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A response to Romm on peak oil

Joseph Romm's Peak Oil? Consider It Solved (Salon March 28, 2008) deserves a response. Here's his main theme.

More supply is not the answer to either our oil or our climate problem -- reducing consumption of oil is. And right now we have two feasible solutions: greatly increase our vehicle fuel economy and find alternative fuel sources that are abundant, low-carbon and affordable.

It's hard to argue that reducing our oil consumption is a good thing, bearing in mind that any oil the U.S. does not use will be consumed elsewhere (e.g. China). Perhaps by "we" he means the global community. The reason "we" in the U.S. need to reduce our oil consumption is to mitigate our vulnerability to supply shortfalls that are likely to occur within the next decade. Reducing our oil consumption will have no effect on climate change (CO2 emissions) because someone else will burn it if we don't.

Romm argues that solving the climate change problem is paramount and peak oil doesn't matter—"consider it solved"—because all we have to do is 1) not develop unconventional oil resources and 2) raise CAFE standards, buy plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and all-electric cars. Thus we will increase efficiency and implement substitutes for fossil fuel liquids. See The Sierra Club Solution for a discussion of #2 (ASPO-USA, January 30, 2008). Here are some of the parts of Romm's article requiring a response.

To preserve the livability of the planet, we must cut liquid fossil fuel use more than 50 percent by 2050. That is a central reason that more supply is not the solution to peak oil. That is why it is crucial we don't adopt the strategy that most in the oil industry prefer for dealing with the peak in conventional oil -- ramping up unconventional oil. Most of the major forms of unconventional oil will make global warming worse -- and some would make a climate catastrophe inevitable...

Clearly we now have only two realistic strategies: increase our vehicle fuel economy and develop affordable alternative fuel sources that are low in carbon. In 2050, the planet may well have 2 billion cars on the road or more, three times the current number. To avoid dramatic climate impacts, we must use at least 60 percent less total liquid fossil fuels -- and that assumes we have essentially eliminated carbon dioxide emissions in the electric sector. The average car on the road will need to put out under one-fifth the emissions of current cars, or the equivalent of five times the "miles per gallon" of today...

And of course we'll need a very aggressive push toward efficiency and zero-carbon electricity... [emphasis added]

Where does Romm go wrong? Let's make a partial list.

  1. Romm seems to be unfamiliar with the work of Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen linking the peak oil and climate problems. See Implications of “peak oil” for atmospheric CO2 and climate. Briefly, if we burn all the remaining oil and gas—undoubtedly we will—it will take us a large way toward the 450 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere target, but not all the way. (This CO2 target is usually used to define "dangerous anthropogenic interference" with the climate.) Kharecha and Hansen conclude that if we phase out coal consumption to zero by 2050, we can prevent atmospheric carbon dioxide from reaching the target 450 ppm ceiling.

    Thus, Romm's assertion that "to preserve the livability of the planet, we must cut liquid fossil fuel use more than 50 percent by 2050" is simply misguided. He's off in the weeds. We need to cut our coal consumption 100% by 2050 to prevent dangerous interference with the climate. The reason we need to cut our liquids consumption now is to stave off the worst economic effects of peak oil.

  2. If Kharecha and Hansen are correct—this is a Big If because they use EIA ultimately recoverable reserves estimates—then we need to ask this: Where is all the electricity going to come from to power Romm's "2 billion cars or more" by 2050? It isn't going to come from natural gas. It sure isn't all going to come from solar, wind, geothermal, biomass or hydroelectric. The only conceivable sources would be nuclear or coal, but the latter is the very carbon source we need to control. (Nuclear is a separate discussion.)

    Romm asserts that "we'll need a very aggressive push toward efficiency and zero-carbon electricity." Does he seriously think there is any such thing as very-large-scale zero-carbon electricity that will support very-large-scale manufacturing processes for complex things like electric cars? And power them? Not anytime soon, most likely never. We would be fortunate indeed if 25% of our current electricity consumption is available from renewables in 2050.

    Theoretically, if renewables generated most of our energy needs, including replacement of 50% or more of all fossil fuel liquids, you could bootstrap the entire renewable energy or electric vehicle supply-chain (for materials transport, manufacture, product distribution, mining and smelting of required metals, rubber production, car seats, batteries, windmills, solar panels, you name it—no plastics from fossil fuels allowed) and thus we would have low-emissions electric cars (< 20% compared to now). Otherwise, no. Don't bet the farm on carbon capture and sequestration of CO2 emissions from coal on large scales either. Nobody's got that worked out, and we're unlikely to do so. 

    FantasylandWe would require lots and lots of nuclear energy, ancient biomass (coal) or current biomass (wood) to generate the electricity to build and power "2 billion or more" electric vehicles in 2050, but Romm is living in Disneyland if he thinks it's going to be possible in any case, with or without theoretical "zero-carbon electricity." Resource depletion, even for coal, will inhibit the required growth. Everything we do requires energy inputs. Everything. Carbon capture and sequestration, for example, or purifying silicon for photovoltaics or in situ bitumen production at the tar sands. Wouldn't it make more sense to plan a future in which we have only 10% (or far fewer) of the envisioned 2 billion vehicles in 2050? Why do we need to denude the planet so people can drive their cars? Easter Island anybody?

  3. Us_unconventional_fuels_estimateWhen Romm says "to preserve the livability of the planet, we must cut liquid fossil fuel use more than 50 percent by 2050," he doesn't understand that geopolitics, economics and geology are going to do that for us—easily. Liquid fuels from unconventional hydrocarbon sources are never going to supply more than a small fraction our needs in the most optimistic i.e. unrealistic case (graph left, from the Task Force on Strategic Unconventional Fuels). While Romm argues effectively against scaling-up unconventional oils, he neglects to mention that unconventional oils don't scale-up and have poor economics. Over time, we will have to devote more and more energy to producing energy!

Romm does not seem to appreciate the damaging effects of peak oil on economies. Hamstrung economies would need to recreate our electricity grid and vehicle fleet just as the available energy/wealth required to do so is declining. The PHEV solution (along with cellulosic ethanol) presumes we have the time to revamp our energy infrastructure. That's like closing the barn door after the horse has already left. Romm doesn't understand the depths of our oil dependency.

Suppose that by 2020, oil blew past $300 a barrel and gasoline rose to $9 dollars a gallon (still not much higher than current gasoline prices in England). You could replace your car with a plug-in hybrid, and trips less than 30 miles, which have made suburbia what it is today, would actually cut your fuel bill by a factor of more than 10, even if all the electricity were from zero-carbon sources like wind and nuclear power. The extra cost of the vehicle would be paid for in fuel savings in under five years.

Dream on, Mr. Romm. Has he looked at the oil price recently? What about the 6-year trend? What will we do if oil is over $200/barrel in 2012? (As I recall, England is a very small country. I wonder how they will fare at $18/gallon for petrol?) The U.S. economy appears to be going down the tubes now, which is partly due to the fact that the oil price has gone up over 300% since 2002. Nobody can buy a plug-in hybrid today, and few will be able to afford one in 2012, assuming Toyota or GM solve the engineering problems and start cranking them out.

Climate change is certainly a huge problem—the summer Arctic sea ice is clearly disappearing—requiring an effective longer term solution. However, the rising oil price is a disconcerting fact of life right now. Shortages are likely less than a decade away. It's high-time for climate activists to wake up and smell the coffee on peak oil. I studied the climate issues for over a decade before turning to the peak oil problems, which struck me as being immediate and inimical to our ability to solve all the other problems we have—including climate.

Many climate activists have tunnel vision that prevents them from appreciating the real oil supply problems we have to solve right now.  Everything is viewed through the lens of climate change. This view is naive—we're about to get plowed under by the oil market fundamentals.

Necessity arises from near-term peak oil effects, not climate. The main effect right now is the rising oil price, but the longer term future promises to be much worse.Nobody is going to curtail their driving to curb global warming. If you want to solve the climate problem, mitigate the peak oil problem now and implement strategies for controlling longer term coal consumption.

Contact the author at dave DOT aspo AT gmail DOT com

Editorial Notes: Also appears on Dave Cohen's blog. Dave Cohen is an associate of ASPO-USA and a regular contributor to Energy Bulletin. UPDATE (later on Mar 29). Replaced text with newer version to include minor editorial changes, at request of author. -BA

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