To Fear Peak Oil, Or to Pursue it? That is the Essential Limits to Growth Question

On a world in which fossil fuel burning is now in the process of setting off various events of geological scale, one of the things we could well hope for most is a peak in fossil fuel supply. Such an event would force countries and economies to adjust. To abandon business as usual economics and to rapidly shift to approaches that enhance and reinforce lifestyles and energy consumption behaviors that do not radically alter the world’s environment for the worst.

But, unfortunately, as we will see below, there is more than enough oil, gas, coal, brown coal, fracked oil and gas, gas hydrates, tar sands, kerogen and other fossil fuel stores to continue burning for years, decades and perhaps even centuries to come. So to hope for peak fossil fuel use, unless that peak is determined by responsible individual, community, and political action, is a false hope. An end that sets off terrible consequences. Even worse than those difficult to deal with problems we’ve already locked in.


(The Bazhenov Shale Formation. An Arctic oil and gas reserve now accessible due to US driven technological ‘advancements’ in hydro-fracking. This vast pool of tight oil has 1.2 to 2 trillion barrels of oil in place of which 75 to 330 billion barrels are currently estimated to be recoverable [Depending on who is making the estimation — US or Russian Government]. It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that these reserves occur in the same region where troubling methane blow-holes first appeared this summer. It is this massive supply of oil that is being directly targeted by the Exxon-Mobile/Rosneft partnership before sanctions this week put the effort on hold. Accessing this massive carbon bomb would lock in billions of additional tons of CO2 release into the atmosphere while, by itself, delaying a global peak in oil production by years to decades. The consequences of burning this massive fuel source are almost certainly far worse than simply leaving it in the ground. Image source: Commons.)


Back in the mid 2000s there was an oil industry energy consultant by the name of Matthew Simmons. And Simmons had developed a laser-like focus on a massive store of ‘easy oil’ in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. This store was locked in the great oil field called Ghawar. A self-pressurized dome that originally contained about 80 billion barrels of the hothouse gas firewater we call oil. Prick Ghawar with a drill and the stuff just came erupting out. Deceptively clear for all the btus of global atmospheric heating it contained.

At some point, the black magic of Ghawar began to fade. Saudi Arabia started to inject water into the Ghawar well to keep the oil flowing. This required more energy and increased costs. For Saudi Arabia and much of the world, the age of easy oil was coming to an end.

Simmons declared that peak oil was just around the corner. That global oil production couldn’t exceed 85 million barrels per day. And that the new, unconventional sources — locked in tight oil deposits and tar sands — were too difficult to extract. Peak oil analysts declared that the Bakken would never exceed a flow rate of 100,000 barrels per day. And the Eagle Ford Shale basin was just a glimmer in the eye of most analysts. Risks for an imminent peak in world oil supply did seem quite high.


(Map of the Bakken tight shale fields in the Williston Basin. The Bakken is estimated to contain 24 billion barrels of oil of which 7.3 billion barrels are currently considered to be technically recoverable. Image source: Commons.)

For some, for conservationists and those who are justifiably very concerned about the impacts of continued fossil fuel based carbon emissions on the world’s climate systems, the notion of an imminent peak in world oil supply came as welcome news. It would force economies to adjust to new structural and environmental realities and it would help to prevent some of the worst impacts of climate change. Certainly, there were still massive volumes of coal and natural gas to consider. But a peak in world oil production would lead to a variety of consumption reductions as well as help to advance renewable energy technology — so long targeted for delay and denial by oil and fossil fuel interests through their wealthy political backers.

For most market analysts and economists, peak oil was never an object. They believed the magic of market economics would always provide a new resource and that the price signal would be enough to produce more resources of different varieties. But these analysts were somewhat blind to the broader impacts of large governmental movements and of investment or failure to invest in new resources by communities, states, and policy-makers.

In many ways, all of these analysts held somewhat correct views. But contained to their narrow focus, they failed to accept where the others were correct or to see their own short-comings. A vocal portion of the peak oil analysts, led by Simmons, retained a narrow, and primarily easy oil and fossil fuel centered world-view that not only denigrated the effectiveness of new oil technology to over-come any peak oil situation, but also blithely dismissed much of the potential for renewables to take up for new energy production. They held a rigid view that only radically reduced consumption (and related implied wide-scale poverty and collapse back to 19th century standards of living) would result from peak oil and that such reduced consumption and collapse was needed and, indeed, would happen whether we liked it or not. Some conservationists seemed to glom on to the notion that renewables were not a desirable solution and this led steam to the anti-renewables faction.

Though the push for lower consumption from peak oilers and conservationists was somewhat helpful, without the renewable option their world-view led to more implied reliance on fossil fuels through active denial of alternatives. And it left the door wide open for new oil related extraction technologies to come charging in absent any wide-spread renewable energy adoption.

The market analysts were labeled ‘cornucopians’ by the more militant peak oilers or related agitators. In fact, this was a term that seemed to include anyone who supported any technology whatsoever, including sustainability based technical solutions. Contrary to peak oilers, the analysts pushed a view that the supply crunch, at first, wouldn’t happen. And, when they were proven wrong, went about cheer-leading for the new fracking technologies and for opening up the unconventional oil basins.

An outside group of progressives pushed hard for new renewable resources. And, given the opening provided by high fuel prices, they were partially successful, despite the constant attacks coming from renewable energy detractors and in spite of a broad front of oil industry advanced extraction technologies competing in the energy investment sector.

Consequent to Simmons’ warnings, a peak in conventional fuels did happen during the period of 2006 to 2008. Prices rocketed and economies were jarred by the shock. A shift toward more renewable energy and efficiency was driven by the crisis. Consumption fell and the world economy stalled in a combined energy and market derivatives crash. But the market signal and increased prices for energy unlocked technology that lead to the rapid expansion of production in Bakken, Eagle Ford, in Canada’s tar sands and in other far-flung basins around the globe.


(EIA map of the Eagle Ford shale play in South Texas. It’s a basin that extends into North Mexico and contains an estimated 10 billion barrels of recoverable together with trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Image source: Commons.)

Today, the wretched energy and carbon intensive and highly polluting process that is fracking now squeezes 1 million barrels per day out of the Bakken formation. It wrings 1.7 million barrels per day out of the Eagle Ford formation. Add this staggering production gain to other fracking and conventional extraction efforts across the country and we find that the United States now produces a staggering 13.9 million barrels of liquid fuels per day.

This makes the US the highest volume liquid fuels producer in the world on the back of a terrible breaking of the ground and increasing extraction of a fuel source that is already in the process of wrecking the world’s climate.

Globally, despite struggling production in the Middle East and elsewhere, production of the firewater continued to rise. Canada’s tar sands production spiked to more than 2 million barrels per day with the Arctic state planning for a jump to 5 million barrels per day by 2030. An ongoing carbon bomb explosion that, by itself, could well be described as a tract of human-generated flood basalt.

These and other oil sources combined with enhanced extraction to push global daily oil production from 85 million barrels per day during the mid 2000s to approaching 92 million barrels per day in 2014. This on the back of oil reserves additions in the form of tar sands at 168 billion barrels of extractable oil (total reserve at around 300 billion barrels), Eagle Ford at 10 billion barrels of currently recoverable oil (total reserve at 80 billion barrels), West Texas at 30-75 billion barrels of recoverable oil, Bakken at 7.3 billion barrels of recoverable reserves, and many other regions around the world that are now seeing new oil extraction or enhanced oil extraction.


(The Permian Basin of West Texas now containing between 30-75 billion barrels of recoverable oil due to climate-endangering fracking technology. Image source: Commons.)

So Simmons was wrong on the issue of oil peaking at 85 million barrels per day, and many peak oil analysts along with him.

And so it goes with the global fossil fuels story. As of 2014 we burn more oil, gas and coal than we ever have and global peak oil has again been removed to some future date. The global carbon emission is now enough to completely overshoot the lower range IPCC emissions scenarios and we are staring down the face of the highly unpleasant middle and worst case ranges. So in this respect, a number of peak oilers were dreadfully wrong — peak oil did not save us from climate change. In fact, bad effects are now locked in and the debate has shifted to whether or not there is enough extractable oil, gas and coal to hit the worst case scenarios.

But if history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. For now it appears that both Eagle Ford and Bakken, due to the nature of rapid fracked well depletion, will peak sometime during 2016 and 2020. And the peak oilers are now having a bit of a rally, as challenges to global production, many of them political, are also continuing to expand.

On The Verge of a Voluntary Peak

The environmentalists and scientists, thankfully, appear to be on the verge of successfully putting a crimp on Canada’s tar sands production. The US has sanctioned Russian oil production and a massive set of Arctic and shale reserves many times the US tight shale reserve hangs in the balance (a resource of ultimate reserves on the order of 1.2-2 trillion barrels of oil of oil in place). Barriers to fracking are rising and companies, facing a production glut today and investor uncertainty tomorrow, are in the process of consolidation and retraction.

China is pledging to vastly reduce fossil fuel consumption growth and many oil exporters are beginning to wonder if they’ll have a market for their products there. Around the world, the situation is similar as governments and consumers both push for less use of dirty, dangerous, depleting and costly fossil fuels.

In addition, renewable energy and alternatives have never been more widely available. Solar panel costs are down and EROEI is up. Wind power beats fossil fuel generation in most markets even when considering a natural gas glut due to fracking. Electric vehicles continue to become more widely available and CAFE standards around the world keep rising. An expanding movement is afoot to shift diets to less meat intensive ones — thereby pushing for a reduction in both the land and fossil-fuel use footprint of agriculture. And all these changes aim directly at reducing fossil fuel demand and consumption, generating impetus, along with the political movements targeting both new and old sources for an artificial, voluntary peak in fossil fuel flows.

And this is exactly what we would desire, a direct refusal of business as usual economics. A voluntary taking on of responsible action, economic transition, and behavior change needed to reduce and eventually eliminate an extraordinarily damaging carbon pollution. As has been said, the Stone Age didn’t come to an end for lack of stones. And this could well be the case with fossil fuels, if we actively make that choice. Whether or not it happens essentially depends on people’s perception of the need for it to happen.

Fear of Peak Oil as a Means To Force Continuation of Business as Usual

But the voluntary peak is no-where near a pre-ordained certainty. There is an extraordinarily strong array of political forces aimed at both denying the existence of climate-related harm and doing everything possible to extend business as usual fossil fuel extraction for so long as it is economically and technologically possible. To deny the expansion of renewable energy access and to block access to measures that reduce consumption. To, overall, degrade the political will to respond effectively to a climate crisis that is directly linked to ongoing fossil fuel burning.

And one potential political lever for this forced extension is advancing the fear of peak oil. For if people are wrongly led to believe that peak oil is a worse event than climate change, then it is unlikely people will make the changes necessary to transition away from fossil fuels. They, like the climate change deniers, will cling to fossil fuel extraction in the same way passengers unaware of the existence of life-rafts will cling to the upper tiers of a sinking ship.

How does fear of peak oil work? It’s simple.

First deny, degrade or ignore any potential value to human civilization for renewable energy sources (this is easy for oil industry folks, because they’ve had years of practice advancing anti-renewables misinformation). This includes using energy return on energy invested (EROEI) figures that are outdated or simply false.


(In the EROEI battle, renewables win the electricity production race hands down. From top to bottom: light green = hydroelectric, teal = wind, purple = coal, light blue = nat gas, dark green = photovoltaic solar, and dark blue = nuclear. It’s worth noting that solar pv energy return on energy invested continues to rise and is now estimated at 7 according to newer figures. It is also worth noting that the best energy return on investment for individual vehicle transportation comes from an electric vehicle plugged into a renewables fed grid. Image source: Scientific American.)

Second, declare an extreme supply-side ideology in which only fossil fuels have any practical means to fulfill supply needs. In this view, all farming relies on fossil fuels and cannot trade inputs or flexibly change how food is produced to help ensure resiliency (meat to veg, polyculture agriculture, edible landscaping, individually grown gardens, etc). So if fossil fuels peak, access to food is seen to peak as well.

Third, over-emphasize the value of fossil fuels to all levels of civilization with the implied need for fossil fuel related industry to support civilization.

This mind-set is in direct contradiction to the appeal first advanced by Limits to Growth authors for a transition to a sustainable civilization that did not rely on environment-polluting and resource-destroying energy sources as the basis for its prosperity. In fact, it directly obscures the need for such solutions by placing the notion that civilization is only sustainable so long as fossil fuels are available and that civilization inevitably dies without them.

From LTG:

If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short-term gain.

And it is reliance on fossil-fuel based technology that directly reinforces the vicious cycle that Meadows so eloquently describes above.

The final element of the fear peak oil and cling to fossil fuels mind-set is to, at last, deny climate change and, more specifically, to deny that enough fossil fuels remain in the ground to set off climate change that is a threat to human civilization. And it is in this assertion, that they have excessively over-reached and are baldly incorrect (as many who keep tabs here are well aware).

massive carbon reserve

(More and more of a globally estimated 13-20 trillion tons worth of fossil-fuel based carbon are unlocked through advancing extraction technology each year. Is it really a sensible approach to simply wait for such technologies to fail? Image source: IPCC.)

Negative Impacts of Climate Change Now Ongoing, More than Enough Fossil Fuels to Wreck the Climate Many Times Over

So with oil and fossil fuels demand now in trouble due to a broad political and grass-roots response, due to spreading measures that reduce fossil fuel consumption, and due to rapidly expanding ease of access to various renewable energy based technologies, a new Matthew Simmons – type view has emerged.

The view is that Bakken and Eagle Ford are about to peak and with it, North American fossil fuel production will plateau or start falling and that a global peak is in the offing sometime around 2030. As with the Ghawar field focus, the view is likely correct in micro. The fields will probably peak by 2016-2020 and global oil production during the same period will (thankfully) suffer due to a combination of reluctance to invest on the part of oil companies, political constraints that hamper oil flows in Asia and the Middle East, and due to broader conservation measures and alternative energy adoption that begins to put the crimp on world oil demand.

And how we respond to this potential crisis in world oil supply will have far-reaching impacts for both energy and climate going forward. If we see the peak as something we must avoid at all costs, what we will witness is the rapid expansion of fracking in foreign countries to include the exploitation of massive tight fuel resources in Russia and China. We will see the expansion of US oil production through enhanced extraction in the West Texas formation. We will see the barriers to tar sands extraction fall and Canadian tar sands oil rocket to 5 million barrels per day. We’ll see the China syngas operation horrifically expand to an environmental catastrophe to rival that of Canada’s tar sands. And we’ll see the first forays into gas hydrate extraction. We’ll see more coal plants converted to burn brown coal – a massive resource already exploited in conventional coal-poor regions. And we’ll see oil extraction extend into the climatologically violent Arctic.

This expansion will not come without its severe costs. Fossil fuel prices will rise, poverty in many regions will expand. But without some major catastrophic event, net consumption, driven by an ever-expanding fossil fuel and related industry, will continue to increase over at least the next two decades and may well extend beyond 2030 as the massive unconventional resources continue to be tapped. For the political will for reducing such consumption will have been subsumed by fear of peak oil and the alternatives will, again, have been tamped down.

Or, instead, we can embrace peak oil and stop trying to fight off what will inevitably occur over the course of decades or centuries. We can actively decide to change how much and what we consume and we can push hard for renewable energy and broad sustainability measures in agriculture. And through that action we might prevent a portion of the climate catastrophe we have already partly locked in. We can learn not to fear peak oil, but to pursue it, along with the will-full and socially chosen peaking of all fossil fuel sources. We can say goodbye to the age of burning and open a new age where we attempt to deal with the consequences of fossil fuel based industrialism before it’s too late. Before we no longer have the opportunity to.

That’s our choice. But going into it, don’t be comforted with false notions that we don’t have enough carbon sources to wreck the climate. And don’t, for goodness sake, embrace the notion that peak oil is the worst problem we face. Instead, it is a necessary problem. Part of the active and, admittedly, difficult act of changing how we live and of attempting to make human civilization both a more resilient and less harmful beast.


Bakken Shale Oil Boom

Eagle Ford Crosses 1.5 Million Barrels Per Day in September

US Energy Information Agency’s Short Term Energy Outlook

The Case For a Moratorium on Tar Sands Development

Alberta Energy

West Texas Shale Could Dwarf Eagle Ford

Permian Basin Oil Production

How Many Barrels are in the Bakken?

The Bazhenov Formation

Behind the Numbers on Energy Return on Investment

The Ghawar Oil Field

Limits to Growth

Twilight in the Desert

Hat tip to Pintada (in answer to some of your questions)


Leave a comment


  1. “…if we actively make that choice.” I see no evidence that we will. I wonder, before you put me on your somewhat unsavory “chopping block” of “green energy skeptics”, at what point exactly in our hurtle towards extinction would you be willing to concede that it’s simply not in our DNA to constrain our consumption?

    • Hence why we need renewables as an option. You can add efficiency all you like, but without renewables for base power, there is no exit.

    • vardarac

       /  September 5, 2014

      I hope that algae-based fuels will supplement and eventually supplant our use of fossil fuels as the process for generating said fuels becomes easier, more economical, and preferable to older, more difficult, and environmentally costly oil. Companies like Algenol would have us believe that the only thing holding us back from such a reality is manufacturing capacity; I can only hope that they’re right. (The other half of the equation is, of course, awareness and marketing.)

  2. Would it be accurate to say that peak oil was averted through profit-driven technology pursued with a wholesale disregard for environmental and societal consequences?

  3. Robert – firstly, thank you for your work. It is an important contribution.
    I think we are mining the bottom of the barrel for petroleum. The ERoEI is low for most new finds and the costs are high. I don’t think we will take the last drops out because the play between low to very low energy return on energy invested, the cost to bring the oil to market (economic stress) and the willingness to invest will constrain.

    • I hope so, John.

    • Well the problem is, is that the FF companies are remarkably adept at externalizing costs. Before, they externalized as many costs to prevent or mitigate environmental harm and injury to public health as they could; and they’re still doing that, now they’re externalizing direct exploration and extraction costs onto Wall Street — which apparently is full of suckers.

      Well I guess one of two things can happen which can result in anything except NTHE a thousand years away once the fracking bubble bursts: one, Wall Street could collapse due to Congress refusing another multiple-hundred-billion bailout, and two, Wall Street or the USA government could invest in renewables big time.

      • That would help. At least we’d get some clear air from this almost constant pro fossil fuel, climate change denial, and anti-renewables high pressure messaging. Then, we might have a chance to put together some clear-headed analysis.

  4. Ken Barrows

     /  September 4, 2014

    I suspect oil hasn’t peaked because oil is being pumped despite seriously negative cash flow. Ah the magic of finance!

    • Exxon making 17 billion in first half is hardly hurting. Some asset sales and it’s not quite so strong as previous years. I’d expect far worse if cash flow was really bad. But one can certainly hope.

      • Ken Barrows

         /  September 5, 2014

        It’s about marginal costs. What I am saying is that marginal production is some places is not profitable in the least (e.g. the Bakken). Exxon’s profit is based on fields started many years ago. Also, per dollar of revenue, ExxonMobil is not nearly as profitable as Apple, for instance.

        • I’ve got the top marginal cost of a barrel at around 105. Shale has tended to range, on aggregate between 60-90, but with worse cases in the 102 range. So yes, this is eating at profits and adds a bit of investor uncertainty, which it should.

          Overall, not killing the companies as yet. But it does put them on shakier ground. This is the net effect of low EROEI, which eventually comes out in economics, even if there is a delay.

          The boom-bust margin of traditional oil is crunched tighter, and the floor to oil prices is pushed higher.

          But from the industry perspective, they will keep pushing for markets in which they can sell the high price stuff. It’s an ugly energy dominance game from this point forward. The key to beating it is making the renewable alternatives more widely available, as they can now compete and increasingly win on cost.

          All that said, if the oil companies can fix the situation such that the world must swallow nasty $130-$200 per barrel oil, they will. That’s their path to expansion going forward. Of course, we hit the supply glut first. So we’re talking at least a few years down the road. And then they will try for the new shale — which isn’t anywhere near as easy as the old, cheap oil, but that they can certainly produce in volume at a price range from 80-120 and can exploit more of at prices +130.

          So, yeah, it’s more complex than simply chasing the top marginal barrel, although this certainly has an effect.

          The end note is that so long as oil maintains dominance, the majors can let production fall and prices rise to fit their needs, so long as consumers will swallow the price.

          In 2008, the point of economic recession was probably around 150 dollars per barrel. Efficiency has increased since that time, so the level is now probably somewhat higher. My bet is we test this sometime at about the time Bakken and Eagle Ford go into decline so long as the new Russian shales are not online, Tar Sands remain crimped, and West Texas lags.

    • mikkel

       /  September 4, 2014

      The problem with negative cash flow (and Robert will probably hit me on this considering our prior entanglements) is that it’s market based and prices can change.

      A lot of investment is being made with the assumption that current prices are temporary and long term the investments will be great. Without practical alternatives, this assumption is most likely to be correct, because the belief that FF are *required* for civilization will eventually reprice the whole of the economy to support higher prices at the expense of everything else.

      This can be helped along through direct subsidies or price fixing by government policy.

      • mikkel

         /  September 5, 2014

        Or “bailouts” which are post hoc subsidies of course, but somehow still “capitalism”

        • Love the tongue in cheek in this statement.

          In any case, my view is that if they’re so big, they’ve gotta be bailed out,then they’re so big they’ve gotta be broken up into tiny little pieces.

      • Lots of cannibalization going on to support the fossil fuel beast. Look at the tax structure in Russia.

      • Ken Barrows

         /  September 5, 2014


        Your quoted marginal cost figures are conclusory. I am not going to just accept some expert saying this is the marginal cost.

        Here’s the Bakken:
        If 1800 new wells at $6M apiece (or make it $3M) only produce $800M new revenue, I’d say the “marginal cost” is much higher than $100/barrel because the cash flow is so negative at $100/barrel.

        • Well, Ken, if we can’t agree to have a discussion based on standard definitions that are publicly available, then we don’t have much of a discussion. I’m looking at actual marginal cost figures that are accepted definitions based on market pricing. And I’m looking at an Exxon Mobile that is still profitable, if encountering headwinds.

          If you want to lick your finger and stick it into the wind, then go ahead.

  5. mikkel

     /  September 4, 2014

    This is the best overview of “real” peak oil (well fossil fuels) I’ve ever read.

    The peak oilers have been right that the economy can’t expand for all because the economics are messed up due to EROEI and the like, but there is more than enough to destroy the whole climate and enable the few rich to expand consumption to continued unimaginable states while throwing enough down to general consumers that we can pitch in.

    I’ve tried for years to convince people like Gail Tverberg to at least look at the “go all in” dynamics you mention, but it seems impossible because she just keeps repeating she hopes we stay on track as long as possible to delay complete civilization collapse until…what? Until she’s dead, I reckon. What about everyone else? In my darker moments, I feel like pointing out that anyone who advocates BAU simply because they fear change is feel free to off themselves the second they hate the new state too much to bear. Better to commit suicide than murder, in my view.

    It’s almost like society as a whole recognizes that things can’t continue, but thinks that if we remain blind then we can live in reasonable comfort until we’re all whisked away in Rapture. Instead, we’ll obviously have continued social and mental breakdown while locking in climate chaos.

    While a massive shift to renewables and better agriculture will create a more immediate short term economic dislocation (vs. destruction), at least people will realize what they’re working towards and find strength to get through it.

    To me the question is, how do you break the cycle of fear? It’s certainly not achievable through rational means.

    • Thanks for the spot-on comment and analysis, Mikkel.

      Sometimes I feel like taking the peak oilers and conservationists aside and explaining it to them in an A,B,C/counting fingers kind of fashion. It’s simple human psychology. Yes, in a practical sense we know renewables probably won’t support the super-elite lifestyle. But it better supports life. And, it provides essential hope. For the human animal, hope is very important. You don’t kill the solution, even if it is only a partial one. Otherwise you put people on death ground. Otherwise you induce panic.

      As for peak oil, we either deal with it now, or we deal with it involuntarily and during a far worse climate situation. Would rather deal with it now.

      We are still living in bubble land…

    • Griffin

       /  September 5, 2014

      I may embrace my role as an outspoken “alarmist” to those who know me, but I am always inwardly saddened to see their ignorance overwhelm their chance at rational views of our worsening climate situation. Despite the daily disappointments, I sure am glad to click on this blog and see posts of pure lucidity and comments from a small population of sanity.

    • Mikkel, “I’ve tried for years to convince people like Gail Tverberg to at least look at the “go all in” dynamics you mention, but it seems impossible because she just keeps repeating she hopes we stay on track as long as possible to delay complete civilization collapse until…what?”

      At least John Michael Greer (the Archdruid of The Archdruid Report) doesn’t go around hoping that BAU can continue until he passes away! (He’s 45, mind you, much younger than Gail IMO so correct me if I’m wrong.) Rather, he’s under the impression that Industrial Civilization is on the descent into a new dark age, and sometime in the near to mid future, after fossil fuel carbon emissions peak in his estimation at 2030, IC will take a rather large step down a stairstep descent, i.e., a collapse; but he’s not under any delusion that we will not burn up enough carbon to destabilize the climate. Right now he’s suggesting that we will see a 3 C ECS temperature rise in 500 years’ time based on one of the IPCC’s midrange scenarios. This of course translates to 6 C long term (ESS) temperature increase.

      • To this point, it’s worth noting that we’ve already emitted enough to hit 1.9 C ECS by 2100, 3.8 C EsS long-term.

        If IC collapses without transition, pockets of civilization will be able to keep emitting FF for very long periods. Collapse reduces the rate of burning, but doesn’t eliminate it. You end up with brown coal burning, Fischer Trophe nastiness that provides a long emissions tail and results in added impacts over time.

        The sorry state of BAU is that it has more than enough resiliency to keep burning in high enough amounts to really wreck the climate even if it fragments. I am not betting on peak emissions by 2030 through market/natural forces only. Without action/policy, we probably end up hitting the RCP 8.5 scenario or worse.

        As for IC, we need a transition from IC to SC (sustainable). As noted above, collapse locks in long tail emissions by crushing the ability to innovate and generate widespread change in behaviors/patterns of consumption.

        • To this point, it’s worth noting that we’ve already emitted enough to hit 1.9 C ECS by 2100, 3.8 C EsS long-term.

          Which means we’ve already burnt enough fossil fuels to absolutely wreck civilization!

          PS Thanks to global dimming, an additional 1.1 C ECS is baked in the cake; we’ll hit 1.9 C ECS six weeks after the collapse. 😦

          If IC collapses without transition, pockets of civilization will be able to keep emitting FF for very long periods. Collapse reduces the rate of burning, but doesn’t eliminate it.

          Yes, that’s the tail side of Peak Oil. As FF extraction winds down, the unit cost that FF companies MUST sell at will meet or exceed the unit cost that economies can afford. This creates demand destruction, as the business cycle wrings more consumers out of the FF circuit.

          You end up with brown coal burning, Fischer Trophe nastiness that provides a long emissions tail and results in added impacts over time.

          In other words, forms of FF with higher carbon content and emissions, correct?

          The sorry state of BAU is that it has more than enough resiliency to keep burning in high enough amounts to really wreck the climate even if it fragments. I am not betting on peak emissions by 2030 through market/natural forces only.

          But assuming it happens then, the carbon emissions tail extrapolated to zero FF carbon emissions by 2100 yields about 560 ppmv CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere. That would give a forcing, IIRC, of about 3 C ECS short term and 6 C ESS over the long term. Climate wrecked, civilization destroyed. 😦

          Without action/policy, we probably end up hitting the RCP 8.5 scenario or worse.

          Unless climate change sets the peak fossil fuel rendezvous with destiny at 2050… HEY! 😯 Where’s your more recent article on the 5,000 Gigatons of Carbon Emissions Wrecking the Climate!?

          As for IC, we need a transition from IC to SC (sustainable). As noted above, collapse locks in long tail emissions by crushing the ability to innovate and generate widespread change in behaviors/patterns of consumption.

          Agreed. We should have done this back when Jimmy Carter was president. Instead, Reaganism-Thatcherism got in the way.

        • We can probably survive what we’ve already burned. That said, we might need additional mitigations. Atmospheric carbon capture and Solar Radiation mitigation in addition to total cessation of fossil fuel burning. Which is why we need a global climate emergency protocol.

        • Solar Radiation Mitigation: Paint all roofs white? Dig up all dark pavement? Plant light-flowering trees?

        • There’s quite a bit more to it than that, Ed. But, yes, those are some potential options.

      • I suppose you’re right. But if you’re talking of geoengineering schemes for the solar radiation mitigation, would’t that do more harm than good?

        E.g. “chemtrails” which today exist only in conspiracy theories, apart from the ordinary contrails.

  6. Jay M

     /  September 5, 2014

    so if we (carbon motorization burners) are several flood basalts/year
    ice melt is a phase change
    carbon sources to the atmosphere seem infinite because of feedback loops from warming and the clear fact that carbon has been sequestrated in frozen earth
    glacial outburst might lead to fairly quick universal flooding? (at the sealevel margin)

  7. Jay M

     /  September 5, 2014

    so pulse-freeze is a hypothesis
    anybody have any idea what might be the sea level rise say over a year
    so many cubic kilometers melting or floating for the first time?
    how long to slosh through the world ocean?

    • Freshwater negative feedback. No freeze, just local cooling. Takes about a 60 cm rise in climate models to begin to show up prominently. We have some negative feedback from melt showing even in the low SLR response models. Just not as pronounced. 60 cm rise by 2060 knocks off about 0.75 C in short-term warming. 144 cm by 2080 knocks out about 1.25 C in short term warming.

      Cooling is transient and relatively quickly overwhelmed between melt pulses (geologically speaking). Drivers are surface fresh water preventing ocean-atmosphere heat transfer, ice berg cooling, fresh water wedge driving downwelling and ocean heat absorption, and release of cold stored in glaciers over millenia.

      • mikkel

         /  September 5, 2014

        How long is the transient? That figure you posted last thread is amazing, since it shows a drop in temp greater than we’ve seen thus far but occurring only in 15 years. It’s my understanding that a graph 15 years later might go back to the right hand side, so parts of Europe/NA might go -1.5 to 2 in 15 years and then +3-4 in 15?

        • Net outflow volume of 84 cm w/in 20 years is the driver. If the negative feedback shuts down the outflow, you end up with a whip-lash over a few decades time. That’s what the models look like at least. This goes on until the ice is all melted. Weather change is vicious in the models, per Hansen.

        • Less than 2 decades…

          In any case, this models the exponential melt curve. We are more likely to see pulses.

  8. Jay M

     /  September 5, 2014

    so the freshwater pulse from the melting ice sources is expected to drive the warm salty water into the global abyss meantime expressed surface temps and climate become dicey?

  9. chaogrrl

     /  September 5, 2014

    Man, I remember reading the article Ghawar is Dying 10+ years ago. Then it was Simmons who died. Now its us.

  10. I hate to say it, but I think the human race needs a kick in the pants. Something in the form of a disaster tied to accelerating climate change which can not be denied in any way, cant be blamed on anything else or simply denied away. Something that shocks the human race into action which transgresses nations, politics, religion. I believe that unless humanity is shocked into action, we will always think the new normal is the “always” normal and our goose is cooked.

    • I think the main threat right now is to agriculture due to climate change. I wouldn’t be surprised if an effort to confuse causes emerges. By mid century, which may be too late, the risk of baldly catastrophic events is on the rise. We are probably at low risk for that now. But I wouldn’t count it out entirely.

      • Right. And in the near term, China and India have bowed out of the upcoming Climate Change Summit.
        ‘Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi will be absent from the September 23 world leaders’ summit on climate change.’

        While: ‘Ozone pollution in India kills enough crops to feed 94 million.

        These are findings /of a new study that looked at the agricultural effects in 2005 of high concentrations of ground-level ozone, a plant-damaging pollutant formed by emissions from vehicles, cooking stoves and other sources. Able to acquire accurate crop production data for 2005, the study’s authors chose it as a year representative of the effects of ozone damage over the first decade of the 21st century.

        Rising emissions are causing severe ozone pollution in some of India’s most populated regions. Pollution in Delhi, the nation’s capital, has reached levels comparable to Beijing, one of the most polluted cities in the world, according to India’s Air Monitoring Center.

        Not a good sign.

    • mikkel

       /  September 5, 2014

      I’m skeptical such a thing is possible. If 1000 year droughts and floods aren’t enough for action, what is? At some point things could get bad enough where it becomes undeniable, but then what’s to say people won’t react by undergoing mass migration and becoming invaders vs. changing the fundamental problem?

      Or simply saying it’s the sign of the end of days and to continue on waiting for deliverance, whether religious or not?

      Cause and effect only makes sense in context of attributing cause to a purpose in the first place. If people don’t believe in the purpose then they won’t act in the way we hope.

      • mikkel

         /  September 5, 2014

        Like here is a comment I ran across, “Yes there is a drought but corrupt politicians have caused the water shortage. Water IS power in the hands of the greedy. California has all of the water that they could EVER use, the Pacific Ocean. Had the state properly planned ahead and had built water desalination plants along the coast, the needed water would ALWAYS be available. They built a 600-mile aqueduct from the Feather River to feed the LA area and they could have built a 100-mile aqueduct from the Ocean to supply the LA area and another one to Las Vegas and Phoenix”

        The problem isn’t with land use or farming techniques or global warming or anything, it’s with not building dozens of nuclear reactors to power desalination; obviously.

        Similar directed blame and “possible” solutions are going to be available almost regardless of what happens. Hell, a lot of people argue that it’s better to use fossil fuels and then just crank up the sulfur when needed because it will rapidly and cheaply fix things.

        • I bet the same commenter complains about taxes being too high…

          In any case, solar radiation mitigation only works for a relatively minor level of forcing. We’re on track for overwhelming the window in which that kind of mitigation has impact, even f you don’t consider the deleterious effects on the ozone shield or the fact that it does zero good for ocean acidification.

      • Nailed it, Robert. On both counts.

  11. When 1 barrel of oil produced 100 barrels of oil, 99 of those barrels could go to the rest of the economy and 1 barrel to the next 100 barrels. Even when the ERoEI dropped by half, 98 barrels could go to the rest of the economy, and 2 barrels could go to the next 100 barrels.

    At 100:10, 90 barrels can go to the rest of the economy and 10 barrels to the next hundred barrels.

    At 100:20 it is 80 & 20.
    Beyond this, oil becomes a drag on the economy. At this point there are 19 barrels less going to the economy. To make up for that the economy must shrink by 19 barrels, or expand to allow another 4 barrels invested in oil production.
    At 100:40 it is 60 & 40.
    16 more barrels needed to produce the same available barrels (not tied up in production of the next 100 barrels). Or the economy has to shrink by 39 barrels.
    At 100:50 it is 50 & 50.

    The declining quality sources will have to be extracted at an increasingly furious pace with a progressively larger economic investment in them, until the conditions become prohibitive. Then the effort will suddenly and sharply wind down. Watch the ERoEI.

    We did not leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones. We found better ways to leverage ERoEI. We will not leave the oil age because we run out of oil. We will no longer be able to leverage a favourable ERoEI.

    • Unconventional ff EROEI is far worse than wind and solar. Apparently the oil companies and politicians haven’t gotten the news.

      Aggregate of 5-9 EROEI is needed to run modern civ. FF EROEI keeps falling as renewable EROEI climbs.

      • pintada

         /  September 5, 2014

        Robert, I gotta love you. You write a couple thousand words to make a point above and then in the comments section obliterate the entire argument. I can’t comment on some sites, like Greer, or McPherson because they are consistent, but here, the targets abound. LOL.

        We know the EROEI of unconventionals are impossible – that is one definition of peak oil after all.

        • See Mikkal’s statement above. The companies and civ seem bloody-minded lay determined to forge ahead, all EROEI considerations be damned.

      • That is in fact the point of all those stupid “peak-oilers” like Heinberg, et. al.. The fracking and tar sands bubbles exist because of cheap debt. When the fed stops printing 4 trillion dollars per year, or perhaps before, that cheap money will dry up, when the cheap money stops all those oil companies will have to repay their debt with oil that requires debt to extract (i.e. the EROEI is too low), the hype will be over and collapse is inevitable.

        • I think we can agree on the point that the oil companies require rising prices to continue to thrive and, later to survive and that this is a inherent to falling oil EROEI.

          It’s not that peak oilers are stupid. Just that they have tended to get the timing wrong and, by the basis of their research, have also tended to take a fossil fuel centric view. Where some, but not all, have been stupid, is in failing to understand that voluntarily peaking fossil fuel with a combination of conservation AND energy substitution through renewable sources provides a pathway through crisis. And given imminent trouble due to climate change it is better to consciously take this path sooner rather than later.

        • Fair warning:

          If you can keep a level head, roll back the outrageous statements, and remove the personal attacks, we can have an adult conversation. Otherwise, yes, it ends up in the trolling/junk/misinformation bin.

  12. ERoEI must be taken into account when quoting production figures such as millions of barrels per day globally. A million barrels extracted and produced in 1970 contributed 990,000 barrels to the economy and 10,000 barrels to the next million. In 2014, a million barrels extracted and produced contributes 600,000 barrels to the economy and 400,000 barrels to the next million. Another 120,000 barrels has to be directed to extraction and production to make up for the shortfall. Today’s 1,450,000 barrels is equivalent to 1,000,000 barrels of yore.

    • mikkel

       /  September 5, 2014

      There are three ways that convention wisdom EROEI doesn’t capture reality.

      One is energy type, which peak oilers are good on when arguing the importance of oil, but then don’t account for when talking about EROEI. EROEI of 10 doesn’t necessarily mean 1 barrel of oil is consumed per 10 extracted, just the energy of one barrel is used. For the oil sands they are talking about using nuclear reactors to supply the energy, and generally speaking, much of the energy used to get oil comes from coal and gas. So you can’t do a straight forward calculation like that.

      The second issue is in situ energy use. For example, coal gasification and oil shale (not fracking for oil, but extracting hydrocarbons from mountains) have terrible EROEI, but most of the energy used can be gained from the deposit itself. In this case, only a certain amount of external energy has to be supplied and then the deposit can be exploited indefinitely from an energy perspective — both processes are highly water intensive and that is more of a limiting factor than energy. There is desperate research to figure out low water use processes and then, look out…

      The third issue is EROEI “required” to run civilization. I’m convinced by the arguments that EROEI will be too low to sustain consumerism, but it’s not like everyone is going to throw up their hands and say “oh we hit EROEI of 4, time to give up on everything.” Instead, there will be forced exploitation at the expense of other parts of the economy. I love Gail’s arguments for price dynamics and she has proven to be correct thus far, but at some point there will be an economic reset vs. just saying that there is no point in extracting any fossil fuels.

      I used to fret about peak oil being the primary problem, but then came to realize it was just an axis of the greater whole. Like Robert says, we can choose to make it not be a problem, but at the expense of the environment and social health.

      The same goes for the economy and its financialization…there is nothing that prevents BAU indefinitely as long as people accept rising inequality and environmental destruction. Bailouts are just keystrokes.

      So really the way forward is to highlight renewables + consumption reduction as the way forward to address all facets. Any less will fail in roughly the same way with different details.

    • The operators and corps aren’t concerned with EROEI except when it benefits them in the abstract. If the prices and funding match up, they go for it.

  13. Thank you for your blog – I read it fairly often. I was a big fan of Matthew Simmons because he seemed realistic to me. However it is not surprising to me that we have moved into this era of exploiting non-conventional fossil fuels. I think that it is the nature of the beast. Capitalism is based on a dialectic which improves on individual enrichment at the expense of the commons. It is based on seeing nature as utility meaning that value only comes out of exchange – there is no value innate in nature. Limits in nature are antithetical to the belief structures that underlie capitalist ideology. There is a reason why the fisheries were mostly destroyed in California (where they were once abundant) while at the same time a cattle industry was developed – it has to do with the individual and the historical dialectic which included cows not fish. The person gets a cow and invests capital in the cow and develops his capital. The fish are not owned by anyone, there are just fishermen. So now we have oil and we have a lot of capital invested in oil, and in oil products such as plastics, which are widely used. Solar arrays are good, but no one can capture the sun and put it in a bottle or make it into a plastic. So, my conclusion is that we need to abandon this idea of growth which comes from the historical dialectic which has brought us to the place we are now. ‘Growth’ destroyed the forests and killed the buffalo. ‘Growth’ has us using dirty coal to produce solar panels in China. Really we need to do everything possible to move to a non-fossil fuel economy – I just don’t see it happening in a capitalist society which needs a 3% yearly growth needs rate to be ‘healthy’. If we really became disillusioned with our thinking and came to our senses, ditched this idea of growth and began to value nature and community as something valuable despite whatever exchange value could be had, we would find a spiritual center in our society, because we would be looking at innate value in things outside of possession. Anyway, thanks again for your work.

  14. utoutback

     /  September 5, 2014

    Meanwhile –
    High sulfur coal is gaining on the market and looking to be around for quite awhile.

    We will not make any significant headway in this effort to eliminate carbon fuels until we have a Carbon Tax. There has to be an incentive apart from the common good to motivate humans. That’s a sad statement, but from my experience……

  15. Colorado Bob

     /  September 5, 2014

    Catastrophic floods wreak havoc in Kashmir
    The heavy rains, which started nearly a week ago, continued Friday in a steady downpour. So far at least 28 people have lost their lives in the catastrophic flooding and consequent landslides, which has affected at least 100 villages across the Kashmir valley and forced thousands to abandon their homes, the Associated Press reported.

  16. Jay M

     /  September 5, 2014

    As an example of where the end game of the elites may arrive, consider the German experience using the Bergius process to hydrogenate lignite under high pressure and Fischer-Tropsch for harder coal. High grade aviation fuels, lubricants and chemical feedstocks were all made available to the war effort. : By early 1944, German synthetic fuel production had reached more than 124,000 barrels per day (19,700 m3/d) from 25 plants,[21][verification needed] including 10 in the Ruhr Area.

    So there may well be islands of carbon burning around suitable deposits even if world trade in liquid fuels cease, and it seems like damn the EROEI. The Republic of South Africa followed a similar path and may well still operate the plants, I didn’t look it up.

  17. Colorado Bob

     /  September 5, 2014

    Bluefin tuna found hunting for mackerel in East Greenland waters

    “Bluefin tuna usually search for prey in areas where surface temperatures are warmer than 11 C. However, because temperatures in August 2012 in the Denmark Strait were so warm, and because one of its favorite prey species, mackerel, had already expanded its range into the region, it is likely that bluefin tuna has expanded or is presently expanding its habitat to more northerly regions,” explains professor Brian MacKenzie, who together with senior scientist Mark Payne, senior scientist Jesper Boje (both from DTU Aqua), senior scientist Jacob Højer (Danish Meteorological Institute) and Department Head Helle Siegstad (Greenland Nature Institute, GNI), has been investigating the reasons why bluefin tuna and its summer dining menu are on the way to more northerly regions than usual.

  18. Colorado Bob

     /  September 5, 2014

    Weather Reports From 2050
    If humanity’s current “business as usual” approach to emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide continues, the average temperature of the Earth’s lower atmosphere could rise more than 4°C (7.2°F) by the end of the 21st century. But what does a global average temperature rise really mean? How would we experience it on a daily basis? To find out what could lie in store, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) invited television weather presenters from around the world to imagine a “weather report from the year 2050.” Each day between now and the convening of the key 2014 climate summit in New York City the week of September 21, 2014–when the leaders of the world will assemble to lay out the road map to the crucial December 2015 climate negotiations in Paris–the WMO will release a new “Weather Report From 2050” on their website. Yesterday’s video from the Japan Broadcasting Corporation imagined a future for Japan with record heat waves killing 6,500 people annually, the delay of fall colors in Kyoto until Christmas, the destruction of Okinawa’s coral reefs due to increasing ocean acidity and temperature, and an increase in the numbers of Category 4 and 5 Super Typhoons hitting Japan. The Weather Channel’s “Weather Report From 2050” video will be released on September 10. It’s not to be missed!

    Jeff Masters

  19. Jay M

     /  September 5, 2014

    Does this sound right? Kind of continuing my question from last thread.
    Total volume oceans 1.3 billion km^3
    Total volume glaciers & ice caps 29.2 million km^3
    Greenland ice cap 2.85 million km^3
    Total melt of Greenland ice cap results in 7.2 meter sea level rise
    Melt need for one meter sea level rise ~400,000 km^3
    For us USAians melt needed for 1 foot sea level rise ~122,000 km^3
    So a melt (or collapse and float?) of 4% of Greenland ice cap results in 1 foot sea level rise
    So if there was a glacial outburst of these proportions (possible?) how long would it take for the world oceans to rise to the new level, ie example of 1 foot rise?
    Simplistic math, but did I divide correctly?
    Further question, if ice is grounded below sea level and the warmer deeper waters penetrate and float the ice without collapsing it, will this effect sea level?

    • Last question first —

      The above sea level volume for glaciers is relevant to sea level rise. So if the glaciers are flooded from below, then float, the free-board volume matters and will add to sea level. This is off-set by inland flood. But the free board volume is significant enough to be dominant. In addition, the inland flood results in rapid glacial destabilization through radical grounding line alteration so you have additional flows from land ice after large ice sheet mass becomes bouyant.

      Second to last question next… Major glacial outburst flood event containing 122.000 km3 of SLR would propagate through the oceans like a tidal wave pulse with the added effect of volumetric change. The pulse would be most intense at the point of origin and then slosh through the ocean system. I haven’t seen modeling, but one would expect the reverberation through the ocean basin system to go on for quite some time. After perhaps weeks, the oceans begin to settle into their new state in which circulation and gravity will ebb and flow the SLR signature unevenly throughout the world. However, with the change in SL, you would expect some signatures to change as well. So you certainly don’t end up with 1 foot uniformly. Some areas would see much more significant rise and some less.

      The total volume I have for GIS is 2.9 million km3. Total SLR from all Greenland melt, according to the figs I have is 24 feet. So your analysis basically jibes with mine.

  20. Jay M

     /  September 5, 2014

    So a known example of this phenomenon was the Lake Missoula floods at the end of the last ice age, which don’t exactly match the Greenland setting, but do have water volume in the range of this “1 foot” event I hypothesize. Missoula flooded several times, but I see the estimate of the size of the outburst at above 2000 km^3, with peak discharge at 10 km^3 per hour. Much of the discharge would have taken somewhat over a week to occur. I suppose ice might be slower, but a sobering thought about the consequences of continuing the carbon burn. This was occurring 12,000 years ago.

    • Of the outbursts we know about, the Lake Agassiz produced a glacial outburst flood volume of greater than 150,000 km3. We have indirect evidence of others of similar size. So, yes, there’s a geological precedent for such events.

  21. Jay M

     /  September 5, 2014

    Let me correct, this is a smaller outburst than the “1 foot” event. Getting orders of magnitude mixed up. Have to look around if there is evidence of larger phenomena.

  22. Jay M

     /  September 5, 2014

    Agassiz, that’s the ticket. Heinrich 4 about 35K years ago involved 2.3 million km^3 of water, so about a 20′ sea level event, but over 100-400 years.

    • Colorado Bob

       /  September 5, 2014

      The Lake Missoula floods –
      I have visited the “scab lands” downstream, one of the most tortured landscapes one will ever see. And it looks like they happened just a few decades ago.

      • It really gives one perspective when you discover boulders the size of houses tossed around by these floods. Things you thought were hills just piles and piles of left over flood debris.

  23. Engineers have demonstrated that they can source crude oil from rock and other hard to get at places. The world’s economies have demonstrated that they can not afford it.
    Combined with deadly climate change means that, we are pretty much screwed.

  24. Kevin Jones

     /  September 6, 2014

    Well. If I hadn’t done my climate science homework, I wouldn’t have been arrested with 38 others at Coal River Mountain. They included Dr. James Hansen. If I hadn’t done my homework on the finite nature of oil,coal,gas, I wouldn’t have hosted the wonderful, knowledgeable and all around good man, Richard Heinberg for a weekend of discussion with the most sincere activists I know. My take: They’re BOTH right. It’s late & I’m tired. Intrigued by your take, Robert. I’ll re-read tomorrow.

    • Cheers Kevin and thanks for the fantastic work.

      I believe that Hienburg is right in the sense that oil has outlived its economic usefulness. I think that Hansen is right in that we may just be both clever and stupid enough to manage to keep burning it anyway.

      The notion here is to voluntarily pursue peak fossil fuels as swiftly as possible rather than waiting for the economics to desperately wind down, thereby building in time for worse consequences. Time to power down the fossil fuel portions of civilization.

  25. Kevin Jones

     /  September 6, 2014

    Yes. And deep gratitude back.


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