So what are we to make of the Farrell and Brandt graphic found at Romm's?
If it holds up, it tells us that "peak oil" is not looming at all.
It's always been a question: will "peak oil" get us before "global warming" does? The stock answer from the climate community has been that "peak oil" is an economic problem with relatively little impact on climate. That is, we accepted "peak oil" fears and presumed that the bulk of the risk from fossil fuels came from coal reserves, which looked to be much larger than oil or natural gas.
A fellow named David Rutledge at Cal Tech has even been arguing that coal reserves are overestimated. He's been taking the position that, as a consequence, the whole climate issue is overblown, since all the fossil fuels would be going away soon.
Here's Rutledge's picture (from his powerpoint):
So, worry about energy supplies, he says, but not about climate. We are running out of fossil fuels too soon to worry! I actually ran Rutledge's idea past Stephen Schneider on the day I met him. He dismissed it out of hand.
But if Farrell and Brandt are right, then Rutledge is wrong. In their schema there is plenty of reserve of fossil fuel, not even counting clathrate deposits as a fuel. (Whether they count as a feedback is out of scope here.)
Admittedly, half of F & B's projection is coal. But there are great swaths of petroleum potential from the new natural gas ("fracking") supplies (GTL), tar sands, and enhanced production from sites that were played out to the limits of old technologies. The uncertainties are huge, but if we consider the high end, we see that we have tapped barely a twentieth of liquid fuel potential, and the production costs leave room for profit even under present pricing.
Also, presumably F & B maximize liquid fuel production at the expense of stationary energy plants. This is arguably what will happen if we don't attend to transportation infrastructure, after all.
But it's also worth noting that these methods double to quadruple the impact of each unit of energy consumption. If the sources and efficiencies of fossil fuel recovery continue to grow (in what would ordinarily be seen as the "techno-optimist" scenario) that leaves a whole lot of room for baking the planet.
People talk a lot about uncertainties and then get all worked up about climate models. The sensitivity is between 2 and 4, okay?
It would be nice if we knew within a factor of ten how much carbon we are worrying about! Please and thanks.
The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.
- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)