Reducing Carbon the Old Fashioned Way

The EIA has reported that 2009 carbon dioxide emissions in the United States experienced their largest decline–on both an absolute and percentage basis–in 60 years. If you consider the chart I’ve included here, it’s not hard to see why. Measuring total energy consumption from all sources–oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, and renewables–US energy consumption fell from a high in 2007 at 101.5652 quadrillion BTU, to 94.8916 quadrillion BTU last year. A financial crisis and its attendant industrial collapse is a very effective way to reduce emissions.

What would happen to global carbon emissions, however, if successive industrial collapses or declines meant that the world was progressively relocated away from oil, and into coal? That question, among others, is the subject of my recent work in coal and I am inclined to favor just such an outcome. After all, global oil production has been up against a ceiling for 6 years now. And, the resulting price advance in oil was clearly a key component to the global recession. I see no reason why this can’t be repeated on a serial basis for years, as energy transition itself is at minimum a decade-long proposition.

Although the developing world funds its growth now with coal, not oil, I have also conjectured that even the developed world may have to fund its future growth (should it have any) also with coal. Now that we are in peak oil globally, there is no oil supply response that can fund growth in either the developing, or the developed world. This is why, since about 2006, I have watched closely coal consumption in Europe and a story this week in the FT Energy Source caught my eye, in that regard:

So it still seems a little ironic that the EU, which has been the developed world’s earliest mover on climate change, last week signalled it would delay enforcing new pollution standards on coal-fired power plants, pushing the deadline back from 2014 to 2019…Not only that, but Europe’s own coal demand is recovering to the extent that it is beginning to squeeze Asian prices.

A world getting poorer is a world that will reach all the harder for energy sources like coal. What would send the world on a perma-economic descent? Oh, little things like mountains of unpayable debt and the end of new advances in oil supply. Some may find the idea counterintutive, but once the world has departed the domain of growth then funding a transition to cleaner energy is going to be difficult, if not impossible.

-Gregor

  • Bob the Builder

    How far away do you think it will be before we can extract oil/commodities from previously inoperable environments like the North Pole, Antarctica, the permafrost in Russia etc… I guess my main question is: Are we at the point whereby global production of oil is at its peak permanently, as opposed to 30-50 years? Or is it possible that global warming, if true, will cause previously inhospitable areas to be harvested from?

  • gregor.us

    We will keep accessing new areas to extract new supplies of oil. However, it is critical to understand that we are already deep into the phase where we are accessing harsh and difficult areas where the new oil is expensive. So there is no new era ahead of us, which would be defined by going to extreme environments. We are already there. And the best this has done for aggregate world supply is arrest the pace of natural decline from existing fields.

    My view is that we are now at ultimate peak, yes.

    G

  • Bob the Builder

    Immediately after I posted I thought that in 30-50 years all of current production would be done, so it would be a monumental task (impossible, so it seems) to completely replace, and then some, current production. Thanks for the response.

  • Having a consumption (waste) based economy and funding a transition to cleaner energy are incompatible.

    All of the various crises taking place currently and few in or out of the establishment can make the energy connections.

    Few can see the declines in real productive output as a result of increasing real energy costs and the absolute lack of return.

    Few can equate consumption with waste, zero returns (energy or economic save for initial rents) or see the requirement for conservation.

    The markets are working as they should pricing waste to unprofitable levels and doing so in all areas of finance. Getting ahead of the trend would be useful, probably unlikely

  • Max

    I have a question on this data. Your linked chart of global crude oil production shows it topped out 74.75 and currently at 73ish. million bpd. However, a chart of total supply including Natural gas to liquids and lease condensates looks much less worrying. My question is what does this greater role in NGL and Condensate in providing supply to the energy markets do to the price of crude? Can NGLs be fed into standard refineries and turned into Gasoline and diesel for example? Or are they imperfect substitutes with more limited use that will effect energy consumption patterns?

  • I believe that we are about 1/5 of the way through a series of crashes. They are:
    — Financial crash
    — Real estate crash
    — Energy crash
    — Water crash
    — Food crash
    — Population crash

    You might say that, for the time being anyway, the old system has been able to hold up. But they won't be able to forever, as there is a succession of other crashes which are on the way.

    Oil depletion is just part of the energy crash which we are heading into, and since oil derivatives are such an essential part of modern farming, they will lead to the food crash. And we are running out of fresh water.

    In my mind anyway, it all leads to a population crash, as humanity needs to adapt to new living parameters. And right now, there are simply too many people.

  • gregor.us

    Hi Max. Yes it's now quite the distortion to even have such a category as All Liquids. Most of the growth in All Liquids comes now from NGLs (natural gas liquids) and biofuels. Not only are NGLs not a transportation fuel, but, a barrel of NGL contains 30% less BTU than a barrel of oil. In other words, the entire spread you see between 73 mbpd of crude oil and the current All Liquids figure that's tossed around at 84-85 mbpd is from NGL–plus some biofuels. Not oil, by any measure.

    Or are they imperfect substitutes with more limited use that will effect energy consumption patterns?

    Yes to that. But it's not a future phenomenon. It's been going on for years.

  • gregor.us

    See Noah Raford on the question of what choices we have, wrt how we collapse.
    http://news.noahraford.com/?p=529

    I think you would like his stuff.

    G

  • gregor.us

    Steve I am glad to see you are writing at a blog. I'd like to see your work get some recognition.

    Best,

    G

  • Thank you.

    Another excellent one is Clay Shirky on The Collapse of Complex Business Models.

    http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/04/the-collap

    IMHO, this pretty well sums up the pickle we've gotten ourselves into.

  • Max

    I have a question on this data. Your linked chart of global crude oil production shows it topped out 74.75 and currently at 73ish. million bpd. However, a chart of total supply including Natural gas to liquids and lease condensates looks much less worrying. My question is what does this greater role in NGL and Condensate in providing supply to the energy markets do to the price of crude? Can NGLs be fed into standard refineries and turned into Gasoline and diesel for example? Or are they imperfect substitutes with more limited use that will effect energy consumption patterns?

  • I believe that we are about 1/5 of the way through a series of crashes. They are:
    — Financial crash
    — Real estate crash
    — Energy crash
    — Water crash
    — Food crash
    — Population crash

    You might say that, for the time being anyway, the old system has been able to hold up. But they won't be able to forever, as there is a succession of other crashes which are on the way.

    Oil depletion is just part of the energy crash which we are heading into, and since oil derivatives are such an essential part of modern farming, they will lead to the food crash. And we are running out of fresh water.

    In my mind anyway, it all leads to a population crash, as humanity needs to adapt to new living parameters. And right now, there are simply too many people.

  • gregor.us

    Hi Max. Yes it's now quite the distortion to even have such a category as All Liquids. Most of the growth in All Liquids comes now from NGLs (natural gas liquids) and biofuels. Not only are NGLs not a transportation fuel, but, a barrel of NGL contains 30% less BTU than a barrel of oil. In other words, the entire spread you see between 73 mbpd of crude oil and the current All Liquids figure that's tossed around at 84-85 mbpd is from NGL–plus some biofuels. Not oil, by any measure.

    Or are they imperfect substitutes with more limited use that will effect energy consumption patterns?

    Yes to that. But it's not a future phenomenon. It's been going on for years.

  • gregor.us

    See Noah Raford on the question of what choices we have, wrt how we collapse.
    http://news.noahraford.com/?p=529

    I think you would like his stuff.

    G

  • gregor.us

    Steve I am glad to see you are writing at a blog. I'd like to see your work get some recognition.

    Best,

    G

  • Thank you.

    Another excellent one is Clay Shirky on The Collapse of Complex Business Models.

    http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/04/the-collap

    IMHO, this pretty well sums up the pickle we've gotten ourselves into.