The Peak Oil Crisis: The State of the Union

February 25, 2013 1:02 PM10 comments

When peak oil first came to widespread public attention some 10 or 15 years ago, there was some debate about whether peak oil was the solution to climate change caused by carbon emissions. After all, if we are forced by geology and economics to burn decreasing amounts of oil, won’t carbon emissions and global warming take care of themselves? In the last 10 years, however, much has happened. Bad economic times have reduced consumption of oil in most of the OECD countries. This demand has been replaced by increased demand from China, India and other developing or oil-rich countries, which are rapidly turning themselves into “motorized societies” where nearly everybody owns a car or some form of oil-powered transport.

The other side of the peak oil/global warming issue is what has happened to our climate in recent years. Lower Manhattan under water; New England under feet of snow; Texas and the upper mid-west burned dry; the Mississippi flooding; and the South torn up by tornadoes is rather hard to ignore. Indeed, the respected Pew Research Center says the number of Americans saying they believe the earth is warming has increased from 57 percent to 67 percent in the last five years. Those believing that climate change is caused by manmade emissions are up from 36 percent in 2009 to 42 percent in 2012. The rather low percentage of those who believe that global warming comes from carbon emissions is a tribute to the power of the massive public relations campaign that fossil fuel companies and their political allies have been waging for many years.

However, given another five or ten years of increasingly damaging storms, floods, and droughts, it should become obvious to the overwhelming majority in the US and elsewhere that something has to be done or we won’t have much of a planet left. Indeed there is some evidence that, after the last two years of extreme weather events in the US, sentiment is starting to change. Reversing a core principle of one’s political philosophy is hard to do so that it will be awhile before there is the necessary mass of politicians that is willing to vote for meaningful solutions to the global warming problem.

If the scientists are right, combatting global warming is rather simple – cut carbon emissions as much as necessary. This of course would be neither cheap nor easy while maintaining civilization as we know it. In the US today 80 percent of everything that “runs,” from transportation, to furnaces, to IPhones, runs on energy that comes from burning of fossil fuels. Take away or heavily tax the use of fossil fuels and much of current human activity either slows or becomes much more expensive, reducing the likelihood of economic growth. For a society used to hundreds of years of steady growth, this is simply unthinkable. For many politicians, it is easier to ignore or deny that carbon emissions are not responsible for anomalous weather than to come up with solutions that cannot be readily labeled “job or growth killers” and sell them to the public and legislative bodies.

Now we can, of course, learn how to use less fossil energy and still keep things running. Indeed this seems for now to be the best and cheapest solution. Everybody from President Obama in his recent State of the Union message to the Chinese Communist Party Politburo says energy efficiency and conservation are a good idea. Plans and programs are underway in most advanced countries to increase the efficiency with which fossil fuels are turned into useful work. However, the key question is whether increased energy efficiency can be implemented quickly enough, or whether it will be enough to slow carbon emissions to the point that the world’s atmosphere settles down.

In recent years binding international agreements to lower emissions have foundered largely because of the great discrepancies in the economic development and fossil fuel use around the world. China, which is the world’s largest emitter of carbon likes to point out that with a population of 1.3 billion, its per capita carbon emissions are well below the per capita emissions of the OECD nations. So the OECD should cut back their carbon use first and wait until China catches up. In the US, many Congressmen have adopted the position that the US won’t take on the obviously burdensome costs of cutting emissions until the Chinese do. Beijing which is wedded to the notion that it must achieve a 7-10 percent increase in its economic growth each year is not about to agree to constraints on this core imperative of its society and political system.

Is there any way out of this conundrum, short of waiting to see whether we run out of affordable fossil fuels first, or get so beaten up by bad weather that climate change starts to seriously constrain the global food supply? There are some glimmers on the horizon. In his inaugural address and State of the Union message, President Obama vowed to take action to control carbon emissions – with or without Congress. This is clearly a step in the right direction, but unless China reverses its rapid increases in emissions, efforts elsewhere in the world seem futile.

Prospects for changes in Beijing are mixed. The leadership clearly understands the problem, but the drive for economic growth continues to trump all; and the climate change induced natural disasters hitting China are still mostly at manageable levels. Beijing’s atrocious air quality problem is one of particles in the air and not so much one of greenhouse gases. Some of the remedy for the air quality problem will involve reduction in carbon, but this is likely to be overcome by the continued rapid economic growth.

How this all plays out in coming decades is impossible to say. For now the only bright spot may be the possibility of new technologies that will produce energy without emissions, but for now it is too early tell if they will come in time.





  • This has to be one of the dumbest articles I have read in a long time. The climate debate has turned against the alarmists, who have reversed their predictions of global warming, less precipitation, little winter snow. Now we are told that global warming meant climate change, less precipitation means more precipitation, and little winter snow means more snow. And those polar bear populations that were supposedly threatened are now booming as their numbers have quadrupled since the early 1970s.

    Fossil fuels are what drive our high standards of living. We need more coal, more oil, more gas, and a lot more nuclear power. But we can do with a lot less posturing and empty words that are mostly about politics and not about reality.

  • @ Vangel

    No one really knows how many polar bears existed in the recent past, it’s all conjecture, so that part of your rant is skating on thin (polar) ice, mate.

  • “Fossil fuels are what drive our high standards of living. We need more coal, more oil, more gas, and a lot more nuclear power.” -from Vangel Vesovski’s comment

    Unfortunately, fossil fuels are finite resources that sooner or later will run out, leaving us … where exactly? Cutting use of fossil fuels to fight climate change/global warming would seem the prudent approach, but potentially has dire economic consequences. Sooner or later the true crisis of global warming will be upon us OR fossils fuels will be exhausted (and so too the harm they cause the environment). Either way, we or our descendants, are in for a wicked ride as survival – not affluence – becomes the goal of Humankind.

    • They will run out eventually, but not in our lifetimes or those of many generations hence. See my post above. Technological innovation is acting on fossil fuel extraction efficiency, not just green alternatives. Green technologies won’t compete on a pure economic basis any time soon.

  • NYC under water? Yes, from a hurricane. There was greater hurricane activity during the 1950s than today, recent hurricane activity has been historically low, the 2005 season (Katrina) was an aberration. Snowfall in New England? That’s news and evidence of global warming? Are you kidding? You do yourself no favors in your message with such outlandish claims.

    You thankfully acknowledge the challenges of reducing emissions, given that reductions in OECD emissions are more than offset by increases in developing countries unwilling to stall their development track. But you don’t mention the technical challenges, since alternatives are not proving themselves easy and reliable, not to mention cost-effective, replacements for fossil based energy.

    The weakest part is that you don’t acknowledge what should be obvious: Peak Oil is much farther in the future than thought until recently, given recent advances in extraction technology, especially fracking, but also tar sands conversion. The US has more than 100 years of proven gas reserves. Oil reserves are climbing too, making the oft cited dig on the US as consumer of 25% of world oil with only 2% of reserves obsolete. If you add future possible technologies in development, in-situ retorting of the huge kerogen reserves trapped in oil shale, coal to liquids, and methane hydrate conversion to natural gas, there could be many centuries of fossil fuels potential.

    How will alternatives compete? It would have to be something regulatory, with binding international agreements. I’m sure you would agree.

    • I applaud your optimism! Too much research and too many studies by insiders demonstrate clearly that the energy future is not at all bright. I hope you’re right, though, because it would be sad to see civilization essentially run out of fuel and drift over onto the shoulder of history.

      • It’s not optimism. Some would say it’s pessimism, that we have so much potential fossil sources which will forestall conversion to a low carbon energy based economy.

        The “experts” fail to account for ingenuity and the price mechanism. Proven easily accessible coal is plentiful around the world, the US alone has some 500 years known reserves. But it’s dirty. Oil is less plentiful, but that’s really a function of classification. Reserves are the cheap easy to pump oil mostly in current production. There’s a lot of deep water, tight oil, and oil substitutes like kerogen, centuries worth in fact. They’re just waiting for prices to get high enough to justify new innovations like fracking and in-situ retorting to be commercialized. Fracking already has. And natural gas is everywhere now that fracking has unlocked shale. Methane hydrates are another potential source, they exist on the sea floor in shallow depths in amounts nearly equal to the total of all other fossil fuel sources.

        The question mark is how much will fossil extraction technologies change the price points for continued fossil fuel production compared to cost reductions for non-carbon alternatives, not really the availability of fossil fuels. If alternatives can get cheaper faster than extraction technology improves, we have a chance to convert. But don’t count on running out of the stuff driving alternatives adoption. Nor will regulation be that effective given global competition, so long as developing countries continue to increase their carbon use by building carbon energy based economies.

  • Thank you for the direct article and judging by some comments, folks are not up to the truth about the connection of emissions and global warming. Hard to believe that the summer Arctic Sea ice volume is 75% below what it was in 1979 or 43% below the area covered.
    This was affirmed by submarine and satelitte measurements. This rapid drop is associated with climate change, and it is not a “natural” change.
    Yes, Peak Oil is already here, when we are willing to strip mine an area the size of Florida in Alberta Canada and dig up tar muck sand and turn it into something like oil, that is proof enough. Oh, will alternatives replace fossil fuels…..simplely no…2 reasons, lead time and the vast amount to be replaced.

  • The price of gas quadrupled in a decade, and that didn’t deter consumption to any significant amount. Why would a few people living on coasts cause any concern for the somnambulant masses?
    Say “Good-night” Gracie.

  • I really don’t see what all you “peak oil” cultist are going on about. As BP CEO Robert Dudley pointed out in a speech earlier this month

    “at current consumption rates, data suggests that the world has 54 years’ worth of proven oil reserves and 64 years worth of proven gas reserves, adding, “more will be found.”

    So, we won’t hit Empty on the oil gage for a full 54 years! Sure, oil consumption grows every year, but “more will be found” – if they find 20% more that would give us a full extra decade (neglecting demand growth)!

    Dude, 54 years… that’s like FOREVER.

Leave a Reply

Facebook Iconfacebook like buttonTwitter Icontwitter follow buttonGoogle+Google+