Below a small article I submitted to 'Planners' Newsletter' as an item for discussion,
and a small discussion which followed.
'Planners' Newsletter' was an e-mail forum within Shell up until 2004.
Fossil Fuel Based Energy Access and Climate: a Double Clamp
by Evert Wesker
In my view humanity faces a double clamp which needs to be resolved in the 21st century. On the one hand we are faced with a supply constraint when considering easily accessible energy sources, being fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), while on the other hand we are faced with a potential climate problem due to the rapid change of the composition of the atmosphere due to human activities. In this article I write down some thoughts on it.
Economic theory leading us astray
Classical economic theory tells us that prices of commodities like metals and other mineable materials rise as they become scarce. When, due to this, prices rise there will be a market-driven impetus to dig deeper and access deposits previously thought too low grade to be economically accessed. When taken to its limit one might say that up to a certain limit of feasibility such materials cannot be exhausted. They are only redistributed over the Planet and can be reclaimed.
However, when applied to fossil fuels this concept is dead wrong. When lignite, coal, oil, natural gas or Uranium are being used to raise energy in some form, they no longer exist as an energy carrier. In classic economic theory mass balances are taken into account in some way. However, the second law of thermodynamics is not! Energy cannot be recycled; energy is in the end just lost to a heat sink, being the environment.
When looking at oil production in the 1950s, globally, oil was produced at an energy cost of about 2% of the contained energy. By the 1990s this number had risen by a factor of 10; we were only able to produce some 5 tons of oil for every ton consumed in its discovery and production.
The first clamp: Supply
And it is here where the first clamp comes in. Discovering oil, drilling, building production facilities, running these, transportation through pipelines, shipping, refining and finally distribution all require energy. As soon as the amount of energy required to produce useful energy carriers from fossil sources exceeds the energy contained in them it will be the "end of the line". The "overhead" exceeds the net energy availability. The net gain is negative. Even when the price of oil reached $1000 per barrel it wouldnt make sense to produce it any more.
The annual discovery of oil rose from under 10 billion barrels per year in 1910 to over 40 billion barrels per year in 1962. After that year discoveries have fallen steadily to less than 10 billion barrels per year. At the same time consumption, driven by a rapidly growing world population and unsustainable consumption patterns in the western world, increased steadily to its present rate of over 20 billion barrels per year.
Is this problematic? One may say we have got coal as well in ample quantities. However, open pit coal mining requires quite a bit of energy (up to half of the contained energy in some cases). And where does this energy come from? Exactly: oil products. A similar story can be told about food production. The bread on your plate "used up" a five- to tenfold of its own energy content from fossil fuel sources. And meat? Multiply it by another factor of at least 5. So yes, it is highly problematic.
The second clamp: Climate
The only way out of this constraint on the basis of a fossil fuel economy is, apart from an expansion of natural gas or coal, going for sources more difficult to access: deep offshore, oil sands, coal to liquids. But they all require much more energy; their net energy gain in terms of available energy in energy carriers (fuels) is lower than in case of the "easy sources" like those in the Middle East. So the amount of CO2 emitted (unless one sequesters it again, at an energy cost) will increase even further.
And then the second clamp comes in: the risk of a step change in the climate on Earth, possibly including "nasty surprises" like shifting precipitation zones turning cereal belts into (semi) deserts.
It all leads me to the conclusion that a fossil fuel based "business as usual" scenario is utterly unsustainable in the longer run. Either the supply ceiling or the climate ceiling (or maybe both!) will be hit at some point in time. A world with 9 billion people and a per capita energy consumption of the order of 6 kW (a typical contemporary western lifestyle) wont be reached.
Looking at economics in another way
Various studies concluded that a sustainable world would require a maximum per capita energy consumption of something of the order of 1.5 to 2 kW. Currently the world average is 2 kW.
In economics much attention is given to labour productivity. It is easy to understand why, as it is the basis of prosperity. However, if one looks at the aspect of sustainability, a lopsided attention for labour productivity may lead one badly astray. If oil is produced very effectively, but the energy consumption is higher than the energy contained in it, the labour productivity of the oil workers can be terrific, but the net effect as shown above is even negative.
What needs to be taken into account, and will in my view become much more important, is resource productivity. This implies that economies need to cut back drastically their use of energy, their use of materials and their transport needs. It will require an entirely different way of thinking by economists. Labour productivity is not prime (although a certain minimum level is required to enable sufficient wealth) but resource productivity is of prime importance.
This presents a dilemma for Shell, as it is a ton/hr business. Shell is a high labour productivity, and material and transport intensive, business. Moreover, the current trend of bringing more "difficult" oil resources into production is often at loggerheads with a high resource efficiency.
One may think of a conversion of Shell from an oil company into an energy company, in which the sustainable energy part slowly replaces the fossil energy part. But that is much more easily said than done. (In an appendix I list some energy sources and a very brief description of their advantages and drawbacks. I also add a list of some interesting reading material for those interested.)
Some concluding thoughts
With many essential resources depleted (oil, natural gas and high grade ores), no civilization however competent will be able to make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. In that respect, the current human civilization endeavour may well be a one-shot affair. I agree with the implicit message of Martin Rees in his book "Our final century". If we fail, we would do so in an irreversible way.
I end with a question to think about: What would be Shells
place in a resource productivity driven world?
Appendix: Alternative energy sources, advantages and drawbacks.
First some "non-CO2 non-sustainable" energy sources; their advantage is a much lower CO2 emission (the mining operations, extraction and transport of Uranium / Thorium).
A non-conventional fossil option
For both wind and solar energy at some point in time (when over 20% of the energy requirement is covered by them), a large scale energy storage system is required. What this should look like is by no means trivial. Should it be Hydrogen? Or pumped hydro? Or super capacitors? The jury is still out here as well.
From this very brief overview, one can see that turning the world economy onto sustainable energy will be a difficult and long job. There is no "cheap and easy" solution.
Secondly, it becomes clear once more that the resource
productivity must be increased dramatically to avert major problems in the
course of the coming century.
Background reading material
Books touching upon (the need for) sustainable development
Books about earth sciences and the evolution of life
Yes. However, failure is not an option.