On Energy is a series discussing and dissecting the energy sector in the UK.
Contemporary energy policy discussions are driven by three key motivations.
Alternative to fossil fuels
In 1939, the U.S. Department of Interior released a report that claimed that “The world will run out of oil in 13 years”. The claims were repeated in a subsequent report in 1950. It goes without saying that they were spectaculary wrong on both occasions, and for good reason. The projections took into account the then reservoirs of easily accessible oil, often called elephant fields, cross-referenced it against oil consumption and extrapolated the numbers to arrive at their 13-year projection.
What the report failed to acknowledge was that once the so-called elephant fields dried up, the rise in price of oil would make other unconventional reservoirs profitable enough to exploit. From the deepwater drills in the Gulf of Mexico, to the tar sands of Alberta, to the fracking sites in the US, high oil prices have almost always resulted in innovations that open up oil reserves hitheto off limits.
While we may never truly run out of oil, as evident from figure 1, we will eventually deplete the cheap, conventional oil on which our cars and lorries run. Since it is used for making plastics and other high-value chemical products, perhaps we would want to use the more expensive oil for better uses than simply setting it on fire. Advancements in methods of harnessing alternative sources of energy may make them more attractive to consumers sickened by ever-increasing oil prices. Hence, finding an alternative to fossil fuels is a matter of feasibility rather than availability.
Is it prudent to burn expensive fossil fuels if we could find alternative sources that would be cheaper?
Security of energy supplies is paramount to peace and prosperity. The arc of human history provides countless stories of nations going to war, even colonising large swathes of earth, to secure natural resources for economic growth. Fossil fuels are not evenly distributed across the Earth, and perhaps making our economy vulnerable to the whims of a foreign government is not the best of ideas. Western incursions into the oil-rich Middle East are grim reminders of how quickly friends can turn into foes.
Is it prudent to depend on resources whose production and distribution are wholly out of our control?
Despite American claims to the contrary, there has been a resounding consensus amongst scientists that burning of fossil fuels releases large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) which can irreversibly change Earth’s climate. This is sometimes referred to as anthropogenic climate change or anthropogenic global warming or simply climate change. While the first two concerns are straightforward selfish motivations for drastically cutting fossil fuel use, climate change is a more altruistic motivation. The brunt of climate change will be borne not by us but by future generations over many hundreds of years.
Since the main reason we burn fossil fuels is for energy, to fix climate change we need to change the way we get energy. The climate problem is mostly and energy problem.
Whichever of these three concerns motivates you, we need energy numbers and policies that add up. That is what we will cover in the rest of this series.
- “Risks of the oil transition”, A E Farrell and A R Brandt 2006 Environ. Res. Lett. 1 01400
- “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”, John Cook et al 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 024024