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Study: Oil Transition Carries Major Environmental Risks
Green Car Congress
The increasing use of substitute fossil-based liquid hydrocarbons—either unconventional crude oils or synthetic liquid fuels (synfuels)—will dramatically increase global greenhouse gas emissions unless mitigating steps are taken, according to a new study by researchers at UC Berkeley.
The authors argue that the global energy system is in the early stages of a transition from conventionally produced oil to a variety of substitutes, bringing economic, strategic, and environmental risks. They further argue that without appropriate policies, tradeoffs between these risks are likely to be made so as to allow increased environmental disruption in return for increased economic and energy security.
Their work is reported in the paper “Risks of the Oil Transition,” published in the new Institute of Physics open-access electronic-only journal, Environmental Research Letters (ERL).
(8 Dec 2006)
Summary of the following online paper.
Risks of the oil transition
A E Farrell and A R Brandt, Environmental Research Letters
The energy system is in the early stages of a transition from conventionally produced oil to a variety of substitutes, bringing economic, strategic, and environmental risks. We argue that these three challenges are inherently interconnected, and that as we act to manage one we cannot avoid affecting our prospects in dealing with the others. We further argue that without appropriate policies, tradeoffs between these risks are likely to be made so as to allow increased environmental disruption in return for increased economic and energy security. Responsible solutions involve developing and deploying environmentally acceptable energy technologies (both supply and demand) rapidly enough to replace dwindling conventional oil production and meet growing demand for transportation while diversifying supply to improve energy security.
…2. The future of conventional oil
Much attention has been given to one aspect of the oil transition, the date of maximum production of conventional petroleum, or `peak oil’. In our view, however, multiple uncertainties suggest that while the peak of conventional oil production is inevitable, its exact timing is less important than understanding the long-term implications of the oil transition.[Authors devote several paragraphs to discussing peak oil.]
In our view, therefore, the oil transition brings more long-term environmental concerns than long-term economic or security threats because tradeoffs have strong potential to be resolved by accepting increased environmental damage in order to avoid economic or security risks. The global petroleum industry has begun to recognize this interaction, but strategies to deal with them have not yet emerged (World Economic Forum 2006).
Fortunately, some approaches can address all three risks. Perhaps most interesting is to employ the first principle of energy security, diversification of supply. Fossil-based SCP technologies with CCS could provide supply diversity in the near term if adequate investments were made. Because of the fuel-related GHG emissions, fossil SCPs might be appropriate only as a short-term response, although the path dependence of energy system investments suggests there may be no such thing as a purely short-term response. Of course, other technologies could also diversify the supply of transportation energy such as advanced, environmentally friendly biofuels; hydrogen; or partially or fully electric vehicles utilizing low carbon electricity (possibly including fossil fuels plus CCS, renewables, or nuclear power). Demand reduction, through fuel efficiency and better transportation planning should also play a role. These other approaches have their own challenges, but at least they do not have the climate change risks of fossil SCPs.
The true challenge of the oil transition is to develop and deploy environmentally acceptable energy technologies (both supply and demand) rapidly enough to replace dwindling conventional oil production and meet growing demand for transportation energy. To the degree that these technologies diversify energy supplies, they will also tend to reduce market power and provide energy security benefits. The incremental costs of avoiding a disrupted climate and other environmental problems associated with the oil transition seem modest compared to the costs of failing to do so. Because of the large environmental and security externalities involved, markets alone will not respond to this problem, so government policies to manage the all three risks of the oil transition are needed now.
(30 Oct 2006)
The entire article is online.
Energy for a cool planet
The most pressing technological problem facing the world is uncoupling the provision of energy from the production of carbon dioxide. Developed countries no longer need to increase their energy use in order to increase the size of their economies, but developing countries do. And yet to add more carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere is to increase inexorably the chances of climatic chaos.
To highlight this issue Nature is assembling a suite of feature articles and associated material which will outline the promises and, where necessary, the pitfalls of new energy technologies. From mainstream possibilities like the expansion of nuclear power to more offbeat subjects such as microbial fuel cells and schemes for combining biofuel with fertiliser manufacture, this regularly updated Nature web focus will provide a comprehensive overview of the energy landscape.
(articles from Aug – Dec 2006)
Very frustrating – almost all the articles are behind a paywall. -BA