Running on Empty: The Oil Age

@hand_rig.jpg Today, Science hosted a Live Chat discussing the idea that we, as a globe, may have hit peak oil production. What does this mean for our energy future? I’ve put together a ‘highlight’ of comments that I found particularly interesting… including the implications of using remaining fossil fuel reserves on global climate change, quality of life for future generations, the importance of biofuels, and the future of fuel efficiency.

Richard Kerr:
Hello everyone and welcome to our chat on the future of oil. I’m Richard Kerr, a reporter for Science. We’ve got two topnotch oil and energy specialists with us today.
David Greene is at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as well as the University of Tennessee. He has spent over 30 years researching energy policy issues related to transportation and oil dependence.
Mark Finley is General Manager, Global Energy Markets and US Economics, at BP in Washington, DC. He has 25 years of private- and public-sector experience as an energy economist, including managing the annual production of the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Comment From Peter Berg
Let us assume that we have indeed plenty of oil and gas left in the ground. Would this not be a bad news regarding climate change?

Mark Finley:
Certainly our just-released world energy outlook shows global consumption of oil, natural gas, & coal all rising through 2030…despite very aggressive views on conservation/efficiency and the rapid growth of renewables. We do, however, expect the “carbon load” of the world’s energy mix to lighten—ie, a growing share for natural gas & renewables, and lower shares for oil & coal, mean that CO2 from energy does not rise as rapidly as overall energy consumption.

Me: Good news, greenhouse gases emissions – importantly carbon dioxide emissions, or ‘“carbon load” of the world’s energy mix’ – will (hopefully) lighten over the next twenty years, not matching (thank goodness) the steep incline in energy demand and consumption that inevitably accompanies population growth in the absence of some serious technological advances in energy efficiency. The only problem is that we’ve undoubtedly already set global warming in motion, and the Earth’s ‘symptoms’ as caused by rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will continue many years after we finally reign in carbon emissions. In other words, many individuals don’t realize that there is latency in effects on the environment as caused by massive amounts of greenhouse gases, and that it will take a substantial amount of time for natural processes to remove those greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Even if we cut back fossil fuel use and step up renewable energy technology research in the near future (VERY important items on the agenda in my opinion), we better prepare our communities for the effects of global warming, and foster resilience in the face of a changing environment.

Calculate your Carbon Footprint – How much carbon dioxide you emit with your daily habits every year – using this Calculator from the EPA
Soda_bubbles_macro.jpg What is Carbon Dioxide? Carbon dioxide is a gas at standard temperature and pressures, important for the growth of plants and emitted naturally into the environment from volcanoes, hot springs, and even human breath. You might be familiar with carbon dioxide as the gas that makes your Coke bubbly. Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere tends to trap heat from the sun.

Comment From Ron Swenson
OK, Let’s assume that we have plenty of oil for X more years and X is a big number. Fine. Do you have a crystal ball to explain to me how our descendants will get along without the stuff? Or are we just kicking the can down the road?

Mark Finley:
Well, the history of humankind’s energy consumption is a constant evolution, driven not so much by depletion but by innovation. We went from wood, to coal, to oil…which now has lost global market share steadily for 40+ years, and for the last 12 in a row. Now, natural gas and renewables are gaining market share. That said, our outlook shows our kids will be using fossil fuels to meet 80% of the world’s energy needs in 2030.

…So the question is: Will the peak come from a lack of supply or lack of demand? To paraphrase a former Saudi Oil Minister said, the Stone Age didn’t end due to a lack of stones.

Me: Whether or not we run out of oil before we transition out of the ‘Oil Age’, I don’t know. But I find this statement rather inspiring nonetheless, as carrying a message of innovation: let’s conduct the renewable and ‘carbon-neutral’ energy research and take the personal and national actions required to advance ourselves out of the ‘Oil Age’ before the oil runs out on us.

Comment From Paige Brown
How important do you think ethanol fuel blends will be to prolonging oil reserves?

David Greene:
Paige, so far, ethanol has been the most successful non-petroleum liquid fuel to replace oil in transportation vehicles. But I think there are serious questions about how far the world could or should go with ethanol. One question is whether ethanol is the right fuel to make from biofuel. Other alcohols (e.g., butanol) are easier to blend with gasoline and there are ways to make gasoline from biomass via pyrolysis or gasification and synthesis. But the BIG question is still unanswered, what should we grow, where should we grow it, how, what should we convert it into and how, and what should we use it for? Very complicated and very important.

Two good resources if you want to learn more about making gasoline from plant matter: Breakthroughs in Green Gasoline Production – Biomass Magazine
Green Gasoline Comes Closer to Fueling Your CarNSF

Comment From Dag Johansen
Automobiles last 18 years or so. That means an automobile purchased today will still be around when ‘plateau oil’ hits around 2030 according to the Cornucopians like CERA. Are we creating a ‘gas guzzler bubble’ of cars that will not be economically viable a few years down the road if peak oil effects hit us relative soon?

David Greene:
Dag, actually, we are finally doing something about automobile and light truck fuel economy (and even heavy truck fuel economy). The EPA has set a meaningful standard for cars and light trucks of 35 MPG for 2016 (up from about 24) and has proposed a goal of 54.5 for 2015. If that target is met, it will put light-duty vehicles on a reasonable path towards an 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions, until about 2025-2030. No other sector can make that claim. For the first time ever we also have standards for medium and heavy trucks.

ME: About Time! I think it’s AWESOME that we are setting these standards… now the engineering and automobile design disciplines have their work cut out for them! Any engineers out there who want to propose ideas for how this standard can be met? Tweet with Hashtag #Meet54pt5

BP’s Energy Outlook for 2030:

Want to read the entire Live Chat? Find it embed below!