Does anyone doubt every drop of oil left in the ground is going to burned sooner or later?

This thread, about Obama’s decision to open offshore drilling, got me thinking. The whole debate about global-warming policy is based on the idea that we have to limit greenhouse-gas emissions to halt or slow the process. But is that even possible? I’m sure we eventually will have to move to some non-petroleum-based energy sources to run industrial civilization, or else lose industrial civilization – but that that is only because the petroleum will run out, there being only a finite amount of it buried in the Earth’s crust. But is there any chance we can or will make the switch before the petroleum runs out? If not, isn’t trying to limit greenhouse-gas emissions kind of futile? It seems to me inevitable that every drop of oil and every chunk of coal and even all the petroleum extractable from tar sands and oil shale is going to be burned, and release its waste-products into the air, sooner or later, possibly within our lifetimes; except for what is used to make plastics and fertilizers – and we might even get hard up enough to start burning plastic or recycling it into fuel. What am I missing here?

Pretty much.

Drill, baby, drill! Now, that’s change you can believe in…

A few of us have brought up that point before. If the U.S. doesn’t use it, I am sure China and India will be more than happy to pick up the slack. It makes the whole exercise kind of futile from one perspective. The situation is a lot more complicated than that though. Most people focus their attention on the supply of certain types of crude oil which really isn’t the point. We don’t actually use crude oil, we use petroleum based products like gasoline and plastics. High quality crude oil is one of the easiest ways to create those but it certainly isn’t the only way. The manufacturing process to make gasoline and plastics from tar sands and even coal are already well-developed. It is just a matter of building the right infrastructure to deal with a different type of raw material and that has already started to happen. The U.S. alone has such vast coal reserves that they might has well be considered infinite for our purposes. Some estimates suggest we have hundreds or maybe over a 1000 year supply known right now. Similarly, the Alberta Tar Sands in Canada may hold as much petroleum as the entire Middle-East.

That is all good news in terms of supply and bad news for certain environmental perspectives. There is no shortage of petroleum in the world and won’t be in any reasonable time-frame. What will happen is that petroleum based products like gasoline will get somewhat more expensive and alternative energies will become more competitive with it as the technology and price-points improve.

[unhelpful snark] Economics. [/unhelpful snark]

No one is ever going to burn the very last drop of oil, or lump of coal - the supplies will never be wholly exhausted. The more of these resources we extract, the more difficult it will become to extract the remainder - we’ll need to invest more resources, and develop new technologies, to extract them. As soon as alternative fuels become consistently less expensive to exploit than traditional fossil fuels, we’ll switch - and that’ll happen long, long before we actually run out of oil or coal.

Exactly. It’s not feasible, even if possible, to get every last drop of oil out of the ground. The percentage of recoverable oil in a given well can be as much as 80% to as little as 10%, but it is never 100% due to depth, lack of pressure, and mostly unprofitability.

I think the OP didn’t mean it literally.

I meant, will we more or less stop burning fossil fuels soon enough to make a significant difference in the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere? Defining “significant” as significant to the pace of anthropogenic climate change. (And yes, I do believe that is real and that the products of fossil-fuel combustion are the main cause.)

One thing missing is time. There is a big difference between burning all the oil in a hundred years and burning it all in a thousand years. It is not possible for us to stop climate change. The Earth will experience fluctuations in weather patterns for as long as there is an atmosphere. What we may be able to affect is the rate of change.

You have a point. If not us someone is going to burn it. If we were smart we would invest as much capital as possible into biodiesel from algae or whatever, and screw trying to squeeze the last few drops of fossil fuel out of this lemon. “Clean coal” is total bullshit. We’re polishing the brass on the Titanic, when we should be building a new boat.

Corollary: does anyone doubt that sooner or later, every last chunk of iron ore will be mined sooner or later? What does this imply for policy?

Yes and no.

The CO2 we put in the atmosphere is going to be there awhile. Not long in geological terms, but IIRC its in the high hundreds to few thousand years.

So, if we end up burning nearly all we can dig up (coal,oil, natural gas, tar sands…) we better be doing it over many thousands of years for CO2 to not get “too” high.

The obvious major difference is that iron is recyclable, and iron usage has been stable for 30 years in the US, as per this article. I don’t believe at those numbers iron is going to be an issue in the US for a while; fortunately the world’s biggest consumer of iron is also it’s biggest producer by a large margin.

True barring revolutionary technology to sequester existing CO2, but it misses my point. Say burning all fossil fuel reserves would increase levels X% leading to a new average temperature Y degrees higher than present. Unless Y is somehow too high to support life (which I doubt), we will be much better off if the change is gradual then if it is quick. Thinking of just one parameter, if sea level is going to rise a total of 20 meters before equilibrium is reached, would you rather it go up one meter every 400 years or every 4 years?

I agree with that. And you missed my point.

MY POINT was that what gets put in the atmosphere STAYS there awhile. So, if you want the PEAK to be 5 meters rather than say 20 meters in your example, you better be burning most of what we have much slower than a hundred years give or take. Nature will take the extra CO2 outa the atmosphere eventually but it takes a fair bit of time when measured in human terms.

Or to phrase it another way. Its how fast things get bad (your point), but its also how bad bad gets (my point).

For grid electricity we either recently entered or are soon entering a period where non-polluting technologies like wind, geothermal and solar are cheaper than coal. Wind is already cheaper and is supposed to be 20% of grid energy by 2030 and solar 10%. No idea about geothermal, or if nuclear will ever be cost effective.

With transportation, I don’t know if anything is on the horizon that offers the convenience & safety of hydrocarbons with a lower price. The energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline from grid electricity costs about $0.70. But you are limited to a 40 mile range and you have to pay to buy and replace the batteries.

Wind is already cheaper? Cite please. Of course wind doesn’t provide energy when needed, to get that kind of flexibility requires pretty expensive and inefficent storage techologies.

This may be true now, but even with current technology it won’t stay true for long. Tesla Motors (still a small player) is taking orders for $50k full electric sedan with a significantly longer range (they claim 300, I would believe at least 150). $50k is much higher than most people are willing to pay, but they are a still a custom shop. If they can start really mass producing, or if one of the big companies builds something similar, I would expect the prices to come down in a few years. I would still expect a price premium, but even with my Prius, I am spending about $1500 a year on fuel. If I could have full size sedan with lower fuel costs I would pay a premium over the $23k I paid for my Prius when next I go car shopping.

I’d like to see a cite that says wind is cheaper than coal. And not just a cite for one particular wind farm that might be located in the best wind area in the country - a cite showing that large-scale use of wind is cheaper than coal. I like wind power, but the last time I looked it still wasn’t that close.

Nonetheless, there’s a clear trend that alternatives to oil are getting cheaper, while oil is getting more expensive. At some point, the curves will cross, and then you’ll see a widespread shift to other energy sources. When exactly this happens is unpredictable - a breakthrough in alternative energy or a sudden dwindling of oil reserves could happen at almost any time, or perhaps not for fifty years.

Plug-in hybrid would increase the fleet average fuel economy to at least 100mpg, and maybe even 200 mpg, because 80% of all trips take place within 20 miles of the vehicle’s home base. However, you’re not going to see plug-in hybrid make up more than a few percentage points of the vehicle market for at least a couple of decades.

But in terms of greenhouse gases, petroleum makes up only about 35% of our energy, and a slightly higher percentage of greenhouse gases. So even if oil use declined, it won’t have as big an effect on greenhouse gases as you’d think.

Waiting for the smooth talk and coverup when the first oil slick hits Florida shores …

Coal - around 38% of the global electricity demand. 4.8 - 5.5 Cents/kW-h
Wind - Currently supplies approximately 1.4% of the global electricity demand. Wind is considered to be about 30% reliable. 4.0 - 6.0 Cents/kW-h