So here we are in a record-breaking “polar vortex” with Florida’s Everglades going on a freeze watch and Minnesota registering wind chills of -60 degrees Fahrenheit. This most extreme of weather systems, which should warm the hearts of climate deniers, may in fact turn out to be climate-change related (thanks to a melting Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet). Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Australia has been experiencing a staggering heat wave, having just emerged from a year that included the hottest day, week, month, and overall average on record for that continent.
Still, give the climate deniers their due. They have long claimed that climate science is, at best, a mistake-prone activity. It’s a point with which Professor Steven Sherwood concurs. He happens to be the lead author of a study that just appeared in the journal Nature, focused on future cloud cover and climate change. It concluded that the planet will heat up faster than expected, minimally rising by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 (which, of course, would spell unimaginable catastrophe). Here’s his way of giving the deniers their due: “Climate skeptics like to criticize climate models for getting things wrong, and we are the first to admit they are not perfect, but what we are finding is that the mistakes are being made by those models which predict less warming, not those that predict more.”
Meanwhile, the year just past was generally a humdrum one in the new age of climate change. Though final results won’t be in until March, it will be among the top ten warmest years since temperatures were first recorded, falling somewhere between fourth and seventh. (By the way, the 10 hottest years have all occurred since 1998, nine in the last decade). For the first time in history, the planet briefly and ominously topped 400 parts per million of atmospheric CO2; oceans grew more acidic; droughts and wildfires strengthened; storms raged, though only one reached epic proportions, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines; Arctic summer sea ice had a major melt (significantly above twentieth century levels, but less than in 2012); climate change media coverage rose modestly for the first time in years; and one of the climate-denial movement’s most beloved supports — the supposed “warming pause” the planet was undergoing — went down the drain.
As the year begins, we know more about what’s in our future with somewhat greater certainty and, generally speaking, as record amounts of carbon dioxide continue to pour into the atmosphere, we’re doing remarkably little about it. To adapt that classic example of free speech limits, imagine that a vast crew of scientists is now continually yelling “Fire!” in the global movie theater and, as a result, more pyromaniacs with blowtorches are arriving all the time. After all, of those doing nothing about climate change, no one is doing more of it than the giant oil companies and the nations — from Saudi Arabia to Russia — that are in essence giant oil companies.
As Michael Klare indicates in his latest post, the urge of the oil giants and their supporters to claim that there are no limits on the future of oil and natural gas extraction is, to say the least, chilling on a heating planet. They seem intent on giving the phrase “the sky’s the limit” grim new meaning. Fortunately, as our resident energy expert points out, they may be in for a surprise or two themselves down the road. Tom
Peak Oil Is Dead
Long Live Peak Oil!
By Michael T. Klare
Among the big energy stories of 2013, “peak oil” — the once-popular notion that worldwide oil production would soon reach a maximum level and begin an irreversible decline — was thoroughly discredited. The explosive development of shale oil and other unconventional fuels in the United States helped put it in its grave.
As the year went on, the eulogies came in fast and furious. “Today, it is probably safe to say we have slayed ‘peak oil’ once and for all, thanks to the combination of new shale oil and gas production techniques,” declared Rob Wile, an energy and economics reporter for Business Insider. Similar comments from energy experts were commonplace, prompting an R.I.P. headline at Time.com announcing, “Peak Oil is Dead.”
Not so fast, though. The present round of eulogies brings to mind the Mark Twain’s famous line: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Before obits for peak oil theory pile up too high, let’s take a careful look at these assertions. Fortunately, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based research arm of the major industrialized powers, recently did just that — and the results were unexpected. While not exactly reinstalling peak oil on its throne, it did make clear that much of the talk of a perpetual gusher of American shale oil is greatly exaggerated. The exploitation of those shale reserves may delay the onset of peak oil for a year or so, the agency’s experts noted, but the long-term picture “has not changed much with the arrival of [shale oil].”
The IEA’s take on this subject is especially noteworthy because its assertion only a year earlier that the U.S. would overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s number one oil producer sparked the “peak oil is dead” deluge in the first place. Writing in the 2012 edition of its World Energy Outlook, the agency claimed not only that “the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer” by around 2020, but also that with U.S. shale production and Canadian tar sands coming online, “North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030.”
That November 2012 report highlighted the use of advanced production technologies — notably horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) — to extract oil and natural gas from once inaccessible rock, especially shale. It also covered the accelerating exploitation of Canada’s bitumen (tar sands or oil sands), another resource previously considered too forbidding to be economical to develop. With the output of these and other “unconventional” fuels set to explode in the years ahead, the report then suggested, the long awaited peak of world oil production could be pushed far into the future.
The release of the 2012 edition of World Energy Outlook triggered a global frenzy of speculative reporting, much of it announcing a new era of American energy abundance. “Saudi America” was the headline over one such hosanna in the Wall Street Journal. Citing the new IEA study, that paper heralded a coming “U.S. energy boom” driven by “technological innovation and risk-taking funded by private capital.” From then on, American energy analysts spoke rapturously of the capabilities of a set of new extractive technologies, especially fracking, to unlock oil and natural gas from hitherto inaccessible shale formations. “This is a real energy revolution,” the Journal crowed.
But that was then. The most recent edition of World Energy Outlook, published this past November, was a lot more circumspect. Yes, shale oil, tar sands, and other unconventional fuels will add to global supplies in the years ahead, and, yes, technology will help prolong the life of petroleum. Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget that we are also witnessing the wholesale depletion of the world’s existing oil fields and so all these increases in shale output must be balanced against declines in conventional production. Under ideal circumstances — high levels of investment, continuing technological progress, adequate demand and prices — it might be possible to avert an imminent peak in worldwide production, but as the latest IEA report makes clear, there is no guarantee whatsoever that this will occur.
Inching Toward the Peak
Before plunging deeper into the IEA’s assessment, let’s take a quick look at peak oil theory itself.