Energy Trumps Safety

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Petroleum is becoming more difficult and costly to extract. But since our economies remain dependent on fossil fuels, we are taking greater risks to acquire it. Increasing demand, coupled with declining supplies, is leading to volatility and higher prices, characteristic of what some economists refer to as "peak oil." Even the conservative International Energy Agency has acknowledged that oil production may peak in a decade’s time.

Humanity has never been more dependent on fossil fuels than today. But a legacy of underinvestment in mining technology for oil, due to low petroleum prices in the 1980s and 1990s, and the progressive depletion of long-established and easily exploitable sources have impeded oil extraction and exploration at a time of rising demand.

And world demand is rising, particularly for liquid fuels. For all the talk about conservation and alternative energy fuels, industrialized economies have reduced their oil consumption only incrementally in recent years, while large emerging economies—including China, India and Brazil—have rapidly become more oil dependent. While alternatives are emerging, they are still not at a scale that they can replace significant portions of humanity’s fossil fuel use.

The International Energy Agency’s “World Energy Outlook 2010” reports that conventional crude oil output could flatten out in the next 10 years, and that total global production might come close to a peak before 2035. Many energy analysts and governments caution that unless this peak is anticipated by sustained efforts to massively increase efficiency in oil use and to develop alternatives, it will likely result in spiraling prices and supply shocks.

Of course, investments in new extraction technologies likely guarantee that oil will not run out for decades to come. But demand will increasingly be met by unconventional oil (and other fossil fuel) sources that depend on extraction technologies with a higher environmental risk, greater financial cost and higher harvesting efforts. The associated diminishing “energy return on investment” rates means that the amounts of fuel extracted for every unit of energy invested are falling.

Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, meanwhile, continue to increase. Humanity already emits far more CO2 from fossil fuel burning than the planet’s ecosystems can absorb. More aggressive exploration and exploitation of dirtier petroleum sources (such as tar sands) and unconventional fossil gas will increase CO2 emissions per unit of energy. This at a time when climate scientists warn that human-induced CO2 emissions should be rapidly reduced to avoid a potentially catastrophic greater than 2° C warming.

Further information:

  • IEA World Energy Outlook 2011
  • IEA World Energy Outlook 2010
  • IEA World Energy Outlook 2009
  • Hall et al., 2008 “Peak Oil, EROI, Investments and the Economy in an Uncertain Future.”
  • Power Play by Robert Rapier, 2012
  • realclimate.com