The future of oil and the wedge of hope

Most greenhouse gases that people emit come from fossil fuels, so understanding how much fossil fuels we’re likely to burn in the coming decades is a crucial climate issue. I’ve been learning a lot about “peak oil” and related ideas lately, and have been having some heretical thoughts—or at least they feel heretical to me, since I’ve been dedicated to covering climate science for the past few years.

It seems to me that a lot of the worst-case scenarios for climate change presented in the IPCC reports and the media may not be real possibilities, if the peak oil camp is right, and if there’s less oil, natural gas, and coal that is actually feasible to burn than climate-concerned people like myself had believed. This issue of fossil fuel reserves is huge and highly fraught, of course, so I’ll just cover one aspect of it here, building off a recent news article I wrote.

The future of oil depends a lot on what we can call “the wedge of hope.” That’s the name my wife came up with in a snap, when I showed her the graph below:

It’s from the International Energy Agency’s new World Energy Outlook, published yesterday, with the “wedge of hope” being the light blue triangle in the middle, representing “fields yet to be found.” (It doesn’t say “the wedge of hope” on the original graph, of course, or else my wife wouldn’t be very clever. I added that in myself.)

As I reported for National Geographic News (“Has the world already passed ‘peak oil’?”), the IEA said that the world may have passed the all-time peak of crude oil production, back in 2006. (That’s the dark blue hump forming the base of oil production.)

Whether we’ve already passed the peak of crude oil, the IEA says, depends on countries’ climate policies, the demand—and hence the price—of oil, and other factors. In their “New Policies Scenario,” which takes countries at their word that they’ll stick to the climate change commitments that they’ve made over the past couple of years for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Assuming they’ll stick to these commitments might be overly optimistic. But on the other hand, these pledges are fairly weak compared with what most scientists say is necessary to avoid severe climate change. So we’d better hope that they would at least stick to those commitments.

In any case, it’ll take probably another decade or so to see for sure whether we’ve passed the all-time peak.

After the peak in 2006, the IEA is now forecasting only a slight dip, and then a plateau for the next 25 years. But this plateau is strangely flat, suspiciously flat. It this plausible? How did they arrive at this?

One way of approaching it is to look at the wedge of hope. It starts off as a sliver, right now, and then gradually grows until, in 2035, it’s responsible for about 20 million barrels a day of production. However, it takes time to get new fields online—several years, at least—and it’s taking longer all the time, as the projects become more expensive and more technically difficult , and oftentimes more politically fraught.

Kashgan, a huge oil field in Kazakhstan’s part of the Caspian Sea, was discovered in 2000, and its first oil is expected by 2012, according to one site, Offshore Technology. That might be overly optimistic. But even if it pans out, that’s a 12-year lag between discovery and first oil, and then it would still take at least a couple of years for its production to ramp up to its peak.

I think the wedge of hope may have to be shifted into the future, about a decade. If so, it looks to me like there wouldn’t be a flat plateau for 25 years, but instead would be a decline of crude oil. It would be a real, clearly defined peak—and that would be a real problem for industrial civilization, which is so dependent on oil.

If this picture I’ve painted is roughly right, then the big climate question is: How will people cope with a decline of oil production? Will they turn to coal-to-liquids to keep their gas tanks full? Will economies crash? (The Great Recession took a big bite out of yearly CO2 emissions, so an economic meltdown seems like it can be good for the planet, at least in the short run.)

Sometimes it seems that people who care about climate change and those who care about peak oil are at odds with each other. But here’s a case where getting them to talk to each other more could help highlight positive overlaps. Clean energy that doesn’t involve fossil fuels would help with both peak oil and climate change, for example. And clean energy might be easier to sell as a way of planning for or coping with peak oil than a more distant, more abstract threat of climate change.

Written by MASON INMAN.

4 thoughts on “The future of oil and the wedge of hope

  1. Katie Whitefoot

    Regarding your last point about whether climate change and peak oil are at odds or in concert, WRI has a nice visualization comparing the impacts of various energy options on the axes of climate change mitigation and energy security. Their chart nicely illustrates that there are some options (e.g., corn ethanol) that may set these goals against each other, and some options (e.g., energy efficiency) where both can simultaneously be advanced:

    http://www.wri.org/chart/climate-and-energy-security-impacts-and-tradeoffs-2025

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    1. Hi Katie,

      Thanks for pointing to that chart from WRI; I hadn’t seen it before. Something along these lines is crucial for comparing different options, and this is the kind of comparison that policymakers need to do more of, weighing both “energy security” (or whatever you want to call it) alongside climate benefits or impacts.

      I’m not sure how good the underlying data is for that WRI chart, though. For one thing, making ethanol gives something around zero net energy return—that is, it takes about as much energy to make as you get out of burning the ethanol. (See, for example, this Slate article, which calls ethanol subsidies “the stupidest federal subsidies.”) There’s disagreement about what the energy return is on making ethanol, but everyone seems to agree that if it is net energy positive, it doesn’t return much energy.

      How, then, can ethanol contribute to energy security? It seems to me that on energy security, corn ethanol should rank low (or at best neutral). The size of the bubble, also, should be small, because its contribution should be measured not in terms of the amount of energy you get out of burning the ethanol itself, but the *net* energy you get out of it, after accounting for the fossil fuels used in making fertilizers, driving equipment, drying the corn, and so on. I don’t mean to harp on about net energy, but I only recently came to understand how crucial it is for making sense of what is or isn’t a good option for energy security or climate change, so I’ve become a bit of an evangelist for the concept.

      So buyer beware on that WRI graph. I tried looking up the underlying data for the graph, but the accompanying brochure (link to pdf) didn’t explain where the ethanol data came from.

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  2. Thanks, Nick—that post on The Oil Drum is really useful. Chris Vernon, who wrote it, is generally right on, in my opinion.

    The paper by James Hansen that he explains was ground-breaking, coming from a highly respected climate scientist, and bringing up the issue of peak oil, peak coal, and peak gas. It could have—and I think should have—triggered a big debate about whether the high end of IPCC scenarios were really possible. But I haven’t seen many follow-up articles from other climate scientists on this topic. It seems—from what I’ve read, and some interviews I’ve done in the past week—that most climate scientists disregard peak oil and peaks of other fossil fuels.

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