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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

Oil and climate change in the age of energy scarcity

As energy scarcity returns to civilization, we are being forced—often painfully—to become conscious once again of the energy flows in our daily life, Cobb writes. 

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Stores of hydrocarbons, however, are increasingly found miles under the earth or the seabed. The methods for measuring the amount available to society for its use are imprecise at best. And, those measurements depend on nongeologic factors such as future prices and technology, both of which can only be guessed at. No underground resource can be exploited 100 percent. In fact, oil extraction to date has averaged around 35 to 40 percent of the original oil in place. Unconventional oil resources such as tar sands are likely to yield smaller percentages because of the difficulties involved in the extraction and refining of these resources. In addition, such unconventional energy resources are highly sensitive to price because they are so costly to exploit.

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Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, 'Prelude,' and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. He is a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas—USA, and he serves on the board of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. For more of his Resource Insights posts, click here.

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As it turns out, we are far more certain about the science behind climate change than we are about the methods used to calculate future world energy supplies. The degree of certainty about climate change calls out for immediate and drastic action because we understand how large the risks are. The degree of uncertainty over future energy supplies calls out for immediate and drastic action because that uncertainty poses large risks for society.

It's not necessarily the degree of certainty or uncertainty which ought to drive our public policy on any issue, but rather the level of risk which our current state of knowledge suggests is present. In the case of climate change, the risks are known with more certainty each day that we observe massive melting on Greenland and the poles, intense drought and hurricanes, and dying forests made vulnerable to disease and infestation by a warming climate.

In the case of energy supplies, the risks become more apparent because of what we do NOT know. We do not know whether fusion energy will be mastered any time this century. We do not know whether the new unconventional supplies of oil and natural gas will be able to make up for declines in existing fields over time. We do not know whether society as it is currently structured can withstand the very high energy prices in the long term which appear to be necessary to sustain the development of unconventional energy resources.

As the uncertainties over energy grow and as abundance wanes, the technical-corporate-financial energy elite will be faced with a citizenry that has become increasingly aware of its predicament. Scarcity implies rationing. Either the rationing will be done by price—i.e., the rich get what they need and the rest get what they can afford—or it will be done by political mechanisms. The pain comes in either case, and the big question will be whether that pain can find political expression in our unfolding age of energy scarcity—expression that could mean renewed engagement by citizens in an area central to their happiness, their comfort and perhaps even their survival.

(This piece was informed by an excellent book entitled Carbon Democracy by Timothy Mitchell and by a line of thought which began with two pieces which I wrote many years ago: Can democracy survive without fossil fuels? and Risk and probability: MIA in the peak oil debate.)

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