys, given we’re parked in the middle of an oil and natural gas field, surrounded by flare stacks the size of rockets, a swarm of pipes and a landscape that looks like a pilot run for Elon’s Mars colonisation plan.

Words: Jack Rix
Photography: Mark Riccioni

Every few minutes, a truck of quizzical looks trundles past. It feels distinctly like we shouldn’t be here, but apparently clueless strangers roaming around large-scale industrial facilities in a 671bhp hybrid Porsche are perfectly acceptable in Bahrain. Better engage stealth mode, just to be sure.

We’re here because, as the EV revolution gathers pace and tightens its grip around the jugular of the oil age, it feels like the right moment to take a stock check on fossil fuels and our expanding thirst for energy in general. What’s actually left, and when will we run out? Are we in any way ready to go cold turkey on hydrocarbons? Will our children’s children be denied the primal joy of a throbbing V8?

And why Bahrain? Partly because it takes 20 minutes to drive anywhere on the island, which is handy, but really because just as a petrol-electric Porsche is a shiny symbol of an industry in transition, this tiny island in the Persian Gulf is a microcosm of the energy conundrum facing us all. Although it was the first country in the Middle East to strike oil in 1932 (it’s true – we visited the hole in the ground where it happened), it’s also on course to be the first to run out. Compared with its neighbour to the west, Bahrain is a minnow, producing around 200,000 barrels per day, roughly 60 times less than Saudi Arabia, and at the current rate of production, its reserves will run dry in just seven years. Not ideal, given 75 per cent of government revenue in 2017 was directly from fossil fuels. Time to start thinking fast, and to be fair, it isn’t entirely burying its head in the sand.

Having spent the day gliding silently around the old fields (with the odd foray onto the sand to engage the 4.0-litre V8 and confirm the four-wheel-drive system is, indeed, rear-biased) and playing chicken with the flare stacks (if you smell your eyebrows burning, you’re probably close enough), we make our way to a ground-mounted solar farm at Bahrain University – enough to power 30 houses a year – one of a handful of fledgling solar projects cropping up around the country. Looks like the penny has dropped that in a place with 3,350 hours of sunshine a year, solar might be the way to go. Wind power is being given an audition, too, although the three turbines attached to the

Bahrain World Trade Centre are more decoration than meaningful contribution (supposedly they provide 15 per cent of the power for the building they’re stuck to, but we didn’t see them rotate once in two days from our hotel on the opposite side of the water).

On a global scale, the facts suggest similar amounts of nonchalance. Worldwide CO2 emissions will hit an all-time high in 2018, thanks largely to China’s fondness for burning coal, but emissions from cars, trucks and planes all over the planet continue to rise. If we continue to consume oil at our current rate (consumption actually climbed 1.8 per cent in 2017 compared with 2016) all proven reserves will run out by 2052. Use natural gas to cover the deficit and that’ll last until 2060. Use coal to plug the gap beyond that and we’ll run out completely in 2088… and that’s ignoring the side effects of releasing all that CO2 into the atmosphere. Bleak, isn’t it? But before you start stockpiling BBQ cannisters, there’s hope of a somewhat brighter scenario.

New reserves will be found. Bahrain itself has recently discovered 80 billion barrels of oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas off its west coast, a supply that, if deemed economically viable to extract, could deliver a titanic boost to the economy. But the silver bullet is renewable energy – increase the mix of wind, solar, hydro, biomass and geothermal, and the reliance on and usage of fossil fuels dwindles proportionally. Keep increasing renewable energy’s contribution towards 100 per cent of the mix, and we’ll not only help stall the effects of climate change but stretch our reserves of fossil fuel indefinitely. Jack Junior might own that V8 after all.

And the thing is, I’m not sure the tapering process – when it comes to cars, at least – is going to be as painful as we all imagine. I’ll admit, there are some teething issues with plug-in hybrids – this particular one weighs 315kg more, costs £22k more and is only 0.2 seconds faster 0–62mph than the non-ehybrid Panamera Turbo. And the brake feel is a bit odd, a hazard of mixing regen braking with actual pads on disc. But the way an electric motor complements a combustion engine – filling the torque holes, giving it a sizeable kick up the arse at low revs – is sheer poetry. Likewise, full EVs are too porky and still too light on range when you drive them like a normal human being, but the ferocity of the acceleration one minute and the calmness of the experience the next is an exciting platform to build from. Batteries will improve, we’ll get there, and one day our grandchildren will laugh heartily when they hear cars used to move via a series of controlled explosions.

View it like this – electric cars are here to preserve unleaded, not rid the world of it – and even the staunchest petrolhead might be able to soften their opinions. Given around 50 per cent of the world’s oil consumption is by road transportation, you can see why our beloved motor carriages are being targeted, and why these juggernaut-manufacturers, their roots soaked in Brent Crude, are reacting so fast. Companies like Porsche – its reputation built on bolting spectacular combustion engines into equally accomplished chassis – now produces cars like this 671bhp saloon capable of 0–62mph in 3.4 seconds on one hand, and 97.4mpg (according to Porsche’s calculations, at least) and 31 miles with the engine off (says Porsche; 12 miles in reality) on t’other. Soon the fastest new 911 will be a hybrid, and waiting in the wings is the Taycan, Stuttgart’s first all-electric model. The landscape is changing, and it’s changing fast.

Pity the charging infrastructure isn’t doing the same. If you thought finding a functioning public juicer in the UK was difficult, we couldn’t find a single one in the Kingdom of Bahrain. The only other electrically assisted car we saw was a stricken Tesla Roadster abandoned in the corner of the supercar collection you can read about on page 108. Bahrain would appear to be embracing the electric car with all the enthusiasm of Melania Trump on date night.

Shame, because with a global population tipped to reach almost 10 billion by 2050, and our hunger for energy growing all the time, now is the time to turn the tanker around and start cutting back on the black stuff while it’s still a choice, not a panic-stricken necessity. The good news is that so long as Porsche and its pals stay fully engaged in the industry metamorphosis, the electric and electrically boosted cars of tomorrow are going to be special enough to keep enthusiasts engaged, and capable enough to keep the general public moving. Just remember, as you untangle a mess of cables or glance anxiously at an indicated five miles range, it’s all for the greater good. To preserve the combustion engines we love, we need to wean ourselves off the liquid that propels them.

The big lesson, then: sip, don’t guzzle; ration, don’t gorge. Bahrain even has a national monument to show us the way. We stop by the Tree of Life to pay our respects – a 400- year old miracle, fresh and flourishing in the middle of the desert, surrounded by nothing, no greenery, only derricks slavishly dragging black treasure to the surface. They say its roots reach 50 metres deep and drink gently from an underground well; they also say it’s learned to extract moisture from grains of sand, so ‘they’ can’t be trusted. All I know is that the earth beneath our feet has a finite supply of miracles – let’s save some for later.

PORSCHE PANAMERA TURBO S E-HYBRID

Price: £137,140
Engine: 3996cc twin-turbo V8 + single electric motor, 671bhp, 627lb ft
Transmission: 8spd, dual-clutch auto, 4WD
Performance: 0–62mph in 3.4secs, 193mph
EV range: 31 miles
Weight: 2385kg

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