Climate Change Peak Energy Peak Oil

Beware : History Repeating Itself

[ UPDATE : I need to make clear that there is a lot of partially decomposed and undecomposed biological material in the iced-over regions of the planet. This is not producing Methane yet, but as it Globally Warms, it will. ]

Interestingly, today I have been accosted by e-mail, by a small collection of Peak Oil devotees, begging me not to waste my time on Climate Change : for, as they claim with some foundation, Fossil Fuel depletion rates may well mean that emissions stop short of causing dangerous Global Warming.

“I see the oildrum is part of your background reading!! I was therefore a little disturbed to see that along with most of the rest of the intelligentsia of my beloved home country, you are going to devote your professional future to being a “low carbon activist”. I hope you will reconsider this.”

“Any theory is ever only as good as its assumptions. The assumptions used by the IPCCC to develop future projections of run-away CO2 emissions are enormously “optimistic” about the future availability and price of oil, gas and coal.”

“In fact, we probably saw peak oil flows last year, will soon see peak gas flows, brought forward by Russia’s (and OPEC’s) need to maximize the price of gas and minimize current upstream expenditure. There are soundly based theories that we may be on the cusp of peak coal production. As someone said, it is not the size of the tank that matters, it is the size of the tap! The taps are not getting bigger but smaller, all over the World.”

“Declining oil, gas and soon coal production will reduce CO2 emissions which are already stabilizing as a consequence of the economic crash. Peak oil flows in the middle of last year and the run-away prices resulting contributed to the crash.”

The articles […] may convince you that it is not run-away global warming that is the immediate problem mankind faces, but unaffordable energy that is already a major contributor to 1.2 billion people going to bed hungry every night. This will get worse very rapidly during the next decade.”

“So I recommend that in setting out on a new career, you focus instead on the urgent need for low cost energy available to all, including (if it can deliver it which I am beginning to doubt) low cost nuclear!! Of course, this must include using rapidly declining fossil reserves as efficiently as possible until they simply become unaffordable to post-depression Brits!”

“Some food for thought – less tasty than the kind words spoken by […]. :

“When you say : “However, he [David Rutledge] has only considered the “standard” hydrocarbons and Coal. The danger, from my view, lies in the exploitation of “alternatives”, such as Tar Sands, Methane Clathrates and inaccessible Oil burned to bitumen underground (THAI eg).” I’d say there’s no way that non-conventional fossil fuel resources will ever be developed since the ERoEI [Energy Return on Energy Invested] is too low, and they cannot power the OECD industrial society as we know it. When energy gets too expensive our economies will collapse (repeatedly), since there is a limit to what we can pay :

“I think that conveying the notion that FF [Fossil Fuel] energy is a threat owing to its abundance is a bit dangerous since we are already in the early days of a full blown energy crisis that will likely last the whole of this century.”

“I’m very firmly in the camp that sees CO2 emissions peaking quite soon – likley by 2020, no matter how hard we try we just won’t be able to raise emission levels any more :

The David Rutledge reference was to here :-

David Rutledge calculates that there is far less of everything Fossil Fuel-ish than we have so far admitted – judging by production rates.

Some argue with his mathematics, claiming that Fossil Fuel production rates are, by definition, not necessarily related to depletion : give me a health Economy again and production rates could go up once more !

And no, he hasn’t considered marine Methane sources and other exotics and alternatives, or at least not yet. We await his book.

But given all this arguing, I’d like to promote a very simple thought experiment which shows that we can’t be too careful, and we shouldn’t be too laisser faire.

Let’s start with the question : why is there Petroleum, Natural Gas and Coal in the ground ? Well, that’s the domain of the petroleum geology experts, but in summary it boils down to this : at some points in history there were mass depositions of biological material under anoxic conditions, that is, where there was no oxygen present.

This meant that biological material became sedimentised without completely decomposing. This formed black shales, kerogen and other strata in the Earth, and given certain changing conditions, these deposits became Coal, Petroleum Oil and Natural Gas, and all their variants in a spectrum of paleochemical development.

And why were conditions so devoid of oxygen when these biological layers were formed ? And why was there so much biological material available to become these sediments ? Well, majority theory has it that there have been periods of intense Global Warming, and that these were associated with periods of intense biological activity, but also cessation of ocean circulation, leading to stagnation and anoxia.

And so it is that petroleum is a by-product of mass loss of life caused (indirectly) by Global Warming.

The conditions under which the source material for Fossil Fuels became available were periods of raised Earth temperatures, both in the Oceans and on Land.

The long-term Carbon cycle was given a massive jolt as large numbers of living beings died and their bodies became the precursor for Fossil Fuels in rock strata.

In periods measuring as short as tens of thousands of years, massive amounts of Carbon Dioxide were taken out of the atmosphere and deposited underground.

This led to the eventual regulation of the planet’s temperature back down to a more liveable level – biodiversity started to increase again from the point of mass extinction.

To cut a long story short, what we are doing by extracting and burning a good portion of the Fossil Fuels is putting back into the atmosphere the Carbon Dioxide that held the Earth at an elevated temperature.

Most of the Climate Change activists and campaigners ask the question : how can we know that we have kept enough Fossil Fuel in the ground to keep Global Warming to a human habitable level ? How can we halt the rise in Carbon Dioxide emissions ?

But my question relies on a slightly more complex reality.

The deposition of the precursors of Fossil Fuels in rock strata is not the only part of the long-term Carbon cycle : as the Earth cooled down from the most recent mass extinction temperatures, the Ice Caps formed, locking away mass swathes of biological material under ice and ocean that never had a chance to decompose, and never entered the conditions that created Fossil Fuels.

My questions therefore is : what temperatures are required to unlock these tracts of undead plants and animals and start a massive release of Carbon into the atmosphere in the form of Methane ?

From my reasoning, it must be Methane that caused the Earth temperatures to rise so high in geological history, and there are large quantities of Methane, and dead things that will Globally Warm and decompose, creating large quantities of Methane, currently residing in semi-permanent storage conditions in the polar regions, permafrost, on the sea bed and perhaps in ocean trenches.

Burning Fossil Fuels and emitting Carbon Dioxide could be the warming key to unlock the Methane Bubble, and that would cause the next mass extinction. It could be the final one, as it would happen much faster than previously.

So when Peak Oilers say to you : don’t worry – we’ll run out of Fossil Fuels before Climaggedon, don’t necessarily listen.

Beware history repeating itself – but more nastily.

There is a lot of common ground for the solutions to Climate Change and Peak Hydrocarbons are the same : RE and ER, Renewable Energy and Energy Reduction, power up and power down as in the Zero Carbon Britain report :-

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