Tag Archives: James Hansen

Peak Oil is Irrelevant

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

Peak oil has been predicted since the 1950s to occur by various near-future dates, originally as early as 1965. The prediction that US oil production would peak in the 1970s was, in fact, accurate, but new discoveries – including North American sources involving fracking and tar sands – keep pushing the timeline outward. Some say we will always find new oil sources, though economic theory states they will also get inexorably more expensive.

Recent discussions have revived the peak oil debate. A Business Insider article last spring claimed “it is probably safe to say we have slayed “peak oil” once and for all, thanks to the combination new shale oil and gas production techniques and declining fuel use.” It was counterpointed here. But I basically don’t care.

All the talk of peak oil, that we are running out of fossil fuels and therefore need alternatives — or that we’re not and therefore there’s nothing to worry about — is a distraction. In fact, it’s worse than a distraction; it’s misleading because it makes people think that the goal is to find more oil. And that then gives people the impression that since we, in fact, do have existing and yet-to-be-found sources, we don’t have any energy problems. That’s a dangerous path.

The problem is not a lack of carbon-based fuels. The problem is that, if we use those fuels, the resulting greenhouse gas emissions will push the atmosphere far off the critical balance needed to maintain the climate. In other words, those sources – coal, oil, gas – must be left in the ground. Burning them is nothing less than suicide.

The only reason we should really care about peak oil is that it means oil will be getting increasingly expensive and, as that happens, renewable sources will become more competitive. (And that’s before factoring in technical and manufacturing advances for renewables. And certainly before factoring in the unaccounted for “external” costs of non-renewables. When you do that, renewables simply become an even more overwhelmingly obvious choice.)

In many of my environmental classes, I start with a slide that shouts “It’s not just about climate change.” And it isn’t: we have a litany of other serious environmental concerns that shouldn’t – can’t – be neglected as we address human-caused climate disruption. But in the case of carbon-based fossil fuels, it really is all about climate change. Whether we’ve reached peak oil or not is irrelevant. Whether we have oil spills or polluted water from fracking is almost irrelevant, too.  (With emphasis on the word “almost.”) The carbon within fossil fuels must be left sequestered in the ground.

That leads to one more point. Those untapped fuels are sometimes referred to as “stranded assets.” Those poor assets, left stranded. (Or perhaps more to the point, those poor, poor owners of those assets.) We should really think of them, though, not as stranded assets, but as neutralized WMDs since burning them would, in the words of Columbia environmental science prof and former NASA scientist James Hansen, “make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans.”

So we want to strand those WMDs, err, assets. It’s an EcoOptimistic solution in that it addresses both ecological and economic issues and puts us on a path to improving our lives as well. The oil industry may not see it that way, but their definitions of economics and human wellbeing are, to put it mildly, different from yours (I suspect) and mine.

A Grammar Mnemonic to Save the World

You’ve all heard it – at least I hope you have – starting, probably, sometime in grade school: “i before e except after c.”  (Are you listening, all you caffeinated Keiths and Sheilas? And I suppose it’s a bit too late for Einstein.) Taking some editorial license, I’d like to propose a modification for the purposes of environmentalism and economics: “i before e especially after c.”

I’m not referring to the letters i, e and c here, but rather to some words beginning with those letters. The “i” is for internalize; the “e” is for externalize; and the “c?” Well, that’s for carbon. So what I’m saying here in a more or less catchy albeit derivative way is we should internalize costs, in particular, environmental costs, rather than externalizing them as we currently do in most cases. And that this is especially important when the costs involve carbon.


© David Bergman

Let me back up a moment for those who have not had the misfortune of either an economics background or regular encounters with the word “externalize.” (If you haven’t, you may need to internalize that word so that you can toss it around in, say, dinner conversations with your climate change denying relatives.) An externality, as used in the dismal science, is often defined as “an effect of a purchase or use decision by one set of parties on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.” It amounts to a rebuttal of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” because an externality is, in effect, a free lunch for the party causing the cost.

Externalities are, arguably, the primary reason our capitalist system screws the environment (and us along with it). From a business’s point of view, why care about costs that you don’t have to pay for? The obvious response is to make the person or company causing the environmental costs pay for them. In the case of climate disruption and carbon emissions, the method is some form of carbon pricing, preferably a cap and dividend system like that promoted by eco-stalwarts Bill McKibben and James Hansen, and first introduced as legislation in 2009. A carbon fee would be a more direct route, but cap and dividend would offset the increased price of carbon-emitting forms of energy. In theory, that should have been more acceptable – if not actually desirable – but our head-in-the-sand, hands-in-the-money legislators thought otherwise.

The i-before-e rule can be applied to many industries. It’s most often talked about in terms of power plants. But here’s another example to ponder: if airlines or aircraft manufacturers had to pay a fee for the carbon emissions of their planes, that would have at least two effects. It would increase the costs of air travel so passengers would make more accurate decisions about when and where to fly (and could choose to use their carbon dividends to pay the higher but environmentally correct costs). Perhaps more significantly, it would shift the responsibility and the incentive to develop less polluting planes and engines to the industry. The same would hold true for manufacturers of products ranging from cars to cable boxes. (I hate that the cable boxes we’re forced to accept from the cable TV monopolies are huge suckers of vampire energy. I recently asked Time Warner if they had Energy Star-rated boxes – which do exist – and got an apathetic “nah” for a reply.)

The original “i before e except after c” is usually followed by the disclaimer “or when sounded as ‘a’ as in neighbor and weigh.” Aside from the fact that there’s a, um, surfeit (that seemed to be the appropriate word to use here) of exceptions, it’s a somewhat unfortunate addition when added to our version since we’re referring to weighing the cost of carbon in order to promote better communities among neighbors. Okay, so that last part’s a bit of a stretch. But I don’t think it means I have to forfeit the idea, unless you’re going to get feisty on me. The fact that the English language is a mess, breaking rules left and right and undoubtedly causing externalities of its own, shouldn’t keep us from adopting this eco-mnemonic.

The Keystone XL Pipeline No-brainer

Consider this my atonement for not making it to the anti-Keystone XL pipeline protest in Washington this past Sunday. My self-serving defense was a conveniently scheduled family get together. (And how often are family events conveniently scheduled?) My admiration and thanks go to the 40,000 or so who braved the biting cold.

Excuses aside, I was there in mind if not body. The pipeline and the tar sands production it would help enable are just a thoroughly bad idea. They make no sense from any perspective, except perhaps for the few people (and I guess corporations now get included in that category) who would profit from them. Many have written about this, but I think a summarized categorical break down is worthwhile.


Like all post-peak fossil fuels, the tar sands have a diminishing EROEI or Energy Return On Energy Invested. In other words, as fuels become scarcer, it takes increasing amounts of energy (and money, see below) to get energy out of them. EROEI is the after-the-fact problem discovered with ethanol from corn as a fuel; it takes a lot of energy to grow and convert the corn into ethanol.

The oil in the tar sands is in what’s called an “unconventional form.” It’s a very thick slurry, a tar, called bitumen. You may know bitumen as that pungent black stuff that’s heated and spread on roofs. Making usable oil out of the semi-solid tar is an energy intense process, rendering the resulting energy far less productive.

Bitumen from the Alberta tar sand before processing

Bitumen from the Alberta tar sand before processing


Directly related to the above, energy from tar sands costs more than many other types of energy. Why then, you ask, is it financially attractive to business? The short answer is that the deck is stacked. The combination of perverse tax incentives (incentives, usually supported by special interests, which work against the public and/or government’s interest) and the market’s failure to include true costs create the illusion of cost competitiveness.


The common rationale here is the expanding tar sands oil production will reduce dependence on Middle East oil sources. But because US oil demand is already diminishing due to higher fuel efficiency standards and the recession, most of the tar sands oil will end up being exported.

exporting tar sands oil


The Canadian tar sands are located under the Boreal forest, according to Treehugger “one of the largest intact ecosystems left on the planet.” The open pit mining process utterly obliterates any ecosystem that has the misfortune to have resided above it.

Boreal forest before; tar sands after. source

Boreal forest before; tar sands after. source

In addition to the energy required, it takes vast amounts of water to extract oil from tar sands, causing both water depletion and pollution.

Most damningly, the extraction process has “three times the global warming pollution of conventional crude production.” Releasing the carbon imbedded in the tar sands, accompanied by the burning of fuel to extract it, would push the CO2 levels in the atmosphere past the tipping point, constituting “game over” for the climate in the words of NASA’s James Hansen.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.

So even if oil from tar sands was truly economically viable – which it isn’t – it would be a huge and irreversible environmental mistake to use it.


An oft-used rationale for the pipeline is that Canada is going to utilize the tar sands regardless of whether the US allows building the means to transport it by pipe down to the Gulf of Mexico refineries. Perhaps, but there is no reason we should enable them to do so. And by no means all of Canada supports tar sands production; our sending such a message may encourage Canadian opposition.

Furthermore, KC Golden writes at Grist “It’s a statement of principle for climate action….It’s a moral referendum on our willingness to do the simplest thing we must do to avert catastrophic climate disruption: Stop making it worse.”

OK, so….

You may ask: where’s the EcoOptimism aspect here? Since all we get from tar sands oil is a delay in the upcoming end of oil age, accompanied by the potentially disastrous (in the truest sense of the word) increase in climate disruption, wouldn’t it make a helluva lot more sense to take the government and commercial investments and place them in energy efficiency and renewable forms of energy? (You know, the ones like solar and wind that both don’t run out and don’t screw up the climate we depend on.) The Return on Investment for these holds much higher promise, and that’s before we start to include the avoided costs of rising sea levels. It should, in short, be a no-brainer.

In fact, Joe Nocera wrote “this should be a no-brainer for the president” in today’s Times. Unfortunately, however, he was referring to supporting the pipeline, and the fact that he was unable to sway the “boneheaded” (his word) opinion of James Hansen in a conversation they just had.

I’d prefer to refrain from such descriptions, but if there is boneheadedness to be found, it is in Nocera’s contorted logic, which ranges from fatalist statements such as “Like it or not, fossil fuels are going to remain the world’s dominant energy source for the foreseeable future” to writing off the idea that a carbon fee could reduce greenhouse emissions by 30 percent within 10 years with a mere “well, maybe.”

Kind of makes you wonder about the meaning of “no-brainer.”