Peak or No Peak, Oil’s Environmental Risks Aren’t Going Anywhere

Caption EPA

This is an aerial view of last year's oil spill near the Mississippi delta. Oil spills are one of many environmental risks associated with fossil fuel use.

Over the past five years or so, there have been many reports and articles saying we're at or near “peak oil.” If you're not familiar with peak oil theory it goes something like this: we're approaching the point of maximum global oil output and sometime soon we'll see declining global oil production.  This will result in a number of challenges, ranging from rapidly increasing oil prices (in turn spiking prices of other vital commodities, like food) to a global version of the 1970s oil crisis.

In an essay for the Wall Street Journal, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and PowerDaniel Yergin, methodically argues that peak oil theory has been disproven many times in the past. Yergin argues that, instead of a peak, we will likely see a plateau of oil production even as demand increases. His essay draws from his new book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World and notes that contemporary statements about ‘running out of oil' are, in fact, the fifth time in history that similar claims have been made. He writes, “[t]he first was in the 1880s, when production was concentrated in Pennsylvania and it was said that no oil would be found west of the Mississippi.”

As we approach the future, the problem is not that we are running out of fossil fuels, the problem is that we aren’t (as demonstrated beautifully by The Onion).

Yergin presents some interesting facts and compelling arguments. He may be correct in projecting a plateau, but if you're more inclined to believe in peak oil theory, in terms of the environment, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever you – or I, or Yergin – believe, what’s already clear is that we are entering an era where the oil required to meet demand will no longer be cheap and easy to obtain. And while we're at it, let’s keep in mind that while forecasting the future is helpful, forecasts are often wrong.

Consider also that we will never truly ‘run out of oil.' Sure it’s a finite resource, but there will always be one more barrel in the ground that oil companies won’t produce because the technology isn’t there to get it out of the ground in a way that is economically feasible. Also note, by the time that uneconomic oil is all that’s left, substitutes for oil will need to have taken over transportation, industry and manufacturing. It’s hard to say now what the substitutes will be, but they could include a mix of renewable energy, natural gas from shale extracted via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking' or even oil derived from algae.

As we travel along that plateau of oil production (or down the decline, whatever reality may be), drilling will move to dirtier sources like oil sands, and potentially riskier areas, like offshore, deep water or Arctic locations. We may start converting coal into oil on a large scale and rapidly develop shale gas. And before we ever get to those alternative fuels we have to contend with current, as well as future, environmental issues surrounding oil as it exists today, including tailpipe or stack emissions, careless disposal of oil derived products, oil spills, etc.

As we approach the future, the problem is not that we are running out of fossil fuels, the problem is that we aren’t (as demonstrated beautifully by The Onion).

Do not despair, dear Ecocentric reader. As Yergin notes, we've been through this before. At the turn of 20th century, there was a battle between electric and gasoline (i.e. oil) powered cars. Oil won that round hands down; however, with more hybrid and fully electric cars coming to market, the next battle in the war may play out soon. Stay tuned to see if oil wins again. In the future, oil will be around, but let’s hope future technologies are able to advance society beyond it.