Out of Oil
By Mark Safford, January 25, 2007
Why Not Running Out of Oil Is Even More Worrisome than Running Out of Oil
There are a large and growing number of thoughtful people who have come to the conclusion that the continued use of carbon-based fuels – including natural gas and especially petroleum and coal – without commensurate stringent anti-pollution measures threatens to damage the planet to the point where human life itself may be jeopardy. To these people the signs of this occurrence are evident right now, and increasing at a noticeable rate. The primary concerns are the levels of pollution and greenhouse gases released by burning these fuels and their ultimate harmful impact on both human health and the global ecosystem. We have at most a few decades before the pollutants and greenhouse gases we spew out cause this catastrophe.
When it comes to the question of how much longer the world’s supply of carbon-based fuels will last, and thus how much longer we will continue causing this damage, there are two schools of thought. One school, which I will term ‘the Pessimists’, projects that the world may be reaching a peak in total production of petroleum sometime in the current decade, and that total production will then begin an inexorable and sustained decline. This will in turn soon create extremely high prices (even higher than today) and shortages of energy in the near future, and that only a dramatic and rapid increase in non-carbon fuels will be able to solve that shortage. Since these other sources often are considerably ‘cleaner’ than carbon (including hydro, wind, thermal, biomass, tidal, and even nuclear – although that source is highly debatable), then the appearance of these shortages will, ironically, by necessity help spur the development of cleaner fuels. If we cannot develop these alternatives, then we must prepare for a radically different life style than that to which we have become accustomed. We may return to a time when local farmers use animal power to grow and transport food to nearby cities; when air conditioning is a thing of the past; and most passenger travel is by foot, or wagon, or train.
There is a second school of thought, however, which I term ‘the Optimists’, and to which I myself subscribe. Optimists conclude that the world will NOT in fact suffer that looming energy shortage in the 2010s, or any time soon. In fact, we have enough abundant and cheap carbon fuels for hundreds of years to come! As long as the cost of conventional crude oil remains at or anywhere above about $40 per barrel, it will be possible to tap these unconventional sources profitably. These sources include massive quantities of oil tar, oil shale and oil sands – most of which are located in the Western Hemisphere, especially in Venezuela, Canada and the United States. (the Caribbean may become the ‘New Persian Gulf’). They include coal, which can be converted profitably to liquid fuels for transportation and electricity generation at these prices. The US has an estimated 250 years worth of coal within our borders. They also include such yet untapped sources as methane hydrates, which are bubbles of gas trapped inside ice crystals in the deep seabed and under the permafrost that covers the globe’s Polar Regions. According to one recent estimate from the US Department of Energy, total carbon-based fuel reserves could equal two orders of magnitude more than known conventional oil reserves. That is one hundred times more.
Remaining World Fossil Fuel Reserves (In Billion Barrels of Oil Equivalent)
Source: John Maples, James Moore, Philip Patterson and Vincent Schaper (National Renewable Energy Lab), “Alternative Fuels for U.S. Transportation”, submitted to Transportation Research Board (TRB) A1F06 Committee on Alternative Transportation Fuels, 2000
Frankly, the existence of these abundant carbon sources scares the Hell out of me, and I would imagine most other Optimists as well!!!! It scares me because the existence of these potential carbon fuel sources – which could last for several hundred more years — removes a major incentive to develop cleaner energy that the Pessimists’ approach seems to be counting on, i.e., the fear of imminent major energy shortages.
Thus, in reality — well, in the Optimists’ version of reality — the world will NOT be forced into using cleaner energy because of looming carbon fuel shortages. That is because there will BE no carbon fuel shortages; so running out of energy will not help ease the danger because we WILL NOT RUN OUT!!
This actually makes us Optimists much more pessimistic than the Pessimists! There is an irony there. It also convinces Optimists that it is even more imperative to convince people that we will poison our planet if we keep burning carbon because that is in fact exactly what may happen! Shortages of carbon fuels will not save us. We can in fact keep burning them until we poison the entire planet before we run out of them.
Just stop and think about this for a moment. Instead of energy shortages helping us to realize the need for cleaner fuel, we will have to convince people of that need without the additional prompting of energy shortages. It ironically makes the job even tougher.
Now, there is an additional and extremely important corollary to the (now pessimistic) Optimists’ approach. It is that the energy companies are – perhaps incredibly – our primary means of salvation!! They have the raw material sources, infrastructure, people, technology and knowledge to develop cleaner fuels. We need to convince them that they are the only people who can meet the world’s needs for energy over the next 50 years or so because we will by necessity need to keep using carbon fuels, if we want to maintain even a shred of our current life styles. There is no reasonable expectation that we can replace carbon fuels and maintain our current rate of energy use. But if the companies continue to sell dirty energy, they will KILL THEIR CUSTOMERS and human society by poisoning the planet! Thus, only the energy companies can actually keep their own customers alive by cleaning up their product. Thus, it is in their own best interests (if they want to survive and keep making money) to save their customers’ lives. It will also save civilization.
In a very crude but perhaps helpful analogy, the energy companies are almost in the position of drug pushers, and we are the addicts. Right now we crave carbon fuels, because that is what is available. That is our heroin. The problem is, if we keep using this heroin we will die. That also puts the pushers out of business. Only if we switch to a drug that will not kill us can this relationship continue for more than a few decades. We need to replace our heroin with methadone. We could try kicking the habit entirely, of course.
Do you know how to shoe a horse?
The final step in this reasoning is that the customers — i.e., society as expressed through the political process — must pay for the cost of cleaner fuels. No one else will. Therefore, the customers must commit to pay the necessary cost of developing clean fuels. Or die. That is really the choice.
Now, there are many ways that the funds needed to develop clean energy can be raised – the key is that the energy companies themselves will still do it only if they can recoup their costs. Let’s face it, Bill Gates became a philanthropist only AFTER he made his first $50 billion. Either the energy companies will have to raise their prices and use the extra money for this research, or someone else will have to pay the costs of doing it.
That ‘someone else’ is us, the consumers of energy. Either way, ‘we’ pay the price. So here is the ‘grand bargain’ that society and the energy companies must reach: society (i.e., us) must tell the energy companies to give us clean energy as soon as possible. At the same time, we (i.e., society) must also agree to pay whatever the cost is of doing it.
That is, in essence, the Optimists’ message. Ironically, it will actually be HARDER to succeed the Optimists’ way than the Pessimists. But this is what we must do, and we can only succeed if we get the energy companies to agree to help us out of their own self-interest. If we simply antagonize them, the job becomes that much harder. They will keep acting that way if we keep simply blaming them.
We – the consumers of energy — are the problem, not them. We keep buying SUVs that are twice the size that we need and burn fuel so wastefully. We keep moving by the millions to some of the hottest and most arid region of the world and then require massive air conditioners than run almost constantly. We demand all the cheap electricity that we want whenever we want it so all of our gadgets can run anytime we want and run continually on standby, wasting even more power so they will turn on five seconds faster.
We are as much at fault – perhaps even more so — as the energy companies. They are just giving us what we are willing to pay for, on conditions that we are willing to accept. That’s the free market economy of the globalized 21st Century; and we created it.
Individual action may only be a proverbial drop in the bucket, but you can act. Many utilities allow you to volunteer to pay more for energy from a renewable source like a hydro dam or wind farm. For Christmas 2006 we decided in our family to give ourselves clean power as a Christmas present! Now our electricity is 100% carbon-free, for only a surcharge of about 9%. It consists of hydro, biomass, solar and wind farm electricity.
Blaming the energy companies just makes us feel less guilty. We need to grow up and face the facts. We will pay much more for energy in the future than we want to, but the alternative is to have no energy at all.
The choice is ours. And we will need all the help we can get to make the right choice.
Mark Safford (deceased, 2015) spent over three decades thinking about, studying and planning public policy for national security, international relations and global transportation and logistics for three U.S. Government agencies: the Navy, the State Department and most recently the Department of Transportation. As an independent consultant, speaker and futurist, he continued to ponder these and related topics, the major factors that drive them, what their futures may turn out to be, and how best to position ourselves to make them what we want them to be, rather than let them make us. He contributed to scenario-based planning exercises to assist more than a dozen U.S. Government agencies plan for a future marked by a bewildering variety of uncertainties.