Resolved: Climate change is not a reason to cut petroleum consumption.

Preface: This thread is NOT about the existence of climate change. I, personally, believe it exists and would, for the purpose of this debate, like everyone who participates to assume that climate change is a reality. I would also like to assume that the releasing of carbon into the atmosphere is a primary cause of this global climate change through the greenhouse effect. I would like to assume that the IPCC report is correct in making this connection. Please, all, assume that anthropogenic climate change is a reality for the purpose of this debate.

(By making these assumptions, I really hope this debate does not dissolve into a cite war to various blogs about whether the snow fall in Greenland is greater this year than last or that temperatures in Antarctica are dropping or that the model used by a certain scientist did not take into account the reflectivity of penguin poop and the increased insolation due the gravitational effects liberal arrogance.)

This thread is about peak oil. For this debate I would like participants to assume that the supply of petroleum on this planet is finite. I would rather not get side-tracked about doom and gloom scenarios of peak oil or even about how much oil and coal is left. I, personally, think the market, i.e. human ingenuity, will bring other energy sources online to compensate for falling reserves of petroleum and higher energy prices. I think humanity will prevail (assuming we don’t kill ourselves off in some other way).

What I would like to discuss in this thread is the effect of finite fossil fuel reserves on anthropogenic climate change and whether reducing carbon production makes any sense when trying to control said climate change.

One final note: These thoughts are not original and are based mainly on some presentations I found by an engineering professor at Caltech (the presentation is linked below). I have been thinking about these ideas on and off for several years and I cannot find any logical errors. As a scientist and a liberal leaning centrist, the arguments make sense and really make me doubt the effectiveness of Kyoto-like plans to reduce rates of carbon production with regard to halting or slowing global climate change.

The Debate:

[li] The world’s supply of fossil fuels is finite. Furthermore, at current consumption rates we will run out of oil in the next 50 to 150 years. Coal will be gone in 100 to 250 years. [/li]
Currently, the world’s “proven” oil reserves stand at 1.3x10^12 barrels. Current consumption is around 85 million barrels per day. If we assume that these are solid numbers, and assume these rates remain constant this gives us about 42 years of oil. Of course, oil consumption rates are increasing in the emerging economies of China and India. To offset this demand, we will surely become more energy efficient and presumably find new reserves (under the polar ice maybe?), but I still believe that 150 years is a good outside estimate and 50-90 years is probable.

For coal the numbers are bigger, but the situation is the same. Coal is a finite resource and we will run out of it sooner or later. Currently there are ~900 billion short tons (10^9) of proven coal reserves (Note: Excel File) and we are using about 6.7 billion short tons per year (Note: Another Excel File). This gives us about 135 years at current rates. Again, let’s assume that 200 years is a good conservative estimate. For simplicity, let’s also ignore natural gas. The story is similar, the numbers larger. Regardless of what the actual numbers are, we will run out of natural gas sometime in the next millennium.

(Side note: As far as I can tell, none of the IPCC simulations took into account the finite amount of fossil fuel reserves, am I wrong on this point? JShore?)
[li]Carbon will be released as we burn these fossil fuels mostly in the form of carbon dioxide. For coal we will release 1.83 kg of CO2 for every kg of coal burned. This number can be reduced by scrubbers, carbon sequestration techniques, etc… but these techniques don’t really come into play when we are debating whether we should reduce petroleum consumption. Similar numbers could be produced for natural gas and oil, but it really isn’t important on how much is released as long as we agree that carbon will be released.[/li][li]Carbon dioxide, released during the burning of fossil fuels, is a green house gas that causes global warming when released into the atmosphere (again, let’s assume this is true). The carbon dioxide released will be removed from the atmosphere over time, but it takes a long time for this to happen. While the time-constant of removal is complicated and depends on many different processes, none of the processes remove the carbon from the atmosphere at anything near the rates we are adding it. According to one study, the removal of 80% of the released carbon will take at least 1000 years after all release stops. Assuming this time constant is accurate, it will take around 430 years to remove half the carbon added to the atmosphere to date even if we stopped releasing carbon tomorrow. [/li]
With this time constant for atmospheric carbon removal, our current rates of petroleum consumption, and the finite amount of petroleum we have left, it will really make very little difference with regards to climate change if we reduce our rates to 1990 levels. In fact, it will make very little difference to climate change if we globally halve our consumption rates. Whether we burn the remaining petroleum in 200 years or 400 years does not matter from a climate change point of view when it will take around 1400 years to remove 90% of it from the atmosphere. Because of this, any calls to cut petroleum consumption due to climate change are misplaced.
[/ol]Am I missing something?

Assuming climate change is a reality and is caused in large part by our releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and assuming that fossil fuels reserves are finite and will only last ~ 200 years at current rates, why should we reduce consumption and make this number 300 years when it will take about 1000 years to reverse the affects of any carbon we release? What is the driving force behind global agreements like Kyoto or (presumably) Copenhagen to reduce carbon emissions? If we are trying to reduce climate change, we are probably going to be ineffective. If my arguments are not flawed, we might as well continue as we are going as we won’t really see any positive climate change benefit unless we reduce the rates by at least a factor of 10, a factor that is not supportable given our economy and political situations…
This is the presentation this debate is based on:
Hubbert’s Peak, The Coal Question, and Climate Change by Dave Rutledge

Of course, I believe we should cut petroleum consumption for other reasons, the most obvious reason being the petrochemical industry. Plastics are a wonderful thing and I hope they are as cheap and plentiful in my great grandchildren’s time as they are now. I would also like to avoid the smog, acid rain, oil spills and other environmental costs of petroleum consumption. Another reason to stop: we are going to have to switch to other energy sources sooner or later, why not now while we have a buffer? I am sure I could come up with other valid arguments given a few minutes, but climate change does not seem to be a good reason to reduce consumption unless we are talking about a drastic reduction in consumption rates…


Prof. Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts

A good question, to which I can think of at least three answers, off the top of my head.

First, it’s true that current methods of removing carbon from the atmosphere are inefficient and slow. But it may be that, ten or 20 or 50 years from now, we’ll develop some method of carbon removal which is efficient and fast. If we can delay any climate catastrophe until that time, then the problem will be solved.

The second is similar: Even if currently-available green technologies would only stretch the timeline for running out of fossil fuels from 200 years to 300 years, better technology will come along. It may be that in a few decades we’ll be able to wean ourselves completely from fossil fuels, and just leave all of the remaining reserves in the ground indefinitely. Again, if we can hold out until we get to that point, we’re golden.

Third, even if we can’t postpone global warming indefinitely (which we won’t know until we get there), we can at least slow it. The Earth has been warm in the past; the warmth itself isn’t actually the problem. The problem is that the warming is occurring faster now than it ever has in the past, and the speed of the change is too great for some parts of the environment (possibly including us) to adapt. If it takes 300 years for global warming to reach its end point instead of 200, that’s an improvement, even if the ending conditions are the same, because there will have been more time to adapt to the changing conditions.

I think what you are missing is an assumption about severity. Take a nice, juicy slab of steak, representing people. Apply charcoal representing CO2, and after enough time it becomes a browned steak with juices flowing out. Apply too much heat, however, and you end up with a tasteless slab of coal, despite the fact that the grill, representing earth, will cool down within the same general time period.

Point being that there is a big difference between slightly elevated temperatures, and charbroiling the world, even if each takes roughly 1000 years to correct to ‘normal’. We know that we can dump a lot of C02 into the atmo without any particularly noticeable effect, but that could be a false sense of security… as others argued, there could be a ‘tipping point’, or some similarly nasty effect. Maybe we could burn it all and keep on trucking with just hotter weather, or maybe if we don’t stop know we’ll be screwed in 50 years.

Not arguing whether it will or won’t get that bad, just pointing it out as a missing assumption…

I’m not a geologist, but from what I understand, there is a lot of coal out there. That if the world decides to aggressively seek it out, the amount of proven reserves can be expected to increase substantially.

That said, I do think your argument makes a certain amount of sense, especially if one considers that there exist countries like China and India which are unlikely to agree to reduce carbon emissions any time soon. China is already the world’s largest carbon emitter from what I understand. So if western / industrialized nations reduce their consumption of oil or coal, one can expect that China and India will pick up a lot of the slack, so to speak.

Well, granting the OP’s stated assumptions, that only adds to the greenhouse-gas/ACC problem, doesn’t it? Because every ton that gets dug out will shortly be burned.

I have always believed that we should assume global warming is happening, and do whatever we can to bring green technologies to the forefront.

On the basis of, if we are wrong, it is not going to hurt us at all if we go green. If we don’t, and we are right about global warming… something is going to happen and it most likely will not be good for the world at large.

Also the most pervasive and honestly the key reason to going green is to stop the reliance of entire countries on other countries which do not seem to like them much. I do not think it is a good idea for any country to be dependent on anyone else for basic needs. The American/European economy relies on constant and reliable fuel(oil/natural gas) supplies, which can be dictated by foreign interests, that doesnt make sense. When the price of gas was WAY up last year…they dont pump more oil… when it falls… they cut production to raise the price of oil. Even if the oil producing countries were our most trusted friends, that doesnt sound like a good thing for anyone. Or Russia who buys Britain’s natural gas cheap when they dont need it…and then drastic increases when they do, or they cut the supply lines. People should not be held ransom for essentials of life.

Until the entire world gets along with the entire world… and everyone agrees in the common good, it is only good sense to have a good solid backup plan for ourselves. And 75 days worth of strategic oil supplies is good but woefully small if the oil gets cut off from abroad, not enough time for us to start new wells here, and too easily we are just getting forced into a bad deal. So it would seem to me that keeping gasoline for trucks/planes etc etc is easily acceptable, but for heating homes and personal transport it seems common sense to reduce our use of oil, and lower our carbon emissions not only for our own security but as a side benefit the good of the planet.

The only reason not to go green is the cost of it, but how much money do we ship overseas a year so we don’t have to?

The only certainty is doing nothing changes nothing for the positive, in any regard

A fascinating OP. I’m going to have to think on this more, but my initial thought is that by starting to work on the problem now, we mitigate the disruption of the eventual transition.

There is one issue which may be important that the OP (perhaps deliberately) ignores: bio-generation of petrochemicals. We can’t do it yet, but we’re making progress. On the face of it, this would be great, being carbon-neutral an all that, but a deeper delve suggests that this is not so. Firstly, being carbon-neutral does not solve the problem, merely does not make it worse. Secondly, the source of the carbon used may not be atmospheric carbon, but mineral - like calcium carbonate (chalk or marble) - which will mean a continued increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.

We should develop more efficient energy technologies regardless of the state of global warming.

Why is efficiency such a point of contention? Do we want to make things that are bigger, faster, brighter, smarter, stronger, sleeker? Of course we do! Do we want to make things that are more efficient? Not sure, let’s be careful, have to think through the ramifications, don’t want to go off half-cocked.

Of course. (Granting the OP’s assumptions, as I understand them.)

People are developing them. There have been massive advances in solar and wind power. There are various fusion projects. And so on. But nothing is as yet as cost-effective as fossil fuels. Except possibly nuclear power.

It depends how much it will cost.

Not necessarily. It depends on the cost.

Again, it depends on the cost.


One only has to look at the Ozone Hole to see the Law of Unintended Consequences in operation. Further, remember how incandescent bulbs are supposed to be bad and we were supposed to replace them with CFL bulbs? Turns out that the CFL bulbs use a toxic form of mercury. Oops.

I agree with Cutter John. The potential consequences of letting global warming run rampant are too severe to ignore. It’s simply not correct to dismiss efforts at reducing carbon emissions as ineffective. Various people churn out predictions about when various new technologies will become available, but there’s no reason to trust them. Someone might come up with a cheap solar panel tomorrow, one that would render coal-burning power plants obsolete. No one knows. But if we use the power of government to increase the costs of carbon emission, it will motivate people to research carbon-free power sources.

There are some other problems with ‘green’. For example, solar panels and CCFL are all rather toxic to manufacture. And they certainly don’t last for ever, so if we, for example, went 100% solar power, it would require continuous manufacturing of solar panels.

Polysilicon for solar panels and electronics creates tons of toxic waste and requires huge amounts of energy to refine. The waste can be recycled, but also requires huge amounts of energy. It’s very close to domestic recycling. It feels good, but it doesn’t really do much for the environment when all costs are considered.

Going green is pointless if we are just trading one environmental hazard for another. We are well familiar with the impact of carbon fuels, because we have been using them for hundreds of years. We don’t know what will happen when suddenly mercury becomes part of our daily trash.

The theory depends on all oil at some point being extracted and used. But only oil that is competitive to other energy sources and financially profitable to drill up will be extracted and used. The peak oil (& peak coal) curve is a bell curve, where it becomes progressively more expensive to extract the oil the less oil is left and the further along the curve to the right you get. At some point it no longer becomes financially profitable to extract the oil, as other energy sources, like wind and sun, becomes cheaper, where after the remainder of the oil would be left unextracted and unused. If you globally were able to put a tax on oil, you would be able to artificially move the point where oil becomes unprofitable or if you help alternative energy sources along you likewise will be able to move the point where they become competitive with oil.

[quote=“L. G. Butts, Ph.D., post:1, topic:488707”]

[li]Carbon will be released as we burn these fossil fuels mostly in the form of carbon dioxide. For coal we will release 1.83 kg of CO2 for every kg of coal burned. This number can be reduced by scrubbers, carbon sequestration techniques, etc… but these techniques don’t really come into play when we are debating whether we should reduce petroleum consumption. Similar numbers could be produced for natural gas and oil, but it really isn’t important on how much is released as long as we agree that carbon will be released…[/li][/QUOTE]

Rutledge’s presentation is very interesting - he does a very good job of arguing that fossil fuels are running out faster than we think.

A couple of points on your OP:

First, it’s unclear whether carbon capture (“scrubbers”) and sequestration will work at the scale needed, let alone whether it will be too expensive to implement compared to other alternatives. Second, the 1.83 kg CO2 per kg coal implies a carbon content of 50%, which low. Probably above 60% on average. That’s nit-picking, but when you’re burning a billion tons per year, it adds up.

Second, it makes a lot of sense to reduce petroleum-generated CO2 (or natural gas) if the cost of doing so is less than the cost of reducing coal-generated CO2. Since Ol’ Ma Nature doesn’t care what the source of the CO2 is, any reduction should be at the lowest cost possible.

Finally, as Rutledge’s presentation notes, “an emphasis on alternatives can be justified independently from climate.” It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me to apply that only to coal, but to look at petroleum as well.

So in other words, you’re saying that we shouldn’t go green, because it isn’t very green to do so. If the toxic byproducts of solar panel manufacture are worse than the problem the solar panels are solving, that doesn’t mean that green technology is bad; it just means that solar panels aren’t very green after all.

Not sure what you mean - were there unintentional consequences of the Montreal Protocol?

Burning coal also releases mercury into the atmosphere; if the electricity mostly comes from coal, the amount of mercury emission reduced by a CFL bulb is greater than is contained in the bulb (cite). And of course the mercury in the bulb could be captured and recycled if the bulb isn’t broken.

No - nobody thought of the effect on the atmosphere when aerosols were invented.

All true, but not relevant.

You’ve made the common mistake of confusing reserve, proven reserve and resource. You;ve also made the mistake of equating oil with liquid crude.

The resource is the amount of oil or coal in the ground, total. We have extracted less than half of the liquid crude oil resource, but there is at least 400 times that amount of oil available in the form of tar sands and oil shales.We have extracted such a tiny fraction of the coal resoucre that we don’t even know how little it is. There may be over 10, 000 times more coal available for removal from the ground than the total amount mined in the whole of human history.

The reserve OTOH is the amount of that resource that we can extract at 33% profit using today’s technology in today’s geopolitical and physical climate. Reserve is an economic measure, not a physical one. It tells you absolutely nothing about how much of the resoucre we will ultimately burn.

A proven reserve is an even worsemeasure to try to use in this sort of debate. A proven reserve i a reserve that has been test mined/drilled and analysed. It’s the gold satndard of a reserve and usually only comes into being when someone wants to get a loan to develop the reserve. The size of proven reserves doesn’t even tell you how much fuel we can profitably extract right now, much less how much we will eventually extract. All it tells you is how much people have tried to get loans to develop.

So for your thesis to have any legs at all you need to look at totally different data. Look at the data for total resource, not reserves. You’ll be hard pressed to find total resource figures for coal because there is so much of it siting onthe surface that nobody cares. However we have figures for oil and it’s over four times the size of the reserve. And you also include the figures of alternative oil resouces: shales tars sands and so forth. At high prices those resoucers become attractive and will be utilised, and they are orders of magnitude larger than the liquid crude resource.