There is no better reminder of the perils of the end of the cheap gasoline era than the article in today’s New York Times, ““Lawmakers Push for Big Subsidies for Coal Process,” i.e., coal-to-liquids. This is the process that converts coal to diesel fuel, and while doing so, according to the NYT, emits 119 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional diesel. (David discussed the article this morning.)
Of course, the coal companies will allegedly “try” to sequester the carbon, a position which will inevitably move to “just too expensive” and “technical difficulties.”
Dick Gephardt, of Democratic congressional fame, has even been recruited by the coal companies to lead the charge, complete with multibillion dollar subsidies for plants and floors on the price of the diesel that comes out.
As James Hansen has recently warned, coal-to-liquids and other attempts to extend the era of oil, such as exploring the tar sands of Canada or Venezuela, will make the global warming picture much worse. The intrepid writers at The Oil Drum have been pointing out for some time now that these various “unconventional” sources of oil are feeble attempts to deal with the problem. They will be horrendously expensive, use up copious amounts of rapidly depleting water, and use up so much energy we don’t even know if we’ll come out ahead energy-wise. The promise of these projects is being used to lull the public back into their American Dream daze.
The phenomenon of the peaking of the supply of oil worldwide is usually called “peak oil”, which means that oil supply builds to a crescendo and then starts a long slide down, even as global demand goes up: pop goes the price of oil. As James Kunstler has recently (and often) pointed out, the entire “carburban” way of life (to use JMG’s phrase) will start to crumble and fall as the price of gasoline goes up.
Cars depend on oil; suburbs depend on cars; no oil means no cars, no cars mean no suburbs, QED.
Peak oil and global warming are two sides of the same coin; the tragic dependence of our current civilization on fossil fuels. As the authors of the book The Limits of Growth have pointed out, we face both a “source” and a “sink” problem, not just with oil, but with many substances: the source is running out, leaving all economic processes dependent on the disappearing resource prone to collapse, and there is no “sink” for the emissions and effluents emanating from the resource, thus throttling economic processes as well. Richard Heinberg, one of the best writers on the subject of peak oil, compares the process to yeast in a bottle of grape juice, using up the sugars that sustain them and converting the sugars into alcohol that kills the yeast (although we enjoy the end product, wine).
While there is occasional sniping between the two groups of activists, the main goal is shared by both, so both sides should be using each other’s arguments in advocating that our society must become fossil-fuel free.
Perhaps those who are concerned about global warming will worry that arguments made for peak oil will lead to even worse solutions such as coals-to-liquids. But don’t shoot the messenger: those environmentally disastrous schemes will be pushed by energy companies no matter what. In fact, energy companies hate peak oil ideas even more than global warming ones, because if people really thought fossil fuels were running out, horror of horrors, they might really take renewable energy seriously.
The best response to arguments that global warming mitigation will be too expensive is to argue that the supplies of fossil fuels are declining anyway, so we might as well get on with it. This decline includes the coal that the coal-to-liquids lobbyists are depending on.
The best response to arguments that we must go to “unconventional” sources to avert peak oil is that such measures will make global warming worse and that “unconventional” fuels only postpone the inevitable while wasting a huge amount of resources (there is a third leg to this, biofuels and ecosystem destruction, that I will follow up on later).
So global warming and peak oil arguments reinforce each other in a virtuous positive feedback loop: replace our fossil-fuel based civilization with a renewable energy based one.