Peak Oil, Tight Oil, and Global Warming: Beware the Cleverness of Humans

Perhaps some of us remember a few years ago when The End of Oil supposedly documented how the world was going to run out of oil soon and would come to a crashing halt. In a way this was an environmental dream: how convenient to run out of oil just as we needed to shut down carbon production.  Finally solar and wind and other alternatives would be economically favored!

Well, it isn’t going to happen any time soon.

US EIA estimates of future U.S. oil production.

It is increasingly looking like the High Resource trend line might be the more realistic one. Basically what happened was that as oil prices rose higher and higher, clever people were able to try more ambitious tricks and some of them panned out big time; this first produced the natural gas boom (and lots of horizontal drilling and fracking) and is now doing the same for oil. Given that these processes have yet to be applied to underperforming older fields and are only just being started overseas, the volume of oil available looks to have pushed the end of civilization as we know it back a long ways.

Two questions should occur here: (1) how could this happen? and (2) what does it mean for lowering carbon emissions?

First, what happened is about the same thing that happened to the Population Bomb and other forecasts based on relatively mindless mathematical extrapolations of trends: something else got in the way.  Here what was unrecognized was that there is an immense amount of oil still in the earth and that there would be technological tricks that could get it out.  In a way this shouldn’t be a surprise: the massive oil shale deposits in western Colorado and adjacent areas have teetered from time to time on the edge of financial break-even. Assuming that there would never be a technological breakthrough was a losing bet, especially when you are talking about one of the biggest industries on earth generating immense profits.  The incentive to get more oil has been intense and drives many to try lots of things. So, basically, we now have access to so much oil (and natural gas) that if we burn it all, there is no doubt that we will restore at least the warmth of the Cretaceous and possibly even warmer temperatures than that. Worse, the economics that were favoring wind and solar have shifted the other way; cheap natural gas, while presently replacing coal, is looking to remain so cheap over the coming decades that wind and solar will tend to be pushed again to the economic margins.

OK, so what does this mean for the need to shut down carbon emissions?  What it means is that there is tremendous investment in getting this oil out of the ground and using it, and you simply cannot kill such an industry by wishing it away.  There are only two roads forward: make the removal of carbon from the atmosphere equally profitable so that lots of folks try to do that, too, or make the extraction of carbon unprofitable.

The first option doesn’t seem promising at present. Carbon capture has loads of problems ranging from trying to mine a minor gas from the world’s atmosphere to putting in something or somewhere where it won’t leak out.  But as we’ve seen with tight oil and gas, clever people sometimes find ways out.  So making this financially attractive might work out.

The second option is, at present, the one that seems more hopeful. This was in a sense the hope that went with peak oil: if oil got really expensive, other options would become economic and oil would pass much as whale oil did more than a century ago. Using oil costs us in many ways: it warms the globe and raises sea level–these effects are certain. It deprives us and future generations of glaciers and icebergs and such not. It is likely that it will risk our food and water supplies; it might cause us more damage from hurricanes and floods and droughts. Even though uncertain, we can say that there is an expected cost associated with using oil and we could simply add that to the price of oil.  This is of course a carbon tax, and the beauty of it is that we then get the wonderful experience of watching the free market successfully balance losses we risk against costs we incur.  And of course such an option also can reward those who remove carbon; a company that could remove all the carbon its oil wells produce would have an enormous advantage in the marketplace.

Right now the oil and gas industry sees a century or more of continued production at levels above present day levels, production that would be ruinous for the planet. Hoping it will stop on its own or that oil would be banned or other such things are unrealistic.  While the industry talks about how wonderful the production of gas is as a bridge fuel, the problem is that the bridge they see is decades too long for the world to avoid major warming. We need to restructure our energy system to include the costs of building sea walls, of transporting water across the continent, of moving entire ecologies to favorable locations, of accommodating refugees, and so on into the price of oil and natural gas.  Doing that is fair and appropriate; in the end, we need the “invisible hand” of the market to help keep a lot of that carbon in the ground, where it has been put over eons and where it doesn’t cause the earth to get any hotter….


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