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How the myth of fossil fuel abundance actually impedes progress on climate change

The great fear among those working to address climate change is that the seemingly vast resources of fossil fuels waiting to be burned will send the world hurtling toward certain catastrophe. By invoking fossil fuel abundance, climate activists believe that their argument for a rapid transition to alternative energy is made more persuasive. But, it is poor strategy to reinforce the myth of fossil fuel abundance when doing so actually makes many people less open to such an argument. And, as it turns out, the abundance argument is also contrary to the available data, logic and prudent risk management principles.

Here is what I mean. First, despite all the hype about marginal gains in U.S. oil production, world oil production has been on a plateau since 2005. Small gains in U.S. production have been offset by declining production in the rest of the world. The news for coal production is only slightly less discouraging as one study suggests that the rate of coal production worldwide could peak as early as 2025. In the United States, while coal tonnage has remained essentially flat from 1998 through 2011, energy content has actually declined. Has the available energy from U.S. coal production already peaked? We can't be sure. But the trend suggests caution. One recent study even concluded that world coal production from existing fields may have peaked last year. But, even if the authors are 10 years early, the prospects for creating a coal economy to follow the oil one are poor at best.

And finally, natural gas--much touted as a less polluting "bridge fuel" to a renewable energy future--may not be so plentiful as we are led to believe. Natural gas derived from deep shale deposits was first portrayed as so abundant that wells could simply be drilled anywhere in the vast shale basins of North America. But the record of drilling to date suggests that such deposits will yield far less than anticipated and be far more costly to develop.

Simple logic and prudent risk management suggests that we should already be making a rapid transition to renewable energy. No one--not the fossil fuel industry, not government, not private forecasters--can know for certain what our future supplies of fossil fuels will be. If those supplies are constrained as current trends and data suggest, then we will be forced to make an energy transition whether we want to or not. If fossil fuels turn out to be more abundant than current trends portend and we make a rapid transition to renewable energy starting now, the worst that can happen is that we will have completed that transition a little earlier than was absolutely necessary. But, if fossil fuel supplies begin to decline in the near future and we've made little additional progress on deploying new energy sources, we will surely be in for considerable economic and social pain, pain that might so severe as to challenge the very stability of our global system. That's how central fossil fuel energy is to our society.

Many climate activists continue to believe, however, that the above data will make people less concerned about climate change. These activists think that the danger from supposedly overflowing fossil fuel abundance will somehow make it clear that we must move away from such fuels. But, I would contend that the current public relations campaign by the oil and gas industry designed to convince us that oil and natural gas will be abundant for decades to come is actually making the public less supportive of a transition away from fossil fuels. And, I believe that if the public understood the true risks to our energy supplies that come from relying so heavily on fossil fuels, it would be more inclined to support a rapid transition to alternative energy and increased efforts in conservation and efficiency.

Let's look for a moment at the public the way a political campaign does. Every campaign starts with basic triage. First, there are the people who are going to support you no matter what. These people need to be nurtured and encouraged to spread the word about your candidacy to those who can be persuaded to vote for you. Then, there are those who are never going to vote for you. You can't persuade these people, so you shouldn't spend any time on them. Your job is simply to beat them and their candidate on election day. Finally, there are those who can be persuaded to vote for you. Perhaps these people haven't made up their minds. Perhaps they are leaning toward your opponent, but can still be persuaded to vote for you with the right argument.

Naturally, those who support addressing climate change aggressively will be especially concerned about the amount of carbon-based fuels left to burn. But, those who are on the fence--or who, more likely, haven't really put much thought into the issue--are currently being bombarded with the industry's abundance message. Without much commitment one way or the other, their path of least resistance is to accept the industry position. It's an easy path that requires no changes in behavior. And, after all, isn't the fossil fuel industry promising to bring us cleaner burning natural gas in copious quantities? Won't that help use reduce our carbon emissions? And, what about "clean coal"? That should address our concerns about coal, shouldn't it?

Of course, activists will immediately spot the problems embedded in these assertions masquerading as questions. But, none of this would seem relevant to a persuadable member of the public if the myth of abundance hadn't already infected his or her mind. Once the abundance myth is undermined, it follows that we must move quickly to alternative, noncarbon-based energy. All the promises of clean natural gas and clean coal don't matter if their supply is in question. It's dead certain that all fossil fuels will at some point peak in their production and then decline irreversibly. Nobody knows for sure when, and that's a good enough reason to make an energy transition sooner rather than later.

Sowing doubt about the claim of fossil fuel abundance is the surest way to move the persuadable public toward supporting many of those actions which are consistent with addressing climate change. Those so persuaded don't even have to believe that climate change is a problem (though it would certainly help if they did). Why concede the abundance argument--an argument the fossil fuel industry is using like a club against climate change activists--when we don't have to?

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

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