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Energy Security – All the Oil We Want

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 2:58 AM GMT on November 27, 2012

Energy Security – All the Oil We Want

The eighteenth Conference of the Parties opened in Qatar this week. Here is the link from the United Nations, which includes the meeting agenda and web casts. I will catch up on the events of this meeting over the next week. Much of the preliminary talk is about rich nations and the poor nations, the need for richer nations to bear the cost for the poorer nations to cope with climate change. You can read my coverage of the three previous Conferences of the Parties here: COP15-Copenhagen, COP16-Cancun, COP17-Durban.

The Conferences of the Parties is a time when reports are released, or at least, they get attention. Last week I wrote about a report from the World Bank that gives an analysis of the world four degrees warmer and comes to the conclusion that “a 4 degree Celsius warmer world must be avoided.” (PDF of Report). The emergence of the discussion of the world four degrees warmer follows from the fact that our behavior in both energy consumption and policy development suggests little chance that we will meet the “official” goals from the Conference of the Parties that we will limit global average. That official goal is that we will limit surface warming to 2 degree Celsius. It is my opinion that we will have a major challenge in limiting warming to 4 degrees, despite the consequences suggested by the World Bank report.

In middle November, there were many press stories that talked about the growing production of oil and natural gas in the United States. (for example) The news stores followed from a press release from the International Energy Agency. (press release: North America leads shift in global energy balance, IEA says in latest World Energy Outlook)

This press release was for the World Energy Outlook 2012 (Executive Summary). The gist of the report is that there have been fundamental changes in the production of oil and natural gas in the United States. The changes come from the successes of methods to release of “unconventional” oil and gas from reservoirs that were previously felt to be too costly to exploit. One of the core technologies used to release these stores of fossil energy is hydraulic fracturing or fracking. This report goes on to say that the U.S. will out produce Saudi Arabia in the mid-2020s, and that the U.S. is on its way to being energy independent by 2035.

I had several fast reactions to this report. My first was imagining the geopolitical landscape if the U.S. did not have deep energy roots in the Middle East, and indeed, in all parts of the world. Then I imagined other countries expressing their energy-related interests throughout the world. I also felt that this prediction will have profound impacts on how we think about climate, climate change, and ultimately, on the Earth’s climate.

Going beyond the happy headline of U.S. energy fortunes, the report goes on to talk about the rapidly growing energy demands in China, India, and the Middle East. It then discusses that we are “failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path.” Much, nearly half, of the world’s growth in energy consumption in the past decade has used coal. Looking forward, coal remains central to energy use in China and India. Coal has many negative environmental consequences, including high carbon dioxide emissions. In market-driven energy policy, if the cost of coal remains competitive, then it is difficult to imagine coal being displaced from this central position.

If we have the U.S., and presumably other nations, generating oil and gas from unconventional sources of tightly held fuel, then this generates a new array of environmental consequences. Sticking to the subject of climate change, some of these sources of oil have very high carbon emissions. Also we introduce new challenges in the management of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Therefore, this revelation of the technology to gather more oil and natural gas does not have obvious climate benefit.

World Energy Outlook 2012 does point out that renewable sources of energy are establishing themselves as an important part of the energy portfolio. Current projections are that by 2015, renewable energy will be the second largest source of electric power, and by 2035 renewables become comparable to coal. Note, that is comparable to coal, not displacing coal, and this 2035-world has far more energy production than today. Again, with regard to climate change, the report states that subsidies for exploiting fossil fuels are six times as high as subsidies to renewable energies. Therefore, current energy policy does not suggest high priority to addressing climate change through low-carbon energy.

The International Energy Agency report also discusses the continuing unfolding of the role of nuclear energy following the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in the 2011. (see also, Earthquakes and Climate Change) A salient point from the report is, again, the apparent decreasing role of nuclear energy in displacing fossil fuels. Further, if nuclear will be having a decreasing role, then the role of renewable energy must increase at the intersection of climate and energy policy.

I will bring it back to the World fours degrees warmer. A year ago the International Energy Agency in their World Energy Outlook 2011 stated that the emissions path we were on was headed to a World six degrees warmer. In the current 2012 report it is stated

“Successive editions of this report have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2 °C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes. Our 450 Scenario examines the actions necessary to achieve this goal and finds that almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time.” (That would be a goal of limiting carbon dioxide concentrations to 450 parts per million.)

If there is a path to near-term, dramatic reductions of greenhouse gases it is anchored on efficiency. The International Energy Agency has developed a strategy they call the Efficient World Scenario. This “ scenario is, rather, based on a bottom-up analysis of currently available technologies and practices, and considers incremental changes to the level of energy efficiency deployed.” Like the Pacala and Socolow’s Stabilization Wedges, the proposed efficiency approach demonstrates that we do have the wherewithal to make a difference. The difference being - more time to develop energy producing technologies that do not contribute to the accumulation of more carbon dioxide.

I paint here a known picture. It is crystal clear that we cannot address our energy challenges and expect to automatically address our climate issues. Short-term energy and economic issues will always trump climate change. We have here a technological develop that by all indications makes global warming worse. We have great challenges in finding safe, secure sources of energy. Our easiest approaches to the energy security problem make the climate change problem worse. We cannot solve the climate change problem with fossil fuels – remember it is the accumulation of carbon dioxide, not the emission of carbon dioxide. Therefore, new technology that makes it possible to exploit unconventional oil and gas, which might make the U.S. energy independent, puts multiple stresses into the effort to address climate change. We have ingrained behavior and practice that continues to reward exploitation of fossil fuels more aggressively than renewable energy. We have, for example, the Heartland Institute gearing up to fight the progress that has been made in the U.S. on renewable energy. Though the World Bank analysis comes to the conclusion that “a 4 degree Celsius warmer world must be avoided,” we have no energy policy, we have no climate policy, and hence, there is little indication that we will taking steps to avoid that world.


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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.