What? Leave Fossil Fuels in the Ground?

There are three powerful reasons to support the policy “Leave Fossil Fuels in the Ground.” They all converge on the conclusion that, not only is it a good idea to leave fossil fuels in the ground, it’s a necessity. The only question is whether this will happen with minimal bad effects on our lives or with terrible ones.

In other words, while it might be a serious inconvenience for all of us who have gotten used to cars, air conditioning and vacation resorts, the alternative is economic collapse and disaster if we don’t move away from fossil fuels in a deliberate fashion.

There are classic issues of all the ways the fossil fuel industry ruins the areas in which it mines or drills with pollution and direct physical destruction of the landscape, plus of course the toxic pollutants released when the fuels are transported or burned. Let’s call these the localized or at least regional issues.

Then there are the global issues. Neither carbon dioxide (CO2) nor fugitive methane (CH4) emissions are toxic pollutants. Therefore, they are not pollutants at all, in the classic way of looking at pollutants. They were, until the last several decades, just thought to be relatively harmless by-products of using fossil fuels. That’s the basis on which natural gas (methane) producers call it a “clean burning” fuel. CO2 & CH4 are not like soot from coal or diesel exhaust, but while they are not “dirty,” they are also not at all desirable.

As we know, these two non-toxic gases have accumulated in the atmosphere much faster than any natural process can remove them. Their ever-increasing concentrations cause global warming/climate change/climate chaos (or whatever other term best describes the effect of trapped heat on the weather).

They both also cause acidification of the oceans, which has effects much less understood than the effects of trapped heat, but possibly more catastrophic. Methane, which does not itself cause ocean acidification, reacts with ozone in the atmosphere and breaks down into carbon dioxide, which does directly cause acidification. That is, methane actually becomes carbon dioxide in a few years or at most a few decades.

Terrible effects on the world’s climate and the world’s oceans are the second major reason to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

The third major reason is not so obvious. That’s the economic issue. While the industrial economy from the 18th Century to today has been built on fossil fuels, the supply of fossil fuels in the earth is by now seriously depleted. We are well past the point where we can expect fossil fuels to be reliable sources of energy for the 21st Century.

This third reason is very well outlined in an article by Richard Heinberg published in the Pacific Standard on August 10. Rather than rehashing his very clear discussion, I would prefer that you simply read his article.

The fact of depletion of course applies to many essentials of our modern economy, not just oil. There’s iron ore, copper ore, topsoil, fish stocks and even drinkable water, to name just a few depleted essentials. Oil depletion in particular is critical because roughly 95% of our industrial transportation runs on fuels derived from oil, and therefore about 95% of all commodities in our industrial economy depend on oil to get to us consumers.

One simple way to think about the reliability of oil for our economy is to consider the price of oil.

It’s obvious that there is some price at which oil would be too expensive for any common use. Let’s say it cost $10,000 a barrel. Scientists might purchase small quantities to study. Some rich people might have a few quarts just to display their conspicuous consumption. We would never be using it as fuel for ordinary, daily transportation.

It’s also obvious that there is some price so low that nobody would ever go into the business of producing it. Ten cents a barrel would accomplish that. In this case, scientists who wanted to study it would have to pay for drilling rigs and pumps, because there would be no such thing as an oil industry. Or perhaps they would purchase it cheap from a few of the same sort of hobbyists who make knives and swords by hand, or weave hats from straw.

For the last 150 or so years since the first oil wells were drilled in Ontario and Pennsylvania, the market price of oil has stayed between those two extremes. It has been neither too expensive for ordinary people to buy products made from it, nor too cheap for oil companies to bother pumping and refining it. True, it has taken some collusion among oil producers to keep the price high enough for profitability at times. Look up the history of the Texas Railroad Commission for a conspicuous example.

In this century, those price boundaries have been converging. While there are several theories of what was to blame for the economic and financial crisis of 2008, there’s not much doubt that oil prices over $100 a barrel drove some people and some businesses into bankruptcy, while causing financial strain on most others. It’s also true that oil prices in the current $30-50 range are driving numerous oil producers into bankruptcy.

While the old conventional oil fields that are cheap to produce, such as Saudi Arabia’s, are advancing further into depletion, it’s getting more and more expensive to do deep drilling into shale. It’s getting more expensive and dangerous to drill in deep ocean waters. It’s getting more expensive to produce fuels from tar sands.

The price required to produce new oil profitably is creeping up, and there is not a lot of room between that price and the price we can’t afford. With decreasing real wages, the price we can afford is creeping lower.

It’s already true that $100 per barrel is too high for the economy, and $50 too low for new oil producers. What happens when the price at which it is profitable to produce new oil crosses over the price at which most consumers can afford the fuel? We saw it in the oil embargo of 1973, in the oil shortages of 1979 and in the financial crisis of 2008: economic shrinkage, stock market panic, layoffs, bankruptcies, evictions, recession, even depression.

The difference is, when because of ongoing depletion the two prices have truly crossed over, there is no way available to fix the economic crisis by restoring the old free-market industrial transportation system. There will be no price which allows liquid fuels to be produced profitably from oil and allows economic growth, or even allows a steady oil-fueled transportation system.

Denying depletion and continuing as if it does not matter will lead to transportation failure just as surely as denying anthropogenic climate change will lead to rising sea levels and food shortages; just as surely as denying toxic pollution from fossil fuels, or believing it can be mitigated, makes more and more of the earth uninhabitable.

The only policy that deals with the chemical, environmental and economic consequences of fossil fuels is “Leave fossil fuels in the ground.” Scale back our many uses of energy to limits the earth can tolerate. Grow sustainable means of transportation, food production and employment while phasing out the industries (including nuclear power and nuclear weapons) that depend on fossil fuels.

Yes, it will be disruptive, like running a bus into a ditch is disruptive. You would only do it if the alternative is running the bus over a cliff. It may well take a long and painful failure of the fossil fuel economy before enough of us understand that the ditch is our best option. If we can’t get ahead of the depletion curve, our industrial economy will simply fail.

It’s an issue on which everyone concerned with industrial pollution or climate change or our economic future should be working together.


2 thoughts on “What? Leave Fossil Fuels in the Ground?

  1. Recently, the question came up, “What do I think of Obama’s Clean Power Plan?”
    If accurately titled, “Obama’s Clean Power Plan” would become “Obama’s Plan for Electrical Utilities’ Centralized Generating Facilities.” The main plan could fairly be characterized as, “Stop using coal; convert to natural gas (methane).”

    When carbon pollution is defined only as carbon dioxide emissions and you look only at emissions from the smokestacks of generating facilities, this seems to make sense. However, we should recognize several inconvenient facts. This makes generating facilities depend on a continuous supply of methane to burn. Methane increasingly comes from fracking, so fracking necessarily would continue and expand. Fugitive methane from fracking and natural gas pipeline leakage is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

    None of these inconvienent facts are in the field of view when we look only at the emissions from utilities’ smokestacks. With a wider point of view, we can see that the switch from burning coal to burning methane trades air pollution near the smokestack for air and pollution distant from the smokestack and overall does approximately nothing for global warming when we look at the greenhouse effect of fugitive methane.

    Here’s the critical point (in my opinion) of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, as summarized by Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “Fossil fuels will continue to be a critical component of America’s energy future.” [https://www.epa.gov/cleanpowerplan/fact-sheet-overview-clean-power-plan] That’s one reason why I call the EPA the Energy (industry) protection Agency.

    From the article above: “The only policy that deals with the chemical, environmental and economic consequences of fossil fuels is “Leave Fossil fuels in the Ground.” Scale back our many uses of energy to limits the earth can tolerate. Grow sustainable means of transportation, food production and employment while phasing out the industries (including nuclear power and nuclear weapons) that depend on fossil fuels.”

    I would say that Obama’s Clean Power Plan fails to reduce the United States’ contribution to climate change and fails to recognize unreliability of fossil fuels for America’s energy future because of depletion. What it does do is provide a path for electrical utilities to continue with business as usual for a little while longer, to the detriment of a deliberate transition to a society that uses only renewable, sustainable energy.

    That’s why, instead of trying to continue using fossil fuels, we say, “Leave fossil fuels in the ground.”

    Art Myatt

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