June 25, 2007
Limited Hydrocarbons Mean Little Global Warming?

Dastardly humans won't be able to fry the world with excessive amounts of fossil fuels burning because we do not have enough fossil fuels left to burn to cause a first class disaster? Mother Gaia wisely limited the amount of fossil fuels she created because she knew her human progeny would wreak disaster if tempted with too much oil and coal to burn? Writing at The Oil Drum CalTech professor Dave Rutledge argues that the mathematical method which petroleum engineer King Hubbard used to predict the date of US oil production peak can also be used to predict how much coal will get burned in the world. Rutledge, Cal Tech Chair for the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, says the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models for future climate change assume fossil fuels supplies available to raise atmospheric CO2 which overstate future hydrocarbon burning by a factor of 3 or 4 or more.

Often we do not have enough data to fit for remaining production this way. In these situations, I will use a Hubbert linearization to estimate the remaining production, like we often do for oil. Hubbert introduced this approach for modeling oil production in "Techniques of Prediction as Applied to the Production of Oil and Gas," in Saul I. Gass, ed., Oil and Gas Supply Modeling, pp. 16-141. National Bureau of Standards special publication 631. Washington: National Bureau of Standards, 1982. This is a great paper. It is difficult to find, but you can download it here (15MB file). Figure 2 shows a Hubbert linearization for world hydrocarbon production. The trend line is for 3.2 trillion barrels of oil equivalent (Tboe) remaining. We will use this number for our simulation of future atmospheric CO2 concentrations and temperature rise. This is 20% larger than the reserves given by the German resources agency BGR, 2.7Tboe. The BGR includes 500Gboe for unconventional sources. In contrast, the IPCC assumes that 11-15Tboe is available for production for its climate-change scenarios.

This fits with my intuition: We face such a huge looming problem with fossil fuels exhaustion that we should be thinking about moving away from fossil fuels due to rising costs and lowered production rather than because we might melt the polar ice caps. We need to embrace solar, nuclear, and wind because we just do not have as much fossil fuels left as the climate doomsters think we do.

If the Peak Oil, Peak Natural Gas, and Peak Coal folks are correct then why do the IPCC types spend so much time talking about climate catastrophe? My guess: Human-caused climate disaster makes for a far more dramatic moral story of human sin. Talk of using up all the coal and oil doesn't satisfy the need to see human action in such sinful terms. If we run out of oil then we suffer from the exhaustion of the oil but nature doesn't suffer as much as we do. We sin, but against ourselves. By contrast, if we heat up the planet the argument can be made for humans as massive sinners against nature.

Rutledge doesn't see how the IPCC scenarios for future atmospheric CO2 levels can happen given the amount of unburned and usable fossil fuels that are left.

Now we are in a position to see what some consequences for climate are. We convert future hydrocarbon and coal production to atmospheric carbon emission using EIA coefficients and plot them as the Producer-Limited Profile in Figure 10, together with the carbon emissions from the 40 scenarios. The Producer-Limited Profile has lower emissions than any of the 40 scenarios. This would be true even if we calculated the emissions with the full coal reserves. Jean Laherrere was the first to call attention to this anomalous situation. He has made the point forcefully and repeatedly, to no apparent effect.

Rutledge argues for carbon sequestration in order to avoid the 1.8 C heating. That amount of heating doesn't really alarm me. The biggest advantage I can see from carbon sequestration is that it will serve as a tax on coal and oil that will increase the incentives to develop energy replacements. A more rapid development of replacement energy sources will reduce the disruptions that will come with the exhaustion of oil, coal, and natural gas fields.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 June 25 10:42 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels

Armand rousso said at June 26, 2007 2:47 AM:

We should try to avoid taking plane, it will help to limit Hydrocarbons... Armand Rousso

back40 said at June 26, 2007 6:13 AM:


Reality Czech said at June 26, 2007 9:29 AM:

Climate catastophe is a worry because the warning signs have been apparent since roughly 1988 (Hansen's work), there are sources of fossil fuels beyond conventional coal, oil and gas (S. Korea has just announced production of methane from sea-floor clathrates, which will produce both carbon dioxide and fugitive methane emissions - and the amount of clathrate available world-wide is staggering) and there are already positive-feedback phenomena being measured (emission of methane from thawing permafrost, arctic albedo change on both land and water, etc).

Ivan said at June 26, 2007 9:54 AM:

The IPCC is a political body. I'm not sure why people listen to them as the "authority" on climate change.

I've thought for some time that peak-oil and global warming didn't make sense together so much. But I'm told there is a lot more coal and natural gas than oil, so I can still see it happening.

I wouldn't claim as strongly as you, Randall, that there will be alternative energy benefits from carbon taxes.
I would strongly prefer direct investment in research to solve both problems, though a tax on petroleum isn't as bad a carbon tax or a carbon market.

Helmut said at June 26, 2007 11:42 AM:

Peak oil and global warming are contradictory, as you say Randall. But both serve nicely as scare tactics for pseudo-scientific "environmental" movements. Good scarey nighttime stories for the kiddies, nicht wahr?

rsilvetz said at June 26, 2007 10:26 PM:

Since neither "peak oil" nor "global warming" are real crises of any magnitude, the discussion is utterly pointless. Both crises are political fabrications designed to foist regulatory environments on the rest of us.

But since Randall has breached the topic again, let me remind everyone that taxes on a good do not, and never have, accelerated the creation of a better substitute for that good. It usually creates an inferior good -- War on Drugs and rise of crystal meth case in point. Or more on topic, the unfolding Ethanol-Agriculture-Corn/Meat/Milk pricing disaster, raising everyones costs.

But let's look at a gallon of gas in light of this idea of taxing into existence a substitute. (It even sounds like contradiction in terms doesn't it?) The refinery profit on a gallon is approximately 5 cents, and due to the high fixed cost infrastructure and regulations, doesn't vary much. However, the cut to the government is approximately 45 cents in taxes. Virtually all the rest is cost. Thus the tax-to-profit ratio, an old and trusted ratio, is a whopping 9-to-1. (It's higher once you realize that the refinery pays tax on its 5 cents, and of course, the dealer on his profits.) Once we would have called that punitive taxation.... and that still hasn't made a single alternative viable. The .gov get away with this by letting the refiner get the profit (taxed at corporate rates) but make you pay the excise tax. Nice racket taxes huh? Nuclear, which would have worked, was the market-driven superior substitute, was killed in its infancy by regulation. Europe and Japan have considerably higher prices and no sign of a substitute showing up there either...

The idea that you can change behavior thru taxation and force is a statist fantasy. It has never been achieved in any good or service. The power to tax is the power to destroy. Nor can you screw with price either. Nor can you just kill the market or good. Legions of examples: See all Sin taxes. See Rent Control disasters in NY, Boston, San Francisco. See Car property tax. See Prohibition. See War on Drugs. See FDA War on Supplements. See California's electricity "market". [On the latter, if the other 49 states of the Union behaved like California on electricity, the nation would revolt and burn Washington to the ground. Where else does the price per unit of electricity go up the more you use?] 100% of the time taxation simply penalizes folks for living their lives in a way that is in conflict with how some statist bureaucrat thinks they should act. Worse, it also penalizes the supplier of the good, since taxation inevitably raises the prices and reduces the supply available, making the market smaller. Big Oil allows it because taxation prevents the dangerous newcomer from accumulating capital and since business quislings fear competition more than taxes... well -- you see the shameful state of things as a result.

I digress... You see folks, physics and economics share natural law. The theorems of economics are LAWS. (Isn't it interesting that the base equations of statistical mechanics and economics overlap...) They can't be repealed or modified by a bureaucrat. No more so than you can square a circle. There is no social good that can come thru the manipulation of a system that is already tuned to efficiency. It's a U-shaped curve. You suffer loss either way you move from the market-defined equilibria... (Pretentious prattle by the perfect market folks and information theorists nonwithstanding.) It also applies to inventions -- the best way to accelerate progress without incurring enormous costs is to deregulate. If you want out from under the Arab monopolies and out from noxious fossil fuels, get out of the way and let the market be free. Which means open the Continental shelves, open up the shale oil, open up the low-sulfur coal, open up all the National Parks where these resources exist, and let the new companies invest as they see fit. Let anyone who wants to build a nuclear power plant. Within ten years you will be out from under OPEC and the resurgent profits of the energy market will be reinvested, along with new attracted capital, to give you the non-fossil fuel alternatives you want.

A.B. said at June 27, 2007 6:36 AM:

Hum you obviously *can* change behaviors through taxation. It's plain immoral but if you do tax product X, generally less X will be consumed.

Bigelow said at June 27, 2007 9:51 AM:


Why all the climate catastrophe cacophony?

Professor David Rutledge writes
“This means that the contributions to the temperature rise from fossil fuels that have already been consumed, and from deforestation, and from other greenhouse gases amount to more than the contribution from future fossil-fuel use.” http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2697#more

Elvis has left the building.

Consider Dr. James Hansen “…suggested a 3°C warming from where we are now would result in a likely species extinction rate of 50%. 3°C was described as the business as usual scenario. The “Alternative” scenario with falling CO2 emissions and only 1°C temperature increase would result in a likely species extinction rate of 10%.

(…) we can probably live with the CO2 emissions from oil without hitting 450ppm. However he did stress the point that we have to start emphasizing conservation and efficiency by taxing emissions otherwise we will start squeezing oil/gas from unconventional sources such as shale oil and tar sands. That is something we absolutely can not afford to do.” http://europe.theoildrum.com/story/2006/11/18/93514/869

Randall Parker said at June 27, 2007 7:07 PM:


I seriously doubt that half the species on the planet will get wiped out by a 3C temperature rise. Species will migrate. They'll evolve under selective pressure. But massive extinction? I do not see that. Maybe polar bears will die out and a few other cold weather species.

Robert Silvetz,

We really have a limited supply of fossil fuels. Though back40 is right to point out hydrates/clathrates. Not sure of their potential. I heard rosier scenarios about them 6 or 7 years ago. The more recent science points to lower concentrations than previously thought.

As for the effects of taxation: Half the cars sold now in Europe are diesel. Taxation certainly does change buying behavior and investmentD behavior. Given enough taxes on some product people will invest more to develop cheaper alternatives and some of those alternatives could eventually fall in price to below the non-taxed price of the original poduct.

Engineer-Poet said at June 27, 2007 10:13 PM:

Ivan sez:

The IPCC is a political body. I'm not sure why people listen to them as the "authority" on climate change.
Indeed.  The IPCC is a political body, biased toward powerful government interests.  Because of this,
  • Anything the IPCC says contrary to those interests, such as the threats posed by GHG emissions, can be taken to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • The actual situation is bound to be considerably worse than the IPCC consensus.

As examples of things not even mentioned in the IPCC consensus, there is on-going work in ice sheet movements (higher water levels accelerate ice flows in Greenland and Antarctica), feedback effects (the IPCC reports have no models for feedbacks from ice-sheet loss, permafrost methane emissions or forests changing from carbon sinks to sources as temperatures increase — so they set them at zero) and the greater emissions of GHG's per unit of energy as quality of resources declines.  If they were included, the situation would look much worse.

rsilvetz sez:

Since neither "peak oil" nor "global warming" are real crises of any magnitude, the discussion is utterly pointless.
I recall people saying the same thing about smoking, and with about as much supporting evidence.  Do I really need to say that we found that they were all either liars or dupes?
Europe and Japan have considerably higher prices and no sign of a substitute showing up there either.
They have a lot more rail and transit.  France's TGV even runs on nuclear power.
The idea that you can change behavior thru taxation and force is a statist fantasy. It has never been achieved in any good or service.
Total nonsense.
  • Tobacco taxes have persuaded many addicts to quit.
  • Tax biases on alcohol caused some hard-cider makers to add malt, thus making their product a "malt beverage".
  • Subsidies are largely responsible for the surfeit of (subsidized) corn products in the American diet, and the dearth of (unsubsidized) vegetables and greens.
  • The "OPEC tax" on oil caused US gasoline consumption to drop from 1978 to 1982, and not recover fully until 1993.

I notice some funny contradictions from so-called libertarian thinkers on blogs these days.  On the one hand, "the power to tax is the power to destroy"; on the other hand, taxes aren't supposed to affect people's behavior.  I'm amazed that heads haven't exploded from the cognitive dissonance.

Fuel prices are the key to getting people to replace motor fuel with other things.  Electricity at today's prices is the energy equivalent of gasoline at about 75¢/gallon!  It is fairly easy to engineer a vehicle with a bunch of batteries in it (even lead-acid), it's just hard to get people to buy one when fuel is so cheap.  If fuel cost a lot more, people would want plug-in hybrids so they could substitute electricity for all their short trips and the first parts of long ones.  It might even spawn a market for BEVs and generator-trailer rentals.

More than 3 years ago, I calculated that solar PV + batteries was nearly competitive with gasoline cars.  Now imagine the uncaptured external benefits of radically improved national security and public health from less pollution.  Consider that the cost of oil is going up, while all the sources of renewable electricity are getting cheaper.

SRI's $7/lb silicon process was invented in the 1980's, and shelved for lack of demand.  The technology we need is in the manufacturing processes, not the fundamentals.  Even if AGW is fiction, we're still fools for failing to push the public away from petroleum and toward EV's/RE decades ago.

Engineer-Poet said at June 27, 2007 10:18 PM:

Missing from previous post:

(How much worse?  We could repeat the methane catastrophe.)

PacRim Jim said at June 27, 2007 10:35 PM:

If a few more unstable countries get nukes, there might not be enough humans around to exhaust the hydrocarbons.

Ivan said at June 28, 2007 10:01 AM:


You're naive to think that governments and the IPCC won't both benefit from predictions of worse doom and gloom.
That is exactly how governments expand power.

This isn't a comment about the actual science of climate change. It is a fact of life.

And as someone whe tends to be libertarian, rsilvetz is just wrong about taxes. It is basic economics that people respond to incentives.

Endgin Poetry said at June 28, 2007 12:20 PM:

The IPCC is custom made for European governments, to help them enlarge their power and take away power from their citizens. The IPCC is compatible with governments seizing more power--more than compatible.

Socialism--abolishing private property along with central planning--has always failed. But governments of Europe--social democracies, not socialist--are veering toward more central planning and less private property rights. Doing so will doom Europe.

Engineer-Poet said at June 29, 2007 10:49 PM:
You're naive to think that governments and the IPCC won't both benefit from predictions of worse doom and gloom.
Fallacy of argument from consequences.

Government "benefitted" from photochemical smog, if you consider every increase in funding and authority to accrue to bureaucrats.  But it is wrong to think that this benefit came at the expense of the public.  The public was harmed by the smog, and benefitted from its reduction.  Police cost money too, but not having police costs more.

The IPCC is a study body, and I fail to see how it will benefit by changing its predictions.  If we continue Business As Usual, it will study the consequences.  If we get serious about fixing the problem, it will study our progress or lack thereof.  All we'll get out of it is information, which we need and should be collecting anyway.

Before weather satellites, hurricanes killed people by the hundreds and thousands.  Today, people generally have enough warning to get out of harm's way.  This information costs money, but trying to do without it would be lunacy.

That is exactly how governments expand power.
Restrict that power to addressing the causes of the problem, so it diminishes along with them.  This is why I call for simple, even-handed measures like carbon/GHG taxes rather than systems ripe for favoritism like tradeable permits.

I see the two fallacies, argument from consequences and ad-hominem, all over what passes for climate "discussion" in the blogosphere.  The arguments ad-hominem:

  • This is coming from the doomers/Greens/Marxists/environmentalists, therefore it's wrong.
  • This is coming from scientists with climate research grants which will dry up if there is no problem, therefore it's wrong.
The people using these arguments completely ignore the hard data from surface, airborne and satellite measurements, borehole and ice-core temperature records, changes in snowmelt and ice cover, the cooling of the stratosphere, and everything else.  Perhaps they do this because the scientfic data is hard to understand and they don't want to trouble themselves to actually study the phenomenon.  They are still wrong.  (I would like to see them forced to bet their wealth on the correctness of their positions, so that each increment of evidence decreases their ability to obstruct the necessary responses.)

The arguments from consequences:

  1. This will increase the power of governments, therefore it's a ruse.
  2. This will change the economic power balance away from industries A, B and C and toward X, Y and Z, therefore it is a plot by X, Y and Z.
  3. This will shift power toward X political faction, therefore it's a fraud.
These are easily answered.
  1. Sometimes you need governments, and even international treaties, to deal with problems which would otherwise leave many free riders or even fail.  It would only take 1% of HC and NOx-belching cars in LA to undo two decades of smog abatement, and the CFC allowances granted to some countries under the Montreal Protocol are delaying progress on ozone recovery.
  2. The argument by proponents of nuclear and wind that coal-fired plants in Ohio, Michigan and Ontario are dirtying up their air with a sulfate haze may advance their interests.  It is also undeniable.  Only the facts matter when trying to determine what should change.
  3. The other political factions have only themselves to blame for failing to put the topic on their own agenda and construct an effective program of response.

Randall Parker said at June 30, 2007 9:52 AM:


The people who see little danger from climate change need reminders of the several benefits of a shift away from fossil fuels:

  1. Better balance of trade.
  2. Less money flowing to Jihadists and the spreaders of Islam. Less terrorism. Less repressive Islam spreading around the world.
  3. Cleaner air and water.
  4. With sufficiently advanced battery technology electricity becomes a cheaper way to power cars.
  5. Less need for an expensive military presence in the Middle East and for American soldiers to get injured and killed over there.
  6. The other energy sources will become cheaper than what we now pay for fossil fuels. Photovoltaics prices can go down by an order of magnitude for example. Lower costs will bring higher living standards.

Did I miss any?

Engineer-Poet said at June 30, 2007 10:17 AM:

7.  Shifts from central power to personally-owned PV will decrease the power of government.

Randall Parker said at June 30, 2007 10:46 AM:


I like your number 7. With rooftop solar and cars recharged from solar electric we reduce the power of central government and the need for central government to do anything about energy policy. No need to keep the Strait of Hormuz open for example. No need to worry about the stability of the Saudi monarchy. No need to prop up or overthrow dictators.

I see this as part of a larger trend where technologies will enable people to do more on their own.

Want a blood test? Use your embedded nanodevices to tell you what your status is. Then use a computer to diagnose your problems.

Want food? Use genetically engineered algae in a sealed panel in your roof to grow and produce complete sustenance.

The internet also reduces central power. Gatekeeper controllers of info get weaker since the internet can have as many channels on it as there are people.

Nick said at July 4, 2007 9:37 PM:

8. Reduced need for oil reduces the "Dutch curse", where economic and political power centralizes and corrupts, in places like Darfur; Russia; Venezuela, Texas; Mexico; Uganda; Iran; KSA.

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