Jun 2006

Again with the Peak Oil

So what’s the relationship between “peak oil” and climate change? Is there one? After all, with less of the stuff to burn, there’ll be less “greenhouse gas” emissions. Right? Does fossil fuel depletion have a silver lining?

Well. No. I’m afraid not. Leastways if there is a silver lining on peak oil’s cloud, it’s not an antidote to anthropogenic climate change.

But you knew I was going to say that right? After all, I’m always soooo negative. But it’s not like I want to be a harbinger of doom. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than announcing; “hey! y’know all that peak oil malarky? Turns out it’s a bunch of arse. Magic pixie dust from space-land will sort everything out!”

One day I’ll have some good news for you. I promise. But statistically speaking it’s unlikely to be today.

Less oil = More emissions. Huh?

I know, I know. Counter-intuitive or what? But the world is a lot like that. It’s rarely as it seems. And even when it is, chances are you’re looking at it wrong. It’s a bit like Oliver Kamm walking into a room containing other people and not being punched repeatedly in the face by all present. Common sense insists it shouldn’t happen. Yet apparently it does.

The first thing that I want to stress is that there’s a fundamental sloppiness with the term “peak oil”. In reality, when I (and most informed people) use the term, we are using it as a shorthand for “peak oil and natural gas”. Even ASPO uses the shorthand… the name of the organisation is actually “Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas” but they clearly realised that ASPOaG isn’t the catchiest of acronyms.

There’s now data to suggest that conventional crude oil production peaked late last year. Dr. Colin Campbell has made it clear that total oil production will peak within 5 to 15 years of conventional crude. His analysis also suggests that we’ll reach a peak in natural gas production within a few years of peak oil production. Gas, however, has an entirely different depletion profile to crude oil (often referred to as the natural gas “cliff” to distinguish it from the relatively gentle Hubbert “curve” of oil depletion) and production rates plummet rapidly soon after hitting peak.

Unfortunately, as any free-market-economist-type person will tell you, even if oil and gas were to begin depleting (a scenario many of them will actually deny… insisting that greater demand will lead to greater investment leading to greater supply; what I refer to as “The Spoilt Child Hypothesis”), the market will merely switch to supplying alternatives. The demand isn’t for oil per se, but – more abstractly – for the uses that oil can be put to.

At this point some economists will use the phrase, “the infinite transformability of units of production”. However they’ll use it out of earshot of me as I’ve a tendency towards violence when I hear it.

Economists: Right about one thing

Well, they’re probably right about slightly more than one thing. But in this case they’re right about people not wanting oil for oil’s sake (or gas). They want something that’ll make their car go, or something that’ll generate the electricity for their homes, or something that’ll keep them warm in the winter and cook their food.

Unfortunately there are no adequate substitutes for either oil or gas. But there are plenty of inadequate ones. Which is where the carbon emissions problem raises its sooty head.

If the market is given free rein to attempt to fill the supply shortfall as demanded by consumers of the high-energy lifestyle, then we will see an inevitable return to coal-fired power plants. Replacing gas power generation with coal would see a massive increase in carbon emissions. Don’t believe that guff about “clean coal”… it’s sleight-of-hand, like the electric car; merely moving the emissions away from the end user. The atmosphere doesn’t distinguish between emissions from a “clean coal” processing plant and those from burning “dirty coal” in your fireplace.

And it doesn’t end there.

A reduction in fossil-fuel availability will inevitably result in an increase in wood-burning and consequent increase in deforestation. As any school-child will tell you, trees are the planet’s natural solar-powered carbon sequesters. With fewer trees, less of our carbon emissions will be recycled out of the atmosphere. And this is part of a particularly vicious positive-feedback loop. Less trees begets less trees. Just ask the Easter Islanders.

And then there’s the staggeringly destructive idea of automobile biofuels. People don’t demand petrol, they merely demand that their cars work. And if palm oil will make them work, then they’ll fill up with palm oil. During the past 20 years, more than 85% of the deforestation in Malaysia was carried out to clear land for palm oil plantations for the export market. Not only did this involve the displacement of indigenous peoples and mass slaughter of wildlife, but also the drainage of large areas of swampland.

Anyone paying attention in biology class knows the problems associated with draining swamp and bogs… as the peat and mosses dry out they decompose releasing huge quantities of greenhouse gasses. Palm oil, it seems, is almost as big a contributor (barrel for barrel) to anthropogenic climate change as its fossil counterpart.

Not a supply-side problem

This is the crux of the matter. And it’s something that perpetual-growth capitalists just can’t get their head around. The problem we face is not how to replace oil and gas to meet the demands of energy-hungry consumers. The problem is how we manage the demands of those consumers so that they become less energy-hungry and more responsible.

I don’t know the precise solution to that problem. But I do know that it can’t be provided by free markets.

Posted in: Opinion