Peak Oil and Other Fossil Carbons

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* Hey folks, I recommend that you check out the article on EROI first to help you better understand the concepts of Peak Oil!

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The pattern of oil production and consumption follows a simple pattern that economists and policymakers routinely ignore for immediate gains. Non-renewable resources are simply that: finite deposits of useful materials that will not replenish at the same speed as they are consumed. The amount of fossilized energy available on the planet has been depleting over time through consumption. Furthermore, what’s left of our oil reserves is much more difficult and costly to access than the cheap crude oil that got us started. In terms of oil production, humans have already consumed the highest quality oil that requires less energy input for extraction, discovery, and production. In contrast, oil companies insist oil supplies will never deplete because of new technology and increases in production. However, new technology requires higher energy investment in production to acquire lower-grade forms of energy. Additionally, production is constrained since oil requires energy to produce. The energy input must be less than the energy output in order for it to be a worthwhile investment, just as you would never invest money in the stock market if you knew that you were guaranteed to get less money back.

So what are fossil fuels?

We choose to call fossil fuels fossil carbons because they are prehistoric remains of early life on Earth that have a meaning outside of their use as a fuel to humans. Carbon gets a bad reputation because of its role as a greenhouse gas driving climate change, but the element itself has served as a basic building block of life for millions of years. If we move back into the history of evolution, life was abundant on Earth from our oceans teeming with organisms to plants covering its surface. Deceased prehistoric life-forms became buried by millions of years of sediment that compressed into rock through immense pressure and high temperatures under Earth’s surface. Under certain, unique conditions, the carbon that formed these ancient creatures turned into various forms of fossilized energy, dispersed unevenly under earth’s surface. The major categories of fossil carbons are included below.

  • Oil is a liquid fossil fuel containing hydrocarbons that can be found in reservoirs, seeped into the small spaces of sedimentary rock, or in tar sands closer to the surface. Crude oil is refined into various forms of gasoline, fuels, and other petroleum products. Oil is called conventional oil when it can be extracted through traditional drilling techniques from larger reservoirs. On the other hand, unconventional oil is more energy intensive and costly because it relies on advanced technology to extract oil from difficult-to-reach reservoirs. Unconventional techniques like fracking also further endanger the living world through their potential to pollute the air, cause earthquakes, and over-pump groundwater reservoirs.
  • Natural Gas is mostly composed of methane, carbon dioxide and water vapors. Its production process is very similar to oil since they are often found together in spaces between rocks and extracted in tandem. Like oil, unconventional natural gas is produced through fracking to release the gas from small pores in rock; gas produced like this is called tight gas or shale gas. Natural gas is often considered an alternative to oil; however, natural gas faces conversion constraints similar to solar and wind, and it shares production with oil. Additionally, the global energy return on energy invested for oil and natural gas is decreasing in recent years despite increases in production: a study of Canadian production found an “ROI of conventional oil and gas has decreased since the mid-1990s from roughly 20:1 to 12:1, a 40% decline” as of 2011.
  • Coal is a form of sedimentary rock and contains hydrocarbons that can be used for heat energy. In the United States, coal is the most abundant fossil fuel; however, the majority of the reserves left are a lower-grade form of coal. With underground mining decreasing in EROI, surface mining is becoming more widespread and accounted for 63% of US coal mining as of 2018. Unfortunately, surface mining increases damage to the local ecosystem, including increased air pollution, water pollution, and much more.
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Coal Mine

Peak Oil

Before the development of oil as an energy source, coal dominated industrial development and fuel transportation through trains and naval voyages. The colonial British Empire led the world in coal production, but sought oil experimentation with the so-called United States as a lighter, cleaner, and more efficient energy source for military advantage. By 1911, the US was responsible for 63.8% of world production because of oil discoveries in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and California. World War I strengthened the United State’s control over the industry, supplying 82% of oil imports to the Allies. To expand production, land was stripped from Indigenous groups across the US for exploration and the development of naval reserves. The US also sought to control production abroad, predominantly in the Middle East after the formerly Ottoman territories came under Allied control in the 1920’s and 30’s. By the 1970’s, the US reached peak oil production at 9 million barrels equivalent per day. Then the US returned to those saved naval reserves to fund economic growth and extend the period of cheap oil production. Similarly, protected territories in Alaska were opened to drilling by private corporations which caused a short rise in production. The production and energy return on investment of oil has steadily declined in the US despite high amounts of drilling, clearly indicating the end of cheap and “easy” oil. 

The chart displays that the US reached peak oil production through conventional methods in 1970 and has since increased production through opening protected lands and unconventional sources. The unconventional sources like fracking are more damaging to the environment and energy intensive than conventional drilling techniques.

When developed nations like the United States experienced peak domestic supplies, they were able to expand their production by exploiting the natural resources of weaker states and increased reliance on unconventional sources. Only because of this exploitation, the US has continued to experience energy-based economic growth and advancement past the 1970’s. Unlike peak domestic oil, the same story of “new discoveries” will not be able to save industrialized nations from global peak oil. Global peak oil is when the combined amount of oil produced in all oil fields reaches a maximum. The time frame of when peak oil will be met (or whether it has already occurred) is a major point of contestation, largely because of incomplete data. OECD countries are incentivized to arbitrarily increase their estimated reserve size because regulations only permit oil production at a rate that’s proportional to oil reserves, so as to keep prices higher. Since there are structural incentives to overestimate reserves, there is a high likelihood that peak oil is sooner than the majority of predictions would say. Regardless, experts largely agree that “the average global EROI of oil production will almost certainly continue to decline as we search for new sources of oil in the only places we have left—deep water, arctic, and other hostile environments”

Our economy and our complex society relies on cheap, easy energy for growth; therefore, global peak oil will pose critical challenges to industrialized countries. Economic growth correlates with energy use since “to increase production over time, that is, to grow the economy, we must either increase the energy supply or increase the efficiency with which we use our source energy”. As peak oil is reached, the price of oil increases due to diminishing oil supply and higher costs of oil production, limiting energy input into the system. The conditions of high oil prices and lower energy input correspond to contractions in the economy (a period of recession). Unlike previous recessions, the event of peak oil cannot be counteracted by increased production or exploration of further areas . Eventually, the EROI of fossilized carbons and renewable resources such as wind and solar energy may become comparable, leading to greater opportunities for these fields. Nevertheless, society will be unable to function at the same scale or level of complexity as it had with highly efficient, accessible energy. 

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Wind Turbines

Why does the peak of fossil carbon matter?

The endless search for fossil carbons is damaging to ecosystems around the world and wasting energy that could be spent developing sustainable infrastructure. Regardless of whether “new” sources could be possible, humans need to assess if we should be exploiting the very limited reserves to support a few more years of high energy production and economic growth. For example, mountaintop removal is a technique used to extract coal by stripping off the top of the mountain. The practice has incredibly high costs to the ecosystem as streambeds become buried by excess rocks and toxic slurry waste becomes dangerously close to groundwater. While surface mining is becoming more energy-efficient than underground mining, the practice has large, negative externalities that will threaten the survival of critical ecosystems and local communities. Like the concentration of fossilized carbons, the concentration of pollutants is also not evenly distributed around the country and world. People of color are more likely to be negatively affected by high levels of pollutant emissions compared to white people. As fossil carbons become scarcer, techniques that harm the living world to an even greater extent could become normalized as another way to support economic growth. 

Peak fossil carbons will mean that the current level of energy consumption that drives economic growth and endless consumption cannot continue. However, peak fossil carbons will not necessarily create a sustainable and just society through pressure to build alternative energy sources. Energy equity is becoming a growing concern, as energy becomes less available and concentrated in the hands of the wealthy and powerful. In Kenya, 6 percent of the population accounts for half of energy use nationwide. The upper class of humans can afford to use energy on air travel, while marginalized people may struggle to afford the energy required to work. When daily needs rely on large amounts of embodied energy, the global poor are especially vulnerable past peak oil as everything becomes more expensive and less accessible. Action needs to be taken to ensure that the transition out of fossilized carbons occurs in a just way with special attention to ecological changes and oppression. Peak fossil carbons can either create an opportunity for rebuilding society with a focus on our living community or further perpetuate energy inequity and oppressive systems.

Tribesman in Kenya
Works Cited
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Banzhaf, Spencer, Lala Ma, and Christopher Timmins. “Environmental justice: The economics of race, place, and pollution.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 33, no. 1 (2019): 185-208.

Kuhns, Roger James, and George H. Shaw. “Peak oil and petroleum energy resources.” In Navigating the Energy Maze, pp. 53-63. Springer, Cham, 2018.

Guilford, Megan C., Charles AS Hall, Peter O’Connor, and Cutler J. Cleveland. “A new long term assessment of energy return on investment (EROI) for US oil and gas discovery and production.” Sustainability 3, no. 10 (2011): 1866-1887.

Hall, Charles AS, Jessica G. Lambert, and Stephen B. Balogh. “EROI of different fuels and the implications for society.” Energy policy 64 (2014): 141-152.

Holzman, David C. “Mountaintop removal mining: digging into community health concerns.” (2011): a476-a483.

Jacobson, Arne, Anita D. Milman, and Daniel M. Kammen. “Letting the (energy) Gini out of the bottle: Lorenz curves of cumulative electricity consumption and Gini coefficients as metrics of energy distribution and equity.” Energy Policy 33, no. 14 (2005): 1825-1832.

Murphy, David J., and Charles AS Hall. “Energy return on investment, peak oil, and the end of economic growth.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1219, no. 1 (2011): 52. Rowe, James E., ed. Coal surface mining: impacts of reclamation. Routledge, 2019.

“U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.” Oil and petroleum products explained – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Accessed August 24, 2020.