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We are confronting another huge challenge and, like climate change, it has been encroaching for years. In concert with global warming, and in an unholy alliance, comes the decline of oil and gas.
For thousands of years slaves and cheap labour supported civilisation but, following the Industrial Revolution, humanity began to thrive on stored solar energy contained in coal, oil and gas. Used for transport, heat and cold, and materials too, notably concrete, metals, plastics and fertilisers, fossil fuels have increased human capacity a hundred fold and our standard of living, indeed our capacity to stay alive, now depends on them as we burn through 16 billion of tonnes a year, releasing double that weight of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the process. But, although huge volumes remain in the ground the easy pickings are long gone. The new stuff is deeper in the earth, deeper under water, and in remoter, more formidable environments.
Still, this is not the whole story. This is not where the real challenge lies.
Over the last 50 years, as demand for oil and gas soared and supply routes multiplied, ever more sophisticated equipment was required for extraction, processing and transport all of which needed energy, and lots of it. As a consequence the Energy Return on Investment (EROI); the ratio of the amount of energy delivered from a resource to the amount used to obtain that resource, has fallen precipitously and is still falling.
The EROI, this is the challenge.
Of course there is no doubt, at least for most of us, that burning fossil fuels damages our environment. We face an existential threat to the world’s current climate balance on which 8 billion people relies. So, while the net energy content from fossil fuels dwindles, we must find new cleaner sources which also require substantial amounts of energy to exploit and other things too such as uranium, graphite and rare metals, for magnets, batteries, and electronics.
Less net energy, scarce materials, resource nationalisation, high costs and inflation. It is a recipe for human hardship and, of course, resource wars. And what are we doing to counteract this perfect storm? In regards to EROI, not much at all.
The energy and transport industries are developing alternatives, experimenting with carbon capture and converting to electrified transport. But some organisations are making things worse, attempting to ‘stop oil’ and damage economies in countries most active in mitigating the problems. A reduction in the financial strength of commercial organisations and governments reduces their capacity to pay for new technology and infrastructure and other strategies to mitigate the effect of a changing climate.
We should all feel free to persuade (or force) humans to use less energy for leisure activities but careless attempts to cut essential supplies through bans and boycotts can kill people more quickly and efficiently than climate change ever could. Make no mistake ‘clean’ energy supplies are still insufficient to meet our needs. Only by retaining fossil fuels in controlled decline while expanding renewable and mitigation strategies can human death and destruction be, perhaps, avoided.
Falling EROI is happening. Climate change is happening. But surely we should also work to provide sufficient energy for all our 8 billion people. Like it or not, fossil fuels remain fundamental to the existence of our crowded human world.
Global warming -
is mostly driven by increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It leads to fundamental changes in the Earth’s climate.
These changes will eventually have a catastrophic effect on human populations and society.
Forecasts of oil and gas supply, and indeed of all energy sources, need to include consideration of how potential legal and social curbs on the use of carbon fuels will impact their use.
Growing populations and increasing affluence over the last half century have led to an unprecedented growth in the use of fossil fuels. This, in turn, has resulted in higher carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, raising atmospheric temperatures.
Higher temperatures lead to, in particular, extreme weather events, melting polar ice caps, and fluctuations in oceanic currents.
Climate Change - can be caused by rising global temperatures which may be driven by rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In 2020 the Earth's average temperature was around 15 degrees (all temperatures are given here in Celsius) with human emissions of carbon dioxide of perhaps 35 bn tonnes. The temperature had risen from 13.5 degrees in the 1950s when human emissions of carbon dioxide were at around 5 bn tonnes. This process is known as global warming or heating.
Nevertheless temperatures have been much higher (and lower) during past geological periods; during the Mesozoic, for example. When the dry, continental conditions of the Triassic were replaced by the warm, humid climate of the Jurassic when dense tropical forests covered much of the landscape at high latitudes. Temperatures were then averaging around 21 degrees.
Ironically at the time these forests were surrounded by warm organic-rich lakes and seas leading to vast quantities of the earth’s oil source rocks being deposited. However, natural (not related to human activity) temperature rises in the Jurassic, or at any other time, are irrelevant to our concerns over present-day climate change.
Firstly, these natural fluctuations were usually much slower than they are today. Living things had time to migrate, adapt and/or evolve as conditions changed.
Secondly, human society has today overwhelmed nearly every ecosystem on earth, erecting physical and social barriers to movement. Billions of people not only do not want to adapt, but also they have nowhere to go. This particularly applies to those inhabiting urban environments.
Since the industrial revolution carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen by over 30%. Concentrations are now higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years. Carbon dioxide is almost certainly responsible for most of the atmospheric rise in temperature over the last 50 years.
There is now a political effort to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions although with much dissent and disagreement. China emits more carbon dioxide than any other country followed by the USA, European Union member states and the UK.
Of course China not only has a large population making emissions per person lower but also much of China’s manufacturing output (and attendant emissions) are destined for use in, and thus ultimately attributable to, the USA and Europe.
The Greenhouse Effect - is the process that traps the Sun's energy in the Earth's atmosphere. Without it the Earth would be much colder and most life would be unsupportable. Part of the solar energy that reaches the Earth radiates back into space from the Earth's surface. However, part is absorbed by so-called greenhouse gases and re-emitted in all directions within the lower atmosphere, heating it up.
Greenhouse gases occur naturally but large volumes are now released as a result of burning fossil fuels, as well as a by-product of some agricultural and other industrial processes. Humans are thus adding to the natural greenhouse effect, trapping more solar energy and increasing the average atmospheric temperature.
Greenhouse Gases - are many and varied. The most effective greenhouse gas is water vapour but it stays in the atmosphere for just a few days.
Carbon dioxide is less effective at trapping heat and is absorbed by plants and by oceans. However, most of it remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. As greater volumes are produced they build up over time. Perhaps a little over 80% of the global warming driven by human activity is attributable to carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide is released during the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). Meanwhile trees that would absorb carbon in the world’s forests are being progressively cut down. These would have not only helped absorb carbon but their destruction also releases stored carbon which adds to global warming.
Methane is an especially effective greenhouse gas. An equivalent volume of methane over a hundred year period can warm the earth 25 times more than carbon dioxide although it has a much shorter life in the atmosphere. Methane is emitted during the production and transport of fossil fuels although this is on a downward trend. A growing source of methane emissions arises from livestock and by the decay of organic waste in landfill. Perhaps 10% of global warming driven by human activity is attributable to methane.
Other industrially produced gases, including nitrous oxides, contribute a little under 10% to the overall global warming effect.
LAND TEMPERATURE (degrees C) RELATIVE TO AVERAGE 1951-1980
Globalshift.co.uk (source: University of California Berkeley)
TOP EMITTERS OF CARBON DIOXIDE IN MEGATONNES PER YEAR
Globalshift.co.uk (source: Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research 2018)
The Changing Earth - The world is now about 1 degree warmer than it was before widespread industrialisation in the 1960s. Furthermore, the 20 warmest years on record have all occurred in the past 20 years with 2023 the hottest of all.
Global average sea level has increased by 3.6 mm per year in the last 15 years. Global sea level may have risen by 10-20 cm over the last 100 years.
Although water increases in volume as it heats up melting ice is believed to be the main cause of rising sea levels. Glaciers in temperate regions of the world are retreating and satellite records show an extensive and progressive decline in the size of the Greenland Ice Sheet. The maximum areas of winter and summer Arctic sea-ice have also substantially contracted over the last 40 years.
Meanwhile the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing mass while the world's largest potential source of sea level rise is the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which holds enough ice to raise global sea levels by around 53m. Although it may never melt completely, it is also losing mass. The ice reflects heat back into the atmosphere so its loss has other implications.
The effects of rising temperatures can be seen in the behaviour of vegetation and land animals. Earlier flowering and fruiting times for plants in temperate regions are accompanied by territorial adaptation and migration of animals to cooler latitudes.
There seems to be an increased occurrence of extreme weather events although it remains uncertain whether these are a by-product of global warming. They probably are.
Future temperatures - Should warming continue at the same rate, temperatures could rise by up to 5 degrees by the end of the 21st Century. Temperature rises of above 2 degrees were once regarded as the tipping point for drastic global disruption.
However, in the last few years there has been general acceptance that only by limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees can significant loss of habitat and life be prevented. An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2018 concluded that keeping to this target would require "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society". It is unlikely to be achieved.
But even if greenhouse gas emissions can be dramatically reduced, there will be a significant time lag. Large bodies of water and ice take hundreds of years to respond to small changes in temperature. Furthermore it takes tens of years for carbon dioxide to leave the atmosphere.
Of course there is uncertainty about how the changing climate will impact lives. The problem lies not in the actual global temperature but in the speed of change. Rapid rises in sea level under current constraints of high populations and barriers to movement make it impossible for humans to adapt without massive social and economic damage.
Human impact - As the world warms water evaporates, leading to more moisture in the air. Many areas will experience more rain and snow. Inland areas, during hot summers, will get less rainfall and droughts will become more common. As storms escalate and sea levels rise flooding will become more widespread.
Warming could cause freshwater shortages, change the ability of areas to produce particular foods, increase the disruption from floods, storms and heatwaves, and promote resource wars amongst people and nations. And poor densely populated countries, which are least equipped to deal with rapid change, will suffer the most.
Plant and animal extinctions will escalate as habitats change faster than species can adapt. And there will be increases in health issues, especially water-borne diseases and malnutrition in poor countries. As more carbon dioxide is present in the atmosphere, the concentration of gas in the oceans will increase. Water then becomes more acidic which damages coral reefs.
Meanwhile feedback processes could create further heating such as through the release of trapped methane from high latitude permafrost that is melting. Should oceanic currents in, for example, the North Atlantic, be disrupted this would produce rapid and dramatic changes in climate over large areas.
Many oil and gas professionals, who have strived for their entire lives to explore for and exploit a product, are loath to admit that their work will eventually harm millions of people. Of course they are no more to blame than energy users who have enjoyed decades of transport growth and can visit cheaply and easily most parts of the world. We are all to blame but what we do next will define us.
The fossil fuel industry is a dying one. Unless carbon capture techniques can be perfected (an unlikely outcome) the oil and gas industry, along with the coal industry is destined to be almost gone in a hundred years regardless of how much of these resources remain to be found.
Clearly in forecasting oil and gas output the environmental damage that fossil fuels are causing need to be taken into account, at least qualitatively. The challenge was once to find an alternative unconventional fossil fuel resources and that is what happened as oil and gas from shales in the USA grew dramatically. But new sources are even more damaging than old ones.
In view of the above globalshift.co.uk assumes the following 3 factors in making forecasts of oil and gas supply and activity:
Conventional oil and gas resources will continue to be produced as fast as they can under commercial conditions both by private companies and by state companies such as Saudi Aramco. Growth will only be held back by lack of new areas to explore and exploit.
New oils and gases (including oil sands, oil and gas from tight reservoirs, and manufactured oils) will be restricted in output by both price and environmental constraints. Very little oil or gas trapped in tight reservoirs will ever be produced from Europe for example.
The world ‘s economy will continue to perform in a stable way albeit increasingly volatile, disrupted by trade wars and other side effects. These are inevitable as populations grow and travel expands (the COVID-19 pandemic was an example of such volatility).
CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS BY REGION IN BILLION TONNES
Globalshift.co.uk (source: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre)