Peak Oil or Climate Change: Which Is Most Urgent?

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by Andre Angelantoni (For an in-person discussion of this topic, please RSVP here for May 21 meetup in San Francisco)
For a casual, scientifically-inclined observer, climate change used to be easy: the link between CO2 and climate change had been established, CO2 emissions were increasing year after year and unchecked growth was likely to see a world at least 2 degrees hotter than now — and possibly much more.
However, there is increasing evidence that some of the assumptions of fossil fuel availability used by the current set of atmospheric CO2 concentration projections are too high — in some cases much too high.
For instance, in 2004 Germany lowered its hard coal reserves from 23 billion tons to 0.183 billion tons — a 99 percent reduction. The UK and Botswana underwent similar reductions of 99 percent.
It looks like the US is due for a future reduction, too, though not on the scale of these three examples. In 2007 the National Academy of Science studied domestic coal reserves and urged a thorough reassessment because, in their view, “only a small fraction of previously estimated [coal] reserves are economically recoverable.” Subsequent studies put the peak of world and U.S. coal production between 2030 and 2040.


Similar downgrades are occurring with natural gas and particularly oil. It’s now possible to see the end of the seemingly limitless bounty of fossil fuel that propelled the United States to the status of economic superpower. When domestic oil production peaked in 1970, the United States was already importing large amounts of oil to continue its growth. Unfortunately, with the world’s supergiant oil fields entering old age, every non-OPEC country in decline and insufficient new fields being discovered to pick up the slack, the peak in oil production is upon us early in this coming decade. Some petroleum geologists even put it in the past.
What about these vast quantities of natural gas from shale we hear about? Shouldn’t we switch every machine to run on it since it is “cleaner” than dirty coal and oil? The proponents of this strategy don’t point out that natural gas is still 50% of the carbon intensity of coal. They also don’t tell you about the incredible decline rates the shale gas wells are experiencing and that most of them aren’t profitable. In many cases, well production is declining 20% to 30% every month, compared to years for conventional gas. With decline rates so high and so many of them uneconomic, it is doubtful the gas industry can ramp up production of shale gas as conventional gas declines much less expand overall production to power our transportation fleet.
What does that mean for climate change? The world is already warming and more is in the pipeline, so it is not going away. Making matters worse, the sensitivity of our atmosphere to CO2 seems to be much greater than thought just a few years ago.
However, unfortunately, we have a different fast-approaching problem to contend with: the fossil fuels that run our economy are declining far faster than we can get off them — that’s something hardly anyone is talking about.
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Andre Angelantoni is co-founder of PostPeakLiving.com. He was part of the business coalition that lobbied Sacramento to enact AB32, the California carbon emission legislation. He now educates individuals, businesses and citizen groups on how to prepare for fossil fuel depletion. He is delivering a public presentation on May 21st in San Francisco called “Peak Oil or Climate Change: Which Should We Prepare for First?” in which he will present the latest research on fossil fuel reserves and their affect on climate change. Details and RSVP here.

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