Greenpeace recently issued a call for coordinated action to halt development of the 14 most threatening fossil fuel projects on the planet. These coal, oil, and gas projects, by increasing greenhouse gas emissions 6.3 gigatons a year by 2020, would push the world’s climate to a “point of no return.”
The report suggests to me that we climate advocates need to reexamine our strategies and how we're spending limited resources. Specifically, we need to focus as much on oil and gas as we have been on coal. And, believe it or not, the path to a low-carbon future lies through cheap, and indeed ever cheaper, oil.
It's not just coal, stupid
Coal has long been the big villain for climate advocates, and the focus of most campaigning. But only four of Greenpeace’s 14 biggest threats involve coal, while 10 involve oil and gas. Indeed, by 2020, annual carbon emissions from new “no return” oil and gas projects are expected to exceed those from coal: 3.3 gigatons of carbon from the “cleaner” fossil fuels vs. 3 gigatons from coal. And by 2035, the gap will grow: 6.2 gigatons of oil and gas carbon vs. 3.4 from coal.
There are two reasons why oil and gas will pose more of a threat than coal in the future. First, the assumption that oil and gas resources were very limited, while coal was abundant, has been stood on its head by the emergence of new oil and gas technology -- ultra-deep ocean drilling, horizontal drilling and fracking, and increased efforts to develop both on- and offshore Arctic resources.
Second, where civil society is robust, climate and environmental advocacy is proving effective against coal. In the U.S., anti-coal activism -- led by the Sierra Club, spurred by state-level renewable standards, and lubricated by very cheap natural gas -- has driven coal’s share of electricity generation down from more than 50 percent to 35 percent. Coal industry leaders called 2012 their worst year in history; major companies like Patriot Coal and America West Resources have filed for bankruptcy. All projections of domestic demand for coal show it continuing to decline, which leaves U.S. coal companies scrambling to find new export markets for their product.