Peak oil, coal, and bizarre optimism
So last week Salon ran a big story on peak oil by Katharine Mieszkowski. It was decent, though focused a bit too much on the loony fringes. I guess the temptation to do that is irresistible when trying to make a long story about the Hubbert Curve and Venezuelan oil reserves compelling.
In response, John Quiggen (at the usually excellent Crooked Timber group blog) wrote a response I can only characterize as bizarre. But the comments under the post don’t treat it as bizarre. And Ezra Klein linked to it as though it proved something, and then ladled more bizarritude on top. So either these guys — who I regard as considerably smarter than yours truly — are missing something, or I am. Let’s take a tour.
Quiggen’s point, briefly, is this: Peak oilers falsely exaggerate the problem by conflating oil with fossil fuels generally, implying that running out of the former means running out of the latter. But there’s actually tons and tons of coal left, and it wouldn’t be too hard to do what we do with oil with coal instead. So, you know, global warming’s a problem, but running out of oil isn’t.
I think that’s a fair summary. And I think it’s nuts.
First, oil supply and demand are in notoriously tense balance, and that tension will only rise as demand skyrockets (China, etc.) and supply dwindles. Any little bump anywhere — another hurricane, a terrorist attack on a facility in Saudi Arabia, some America-hatin’ from a Venezuelan ruler — could have a dramatic effect on the economy. It’s important to remember that our efforts to transition away from oil take place in that context. As for that transition, Quiggen simply stipulates that coal can be substituted neatly for oil in cars and trucks through electric vehicles, liquefication, or gasification. He doesn’t mention airplanes. He doesn’t mention manufacturing (plastics, etc.). He doesn’t mention agriculture. He doesn’t mention big-box retail and suburban sprawl. He just waves his hands at it.
Klein summarizes: “Suffice to say, coal can power basically everything we use, and it’s unimaginably plentiful.” Suffice to say, I find that blithe statement rather far from obvious.
Second, say the end of cheap oil did drive us to coal. That would substantially accelerate global warming, as Quiggen acknowledges. But is something that forces you to commit suicide better than something that kills you directly? How does this diminish the significance of peak oil?
Oh, but wait, that’s not a problem either. Klein says we can handle it:
… new technologies, notably gasification (which could allow it to run cars), render carbon extraction and sequestration fairly straight-forward, so that problem, at least in theory, is pretty surmountable. Don’t believe me? Ask the Natural Resources Defense Council.
So we can just sequester the CO2, even though we don’t do it now and the technology’s almost entirely untested and we’d use shitloads more coal if oil dropped out of the equation. At a time when we desperately need to be slowing the rise of and eventually reducing CO2 emissions, we can transition the entire economy to coal and at the same time get sequestration going sufficient to handle all the extra CO2. Gosh, that seems awfully optimistic.
What about the global social, economic, and environmental nightmare that is coal mining? Presumably there’s some silver bullet to make that clean too?
In a follow-up to the article Klein cites, NRDC director David Hawkins says this:
May I suggest we need a two-pronged approach to fighting the damage caused by today’s production and use of coal. First and foremost, we need a much more rapid expansion of the role that efficiency and renewables play in meeting our energy needs. At the same time, we need effective rules to protect us wherever coal is produced and used.
Klein says, “in the end, we know what we’d turn to: coal.” Hawkins doesn’t sound quite as sanguine about it.
“None of this is to downplay the costs or dangers of an energy crunch,” Klein avers. But yeah. It is to do exactly that. Bizarrely so.
What am I missing?
Update [2006-3-28 23:43:20 by David Roberts]: The Oil Drum crowd chews it over.