Peak Oil Is Irrelevant

Peak Oil graph
CC BY 2.0 Wikipedia

Peak oil has been predicted since the 1950s to occur by various near-future dates, originally as early as 1965. The prediction that US oil production would peak in the 1970s was, in fact, accurate, but new discoveries – including North American sources involving fracking and tar sands – keep pushing the timeline outward. Some say we will always find new oil sources, though economic theory states they will also get inexorably more expensive.

Recent discussions have revived the peak oil debate. A Business Insider article last spring claimed “it is probably safe to say we have slayed "peak oil" once and for all, thanks to the combination new shale oil and gas production techniques and declining fuel use.” It was counterpointed here. But I basically don’t care.

All the talk of peak oil, that we are running out of fossil fuels and therefore need alternatives — or that we’re not and therefore there’s nothing to worry about — is a distraction. In fact, it’s worse than a distraction; it’s misleading because it makes people think that the goal is to find more oil. And that then gives people the impression that since we, in fact, do have existing and yet-to-be-found sources, we don’t have any energy problems. That’s a dangerous path.

The problem, as Sami Grover wrote in a Treehugger post in 2012, is not a lack of carbon-based fuels. The problem is that, if we use those fuels, the resulting greenhouse gas emissions will push the atmosphere far off the critical balance needed to maintain the climate. In other words, those sources – coal, oil, gas – must be left in the ground. Burning them is nothing less than suicide.

The only reason we should really care about peak oil is that it means oil will be getting increasingly expensive and, as that happens, renewable sources will become more competitive. (And that’s before factoring in technical and manufacturing advances for renewables. And certainly before factoring in the unaccounted for “external” costs of non-renewables. When you do that, renewables simply become an even more overwhelmingly obvious choice.)

In many of my environmental classes, I start with a slide that shouts “It’s not just about climate change.” And it isn’t: we have a litany of other serious environmental concerns that shouldn’t – can’t – be neglected as we address human-caused climate disruption. But in the case of carbon-based fossil fuels, it really is all about climate change. Whether we’ve reached peak oil or not is irrelevant. Whether we have oil spills or polluted water from fracking is almost irrelevant, too. (With emphasis on the word “almost.”) The carbon within fossil fuels must be left sequestered in the ground.

That leads to one more point. Those untapped fuels are sometimes referred to as “stranded assets.” Those poor assets, left stranded. (Or perhaps more to the point, those poor, poor owners of those assets.) We should really think of them, though, not as stranded assets, but as neutralized WMDs, since burning them would, in the words of Columbia environmental science prof and former NASA scientist James Hansen, “make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans.”

So we want to strand those WMDs, err, assets. It’s an EcoOptimistic solution in that it addresses both ecological and economic issues and puts us on a path to improving our lives as well. The oil industry may not see it that way, but their definitions of economics and human wellbeing are, to put it mildly, different from yours (I suspect) and mine.

(Originally published at EcoOptimism.)

Tags: Carbon Emissions | Energy | Oil