Peak Oil or Climate Change: Which Is Most Urgent?


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.
Andre Angelantoni is co-founder of 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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4 responses

  1. Interestingly, you’re not the only one predicting peak emissions. Joe Romm has predicted them as well, and for similar reasons. Though I think he’s a little more convinced of the successful decarbonization of our energy sources (i.e., that there will even be significant amounts of renewable energy) than you are. At any rate, when experts from different fields converge on the same conclusion, it’s obviously time to pay attention.

  2. Angel,
    I’m quite disappointed in this piece. You said, “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.”
    You know very well this point is utterly irrelevant. You pretend fossil fuels are the only factor when they are not. Climate feedbacks have already kicked in making 1. methane from permafrost and clathrates a problem; 2. Arctic Sea Ice melt increases solar energy absorbed. And those are not all, as you very, very well know.
    Because of this, there is nearly 2C in the pipeline even if we could magically have zero emissions starting TODAY. Current and future emissions WILL affect our climate. It is utterly irresponsible to imply we need not worry about future carbon emissions.
    You said, “Similar downgrades are occurring with natural gas and particularly oil.”
    That borders on an out-and-out lie! World supplies of oil are going to be reduced 50%? Not in your wildest dreams, which you also know very, very well!! To use such loose wording and imply oil reserves will fall dramatically is beyond disingenuous.
    Finally, to act as if there is any difference in the timing with regard to Anthropogenic Climate Change (ACC) and Peak Oil is also completely misleading. Yes, you pay lip service to the ACC issue by noting climate sensitivity *might* be higher, but, hey! don’t worry! There aren’t enough fossil fuels to really worry about it! All you’ve done is take Rutledge’s very poor work and reverse it. This is truly shameful.
    You are fully aware that the cliamte system has lag times. You *know* that the tipping points will not be crossed in fifty years, but will **manifest** in fifty years. They are being crossed NOW. Take a close look at the Arctic Sea Ice, methane plumes, thermokarst lakes, melting glaciers and snow packs, etc. In other words, ACC is NOW, not in another generation.
    Setting up Peak Oil as an either/or competition is the height of irresponsibility. You have taken part in the many discussions on these topics on The Oil Drum so have no excuse for such behavior.
    We need to act on BOTH now, not one or the other. I realize this is basically an advertisement for your peak oil-related services and that its hard to make a buck on ACC, but come on!
    Seriously disappointed in you, Angel.

  3. I must add: I’ve calculated what an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 gets us. An 80% cut still gets us to approximately 450 ppm of CO2. You know that number is considered way to high by more and more climate scientists.
    Yes, the number we need to shoot for if we don’t want to play chicken or Russian Roulette with Mother Nature is 350, not 450, yet you are implying we can burn all the fossil fuels we have available…

  4. ccpo,

    I think your defensiveness is misplaced. I clearly point out that climate change isn’t going away. I also point out that the climate is much more sensitive than we thought. Furthermore, fossil fuel estimates are going down in every area I mentioned and I understand that you think it’s irrelevant. You are entitled to your view but I think it is relevant because the Special Emissions Scenarios start with fossil fuel estimates. How could the amount of carbon left for us to burn not be relevant? Your point escapes logic.

    For instance, it is still common to hear that the U.S. has 250 years of coal left (“the Saudi Arabia of coal”) but the National Academy of Science is pointing out that that is very likely incorrect according to their research.

    It’s the same for oil and natural gas. People are starting to give more credence to the models that show lower fossil-fuel availability than those that show that there is plenty. Note what the Energy Commissioner of the European Union said just last week (paraphrased: “peak oil could be in the past”). And the fact remains that the IPCC has seven scenarios that don’t predict a peak in oil production before 2100 and their gas and coal estimates are especially too high despite the efforts of Jean Leherr√®re to have them use more accurate numbers.

    There was nothing factually incorrect in the piece and I make sure to point out that climate change is still an issue and is actually worse than previously thought.

    You may have emphasized different points but this piece was meant to raise awareness of the fossil fuels issue in just 500 words. As for being able to burn the remaining fossil fuel with impunity, I don’t imply any such thing. I think it’s possible that because you have such a huge commitment that we deal with climate change you are reading into the text things that aren’t there.

    There are plenty of people — including you — who are talking about climate change. There are considerably fewer people talking about fossil fuel depletion. I think a short, balanced piece (in my view, I understand you disagree) with an emphasis on fossil fuel depletion is entirely appropriate when compared to the billions of words being written and spoken about climate change.

    Last, of course we have to deal with both issues. What do you think I say in my public talks? But our ability to deal with climate change diminishes greatly if our economies spiral down due to high oil prices and shortages. We are already seeing renewable energy investment down by over half in part because of $147 oil last year.

    Besides, comments are a great place to add to the story ;-)


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