November 9, 2007 The questions I address in this post are:

  • Who is working on peak oil and climate change and what are their conclusions?
  • How much oil is left? How much coal is left?
  • So is the IPCC wrong?
  • What does peak oil mean for climate change?
  • What should we do now?
  • Where can I get the original reports?

Q. Who is working on peak oil and climate change?

The number of people who have analyzed whether there are sufficient hydrocarbons to produce the scenarios in the IPCC reports is small but growing. This will undoubtedly change as more scientists and engineers learn about peak oil. Hansen is weighing in and his revised report was submitted for publication in July of this year to the Geophysical Research Letters (http://www.agu.org/journals/gl). You will find the complete report here: Implications of "Peak Oil" for Atmospheric CO2 and Climate (336KB pdf) Hansen and Kharecha, July 2007 Jean Laherrere was apparently the first to bring up peak oil in relation to climate change. Richard Heinberg pulls together some conclusions as he tackles peaking coal production in these pieces from March 2007 and again in November 2007:
Burning the Furniture Big Melt Meets Big Empty Professor Rutledge, Chair for the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech, seems to have done the most thorough analysis so far. A video and slide presentation are available here. The Association of Peak Oil and Gas has commissioned a study that will model climate change considering peak oil; preliminary results are expected in 2008. If you know of any other work out there, I would greatly appreciate if you were to mention it in the comments.

Q. What does James Hansen conclude?

James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is one of the leading researchers on climate change. His paper uses reserves for oil, gas and coal based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a department of the U.S. Department of Energy. Using those numbers, his conclusion is that "if estimates of oil and gas reserves by the Energy Information Administration are realistic, it is feasible to keep atmospheric CO2 from exceeding approximately 450 ppm, provided that future exploitation of the vast reservoirs of coal and unconventional fossil fuels incorporates carbon capture and sequestration." Note that many expert observers believe that the EIA numbers are actually not realistic — that actual oil and coal reserves are far lower than the official numbers. The International Energy Agency recently agreed (Oct 2007) and is no longer going to use those numbers (which were sourced from the United States Geological Survey). They will release revised numbers in their next Annual Assessment sometime in 2008. Expect their numbers to be much lower than those listed in the 2007 Annual Assessment. Reading a bit more, you will find that Hansen is basically saying "If we close the current coal-fired plants and open only new ones that capture their carbon, we have a fighting chance of staying below a 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature." Ed Mazria from Architecture 2030 has picked up this message (www.architecture2030.org). Note that carbon capture and sequestration is a technology that most observers believe will not be ready in a large scale for another twenty years. But what if it's a myth that there are 150 years of coal left?

Q. What does Professor Rutledge conclude?

Professor Rutledge and his team re-estimated how much coal is left using updated methods. A similar re-estimation of coal was done by Dr. Werner Zittel and Jorg Schindler of the Energy Watch Group in a report entitled Coal: Resources And Future Production (630KB pdf). In both cases, they concur with the assessment of the National Academy of Sciences that the current coal reserve numbers are fundamentally too high. As it looks now, we will reach peak coal between 2030 and 2040. Professor Rutledge demonstrates that even if we were to burn all the coal, atmospheric CO2 should not go above 460ppm. Based on these lower numbers for coal and other hydrocarbon sources, none of the 40 IPCC emission scenarios considered in the Fourth Assessment Report for future atmospheric carbon concentrations can be supported. As more researchers examine peak oil/gas/coal, we should get future confirmation of this basic point. Note that Professor Rutledge did not explicitly focus his attention on positive feedback mechanisms that are adding additional methane from permafrost melt, extra CO2 from wildfires, etc. The climate modeling program he used, which was also used extensively in the Third Assessment (MAGICC), includes some but not all feedback mechanisms. See the new line called "Producer-Limited Profile" in the graph below "Cumulative Future-Fossil Fuel Carbon Emissions," which you'll see is far below all 40 emission scenarios.

(click image for larger version)
The bottom line represents cumulative carbon
emissions even if we were to burn all remaining hydrocarbons.
Source: Professor Rutledge's presentation, accessed October 7, 2007

Q. So is the IPCC wrong?

It would be going too far to say that the IPCC report is wrong: there is a lot of good science in there and we certainly are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere. However, the IPCC authors relied on published numbers for hydrocarbon availability and gradually those numbers are becoming untenable. For example, the authors assume that there are 18 trillion barrels of oil equivalent (Tboe) of coal available to burn. That simply may not be the case. Professor Rutledge demonstrates that based on current patterns we have approximately 1.5 Tboe of coal left. The next IPCC assessment will undoubtedly have to include peak oil and base some scenarios on the premise of lower hydrocarbon availability.

Q. How much oil is really left?

That is a topic of much debate and I won't go through everything there is to know before one can draw a conclusion. However, while doing the research on peak oil, I was reminded of the process I went through with climate change. I had many "How abouts," "Ya, buts" and "What ifs." It was only once I followed each pathway that I concluded that peak oil was soon. That said, after much reading and weighing of different arguments, here are my current conclusions and observations: a) The important published data of proven oil reserves are often the result of a political process rather than a scientific process and the Middle East reserve numbers are almost certainly wrong. We may see many adjustments downward (like Shell in 2004) from this point forward as it becomes increasingly clear that the numbers cannot be justified any longer. b) The majority of worldwide oil discovery occurred in the 60's. The last two super-giants were both found in Kazakhstan and it has been > 25 years since a super-giant was found outside of Kazakhstan. Any new super-giants are likely to be discovered offshore under 10,000 ft of water, making the oil expensive and slow to bring to market. c) It's the super-giant and giant oil fields that one needs to watch. Of the 50,000 oil fields worldwide only 507 or about 1% provide over 60% of all oil produced each year and possess 65% of all known reserves. Of these 507, just the largest 20 of these oil fields produce almost 20% of the oil produced each year. Most super-giants are in decline and the remaining ones are close to declining. Most of them started producing thirty years ago. d) Worldwide consumption has outpaced discovery for twenty-one years and demand is increasing at approximately 2% per year worldwide. We are currently using six barrels of oil for every new barrel we discover. e) Approximately 60 of 98 oil-producing nations are now in decline. (U.S. oil production peaked in 1970, btw.) f) The International Energy Agency estimates global oil decline rates in 2008 to be 4% or about 3.3 million barrels per day (Source: Mid-Term Oil Report, July 2007). That means that starting in 2008 we must find and create the infrastructure for 3.3 mbpd of oil production every year just to maintain current production levels. This does not factor in demand increases at all, which is why prices are already beginning to climb. For comparison, we are currently producing approximately 85 mbpd. For a more thorough treatment, see The Peak Oil Overview at The Oil Drum. This graph shows the average of 12 peak oil models as of September 2007.

Bottom Line for Peak Oil In my view, an excellent case can be made for peak oil within five years and an airtight one for peak oil within fifteen years. Note that in November of 2007, Fatih Birol, Chief Economist for the IEA stated that unless consumption from countries is curbed AND oil producers bring all their planned production online, there will be an "energy crunch" by 2012. Do you believe the developed countries are going to voluntarily curb their demand?

"There is a need for an electroshock," said Fatih Birol, the agency's chief economist and the lead author of the IEA's World Energy Outlook. "We have to act immediately and boldly." (New York Times, Nov. 9 2007)

Bottom Line for Peak Coal The oft-repeated "we have 150 years of coal left" is almost certainly incorrect. Several reports that have re-estimated coal reserves using modern methods indicate a peak around 2030. The National Academy of Sciences report calls for an urgent re-estimation of coal reserves using field work because, it says,

"Recent programs to assess coal recoverability in limited areas using updated methods indicate that only a small fraction of previously estimated reserves are actually recoverable." - Coal: Research and Development to Support National Energy Policy Executive Summary, NAS, 2007

At this time, it is credible to say that as oil and gas run out, we would be foolhardy to expect coal to fill the gap for very long. And there a many good reasons not to burn the remaining coal — but in a world starving for energy, will we be able to keep it in the ground? A future post on "Peak Energy" will review oil, coal and natural gas peaking estimates. The three major energy sources appear to be peaking all within two decades of each other.

Q. What does peak oil mean for climate change?

In addition to the list of objections people use to deny climate change ("it's the volcanoes," "mars and the other planets are warming up, too, so it must be the sun" etc.) we can now expect a new one to be added, which will sound like, "We don't have to worry: there isn't enough fossil fuel left to be a problem" or "You still want to limit carbon emissions? The market is already doing that as a result of high oil prices and we can't damage the economy even further." In other words, peak oil will make legislated carbon reductions more difficult, not less. And the arguments actually are reasonable: carbon emissions will go down regardless of legislation because of peak oil — even if we move with no restraint to unsequestered coal (more on that in a future post but if you can't wait, read Richard Heinberg's piece, linked in the report section below). It also means that in an environment of continually diminishing energy availability, the voluntary carbon offset market will likely collapse and cap and trade systems no longer make sense. The offset market only works if carbon is abundant and a reduction was "not going to happen anyway." As everyone scrambles to reduce emissions due to high prices, it becomes impossible to prove "additionality," which is the evidence a project needs to provide the proves that the carbon reduction measure would not have happened without the offset funds. The cap and trade system will collapse because the baseline carbon will be declining due to reduced economic activity and a dramatic increase in efficiency projects. That does not mean we can be complacent about the atmosphere. In a future post, I'll look more closely at the tipping points that we will approach as we burn the remaining fossil fuels.

Q. What do we do now?

It is almost certain, in my view, that concern for peak oil will soon replace concern for climate change as oil supplies tighten and prices rise above $100/barrel. This is because the effects of peak oil will be immediate and widespread, unlike the effects of climate change at this time. Richard Heinberg captures it perfectly when he says: "Climate change makes getting off of oil necessary and peak oil makes it inevitable." In other words, peak oil a very good reason to create alternative, renewable energy sources right now. And remember: it is not true that peak oil means that the worst of climate change won't occur. Recall that even if we keep atmospheric emissions below 450ppm, we still have only lowered the chance of catastrophic climate change to below 50% — not eliminated it (Source: IPCC Fourth Assessment). All the other problems (drought, rising water levels, lower food production, etc.) will continue to worsen as we climb toward 450ppm. So what do we do? Now more than ever it's important to transform how energy is used by the economy and move off of fossil fuels. Efficiency (doing the same work using less energy), conservation (reducing demand) and renewable energy generation are what every business should be spending a great deal of time on. And the climate change community must quickly alter its message to include peak oil or it risks being marginalized.

Where can I get the original reports?

For oil, you'll find a good overview in the 1998 Scientific American article that started the most recent conversation on peak oil: The End of Cheap Oil. The Latest Peak Oil Update from The Oil Drum Check this site to obtain current production numbers. Note that the peak in conventional oil + condensate is still May 2005.

Prof. Rutledge on Coal and Climate Change Watch his video while flipping through his slides. The data on the slides is more current than in the video.

Peaking Of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management (1.2MB pdf) Robert Hirsch et al, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, 2005 Arguably one of the first "mainstream" reports to discuss the idea when mitigation efforts must begin. The report's recommendation was a minimum of ten years in advance of peak oil — and that would require a Herculean effort.

Hansen and Kharecha on Climate Change and Peak Oil (599KB pdf) Hansen and Kharecha use "official" coal numbers, unlike Prof. Rutledge who makes his own estimates resulting in much lower coal reserves. In Hansen and Kharecha's scenarios there is still more than enough coal to cause runaway climate change if new coal plants do not sequester their carbon. However, it is becoming more generally known that the EIA coal numbers are not accurate. These appear to be the numbers Ed Mazria is using at www.Architecture2030.org.

Burning the Furniture Richard Heinberg's excellent summary of peak energy in general and peak coal specifically and its impact on climate change.

Coal: Resources And Future Production (630KB pdf) Dr. Werner Zittel and Jorg Schindler, Energy Watch Group, March 2007

Facing the Hard Truths about Energy Executive Summary (1.5MB pdf) Full Report (11MB pdf) National Petroleum Council, July 2007 The National Petroleum Council has repeatedly made estimates of oil reserves that have turned out to be too high. In this report, they start to acknowledge some of the constraints on oil production. Their website is http://www.npc.org

CRUDE OIL: Uncertainty about Future Oil Supply Makes It Important to Develop a Strategy for Addressing a Peak and Decline in Oil Production (1.1MB pdf) U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), February 2007

Energy Dragons Rising: Global Energy Governance and the Rise of China and India (1.4MB pdf) Jean Laherrere, Global Public Policy Institute, January 2007

Coal Roundup at The Oil Drum (Europe)

Coal: Research and Development to Support National Energy Policy Executive Summary (373KB pdf) Full report (972KB pdf) U.S. National Academy of Sciences, June 2007

Giant Oil Fields - The Highway to Oil: Giant Oil Fields and their Importance for Future Oil Production Doctoral Thesis by Frederik Robelius, Faculty of Science and Technology, Uppsala University, Sweden, March 2007

Survey of 2007 Energy Resources Executive Summary (228KB pdf) Full Report (7.4MB pdf) World Energy Council, September 2007

The conversations at The Oil Drum (www.theoildrum.com) have also proved invaluable and are too numerous to be listed here.