Peak oil meets climate change for newbies

pump jack

Photo: MsAnthea/Flickr CC.

OK, so I’ll start with a theory: peak oil, coal and natural gas will help cap climate disruption. Yeah, finally a solution!

It seems terribly obvious, but I’ve yet to hear anyone say it out loud. Or anyone with influence, anyway.

Here’s how it goes: Less climate damage through burning less fossil fuel means more mitigation. Whether or not it will help cap climate disruption at an “acceptable” level is hard to know (acceptable could mean one thing now, something very different in thirty years).

What are the facts?

Always bearing in mind that figures lie and liars figure, I’ll try to make this convincing. Consensus seems to have built around the idea that global peak oil was reached in late 2005. The International Energy Agency puts it at 2006 (but they fudged the hell out of the thing, with all kinds of nonsense qualifiers, but still, at least they’re finally admitting it).

Here at home, the US reached national peak oil in 1970, with oil field discoveries having peaked in the 1930s. That’s why it’s such a joke to hear Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh et al bloviating that if we drill here, drill now, we’ll pay less. They’re either incredibly ill-informed or flat out lying with full awareness of what they’re doing. And given the ultimate consequences of those lies, it’s almost at the scale of a crime against humanity.

Ever wonder why we started caring so much about an organization called OPEC back in the 70s?  The member nations of OPEC hadn’t peaked yet, and boy oh boy, did we need what they had. Saudi Arabia was the mother lode. Now, because of the depletion of the Ghawar oil field, they may want to start keeping more for themselves.

In other words, the Middle East ain’t what it used to be.

Neither is Alaska’s North Slope or the North Sea oil fields, which never quite produced oil in the hoped-for quantities, anyway.

I Think I Don’t Remember

Forty years after American peak oil, Americans have forgotten the lessons of that sobering decade.

Back in the 70s, with the Arab oil embargo of ’73 fresh in our minds, we started demanding better mileage from our cars. Detroit was extremely slow to respond, but foreign automakers were well positioned to answer the call. The national speed limit was lowered to 55 mph, another way to drive (sorry) down fuel consumption.

Thermostats were set lower and some of us were even willing to put on that sweater that President Carter advised. Environmental awareness grew and conservation was laudable.

Fully satisfied that the problem had been addressed, we failed to notice that growing demand in developing countries, coupled with population growth, meant that everyone wanted to live like an American—cars, McDonalds, toxic plastics and all.

Which is why the world now burns more than 85 million barrels of oil each day. Man, can we consume.  (No wonder we’re at global peak oil already!)

Not the kind of peak you can climb

You may be thinking, so what?  If 50 percent of the oil in a particular well is gone, doesn’t that mean 50 percent is left?  To be sure, it does.  That’s why peak oil is what you might call a heads up, a warning: our oil reserve is being depleted.

Fifty years ago, no one particularly cared if a well ran dry. There were plenty more to be pumped. Just the fact that oil industry observers are focused on peak oil should tell us something.

Oil is no longer easy to reach. We’ve taken what was easily gotten. What’s left will cost far more to bring to the surface. (Only recently have we discovered that what we thought remains in Alaska’s oil fields turns out to be exaggerated by as much as 90 percent.)

No politicians or business leaders in the US announced this, of course. Oil companies didn’t want to alarm shareholders or consumers, so as far as we knew, it was business as usual.

Except, of course, it wasn’t.

Like most folks, I gave it no thought when oil companies began going where no oil company had gone before. It was the job of an oil company to produce oil. They were just doing their job.

But I wasn’t entirely naïve. Like the majority of Americans, I didn’t want to see oil companies drilling in the Alaskan Wildlife Reserve. Accidents like the Exxon Valdez loomed large and caused public distrust. Figuring out that oil drilling is a messy business took paying attention and putting together the pieces of how energy affects our lives.

Alaska’s North Slope was very difficult to drill; after all, the ground was frozen. Offshore drilling was an entirely new ballgame. In the case of British Petroleum’s Deep Horizon oil well, ways of drilling one mile down beneath the surface of the ocean had to be devised, and that was just for starters. And we’ve seen what that brought us; the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the US. Congratulations Wal Mart shoppers! As ye sow so shall ye reap.

But for our leaders, in the end, it’s always come down to Big Oil’s money agenda, built on the assumption that Americans wouldn’t know how to live without oil. Or wouldn’t be willing to hear the truth and deal with it. Even all those years talking about national security and dependence on foreign oil didn’t change either the leaders or the people.

In fact we went bigger, with government subsidies for Hummers and other SUVs and oil guzzling Americans lining up to buy on credit, the great national shadow.

Fire in the sky

So let’s talk about what that’s doing to the environment.

The burning of all fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide—which had been sequestered in the fuel—into the atmosphere.

You know the story. There it mixes with other greenhouse gases which together create a greenhouse effect, letting the warmth of the sun enter the atmosphere, then blocking it when it tries to radiate back into space. This trapped heat causes the earth’s overall climate to heat up. By how much? Thereby hangs the rest of the tale: it’s very hard to predict.

We do know that carbon dioxide currently exists in the atmosphere at 390 parts per million (ppm). Three hundred and fifty ppm is generally regarded as the maximum permissible.

Before the industrial revolution, the air held at or below 280 ppm. At levels higher than 350, climate scientists (not meterologists) become seriously concerned about the amount of warming that could take place. (Though meterologists might actually worry too, because global warming causes crazy weather.)

More than 2 degrees Celsius of global warming would be catastrophic.

On top of Old Smoky

All this and we haven’t even talked about coal!

We need to examine coal burning in relation to coal’s availability. Has the world reached peak coal?  It’s looking more and more like the answer is yes, because the coal that constitutes the world’s reserves is a) very dirty when burned, and b) much harder to mine.

Sound familiar?

The same is true of natural gas. That’s why we’re hearing all about “fracking” these days.

Used to be you could dig into the ground and capture as much natural gas as you wanted. Not anymore. Today it’s necessary to drill wells in shale and blast fissures in the rock by injecting seriously toxic chemicals mixed with enormous amounts of water. This fractures the rock, allowing the gas to escape and leaving an unprecedented toxic mess of water as a calling card.

By now it should’ve become clear that fossil fuels are no longer so cheap and so abundantly available. Nor as easy to get or refine. They are finite resources after all.

What’s left has become more expensive and will only go up (in spite of all that bubble talk about a natural gas bonanza in the US.)

Then, of course, there’s the 800 pound gorilla in the room: China.

China’s desire for oil and coal has become insatiable. Gas prices are rising as you read this because of new competition for a scarce commodity along with other turmoil in the world. Meanwhile, China’s citizens look forward to that imprimatur of middle-class membership: car ownership. All this just at the moment when there isn’t enough to go around anymore (mostly because Americans hogged it up).

Hard to believe we haven’t even mentioned India.

Learning the hard way

So there you have it. The Bad News, which, interestingly enough, turns out to be the possible Good News.

Our ability to damage the environment with greenhouse gas emissions will be at least somewhat curtailed by the impending shortage of fossil fuels. Not that we’ll immediately stop cutting down forests and jungles, or driving 30 miles each way to work, or growing our food with tractors that compress the life out of soil, along with petroleum-derived fertilizers.

Fossil fuels are part of everything we do. Everything. On the other hand, when very few can afford to pay for it, the detrimental effects will be mitigated. To what degree we can’t know.

There’s one thing we absolutely can rely on, however: when it’s gone, it’s gone (or when it’s too expensive to get, same dif).

Our lives are about to change. You know. Quite dramatically.

That’s the sequel to this tale that you and I will live, dear readers. Moreover, it’s the inheritance of chaos we’re leaving to our kids.

Maybe now’s the time for us to grow up, go back to that conservation mentality, and work together to solve some of this stuff. If we learned anything from Egypt it’s that the leaders wont adjust until we take a stand.

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  1. Matt says

    I agree entirely, but as for America growing up and working together…. I would not hold my breathe. Not while there are all the great reality shows on cable. Why should I deal with reality when I can just sit on my butt. (Sarcasm)
    I am working to get a transition group going and many that I talk with see no problems with american culture and most feel that gas should be only $.99 per gallon. But then when almost all of the news networks and newspapers are owned by a select few of right wing whack jobs it is no real surprise. I am afraid that by the time that the us wakes up from its tv induced coma it maybe too late to do anything. I hope that I am wrong.

    • says

      Hi Matt – Thanks for taking the time to comment. We’re of much the same mind. I do believe there will be a time- God alone knows what will bring it about – when the veil is lifted, and people begin to see things for what they are. I think it will be at that point that Transition groups will need to step forward and explain what they’re about. People may actually be ready to listen! Be grateful you are able to see clearly what others are not, and thanks for all your hard work. – Vicki

  2. Auntiegrav says

    Humans are indifferent to the destruction/pollution of their success. They will not do the right things until the destruction causes a lack of success.
    When success is measured in dollars, we get nothing but cancer. Money causes it (affluence and wage slavery combined) and prevents its cure (profits through cheap food and pharmaceuticals).

  3. says

    Hi Auntiegrav – Thanks for your comments. Yes, many humans ARE indifferent, among them many in power. Greed is certainly a primary motivator. It can be easy to get discouraged. Try to make sure your example is always one worth following; you never know who is watching, who might be influenced by your words and actions. Take the time to vent – we all need to – but then get on with the business of living your life the way you know it should be lived. Believe it or not, there are a lot of us doing just that. – Best, Vicki

  4. says

    Thanks for that Vicki. I would caution that peak oil may not be the solution to climate change some believe it is.

    With the spiraling cycle of economic crises that comes from the burst of the credit bubble and increasing fuel costs, society will be able to ill afford clean technology to burn oil and coal for cars and power stations and the idea of a catalytic converter or carbon capture in a power station could be a quaint bit of history – dirty power stations and smokey poluting cars may become more common…and with so many problems the authorities will have lost the will to enforce ‘luxury’ laws to preserve the environment. We should not take the improvements in emissions we have gained for granted.

    Peak oil could well magnify the problem of climate change!

    David Lyons
    Haddenham in Transition, UK

    • says

      Hi David – A pleasure to hear from you. I’m not at a point in my thinking where I’m inclined to rely at all on technology to “save” us. I really think conservation is far likelier to get us where we want to go. Yes, if we convert to coal to take oil’s place, it could get very ugly. (An American company is hoping to start shipping coal out of Washington state to China in the near- to mid-future.)
      As a transitioner, I hope you and your fellow transitioners are actively looking for ways to make do with less, i.e., conserve. I congratulate you on the important step you’ve taken. I’d love to hear sometime about how you’re progressing. – Best, Vicki

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