How to Think About Fossil Energy: A Proposal

By Scott L. Montgomery - 23 April 2019
How to Think About Fossil Energy: A Proposal

Scott L. Montgomery argues that current debates are overlooking the vital role fossil fuels must play in creating the conditions for their own abandonment.

Is there a way to see fossil fuels having a positive global role in today’s world, given the context of climate change? This doesn’t mean embracing them as blessings or benefits as in the past, far from it. But rather, can they be cast both as the core of the climate problem and a key element in the solution? Many, to be sure, would say no. They would even doubt the sanity of the question and, perhaps, those who pose it. Others of a more practical bend might invoke the idea of “necessary evils”, like the need to mine metals for making wind turbines. Neither response, however, offers much help in dealing with a simple, inexorable reality.

Fossil fuels run the modern world. There is no argument about this. It defines a pressing and, for more than a few, depressing truth that must be changed but also faced. No less than 80% of the energy that humanity currently uses comes via oil, gas, and coal, whose systems of production and use together represent an immense, material fact worth many $trillion. Such a fact, moreover, if denied or disregarded, renders many a forecast for a near-term non-carbon future little more than a dream. At the same time, however, over-focus on fossil dominance can end up as a reason for fatalism, or worse. Where and how might we find a helpful balance?

Answers that Don’t Work

Answers have not been entirely lacking. Bjorn Lomborg, for one, has promoted the idea that reliable electricity powered by cheap fossil fuels is needed by billions of people in poorer countries. The reason is to eliminate the terrible health effects of indoor air pollution that come from using traditional biomass, better known as wood and dung, as daily fuel. Such pollution has been identified by the World Health Organization as one of the world’s greatest health hazards, especially for women and young children. Lomborg proposes that abundant fossil sources could be scaled up quickly almost anywhere, providing power that would improve lives in fairly short order. Once a higher level of development is reached, decarbonization could then begin via replacement technologies. Thus Lomborg’s (deliberately contrarian) maxim: “Saving Lives with Fossil Fuels.” 

There are two problems with this. First, electrifying poorer nations on a significant scale has proved challenging no matter what sources are used (hydro, coal, gas), for an array of complex reasons. Second, where such efforts have had results, as in India, air pollution from coal and oil (fuel oil in power plants), as well as diesel (in generators), has itself produced deadly pollution. This is especially true in cities, where many of the rural poor will be migrating in future decades. Without a full spectrum of pollution controls on power plants, the carbon fuel solution is not vastly better than the original carbon fuel problem.

A possible exception is natural gas. This is the other big answer to putting a kinder, gentler face on fossil energy. Combustion of gas produces just half the carbon emissions of coal and 30% less than petroleum fuels. Compared to these other sources in industry and power generation, natural gas qualifies as low(er) carbon without any doubt. Problems begin, however, if leakage of gas reaches beyond a certain point. Methane has 34 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, compared over a 100-year period. Though it chemically decomposes in the atmosphere after about 12 years, it also absorbs and re-radiates heat energy much better than does CO2.

Thus, if leakage is high enough, any climate benefit due to use of gas over coal or oil can be erased. Beyond this level, gas obviously becomes a liability. Measurements and estimates of such leakage are variable at best. In many cases no one really knows how good or bad things might be, whether natural gas might qualify as a means of lowering carbon or instead as “a calamity disguised as a solution.”

Unwelcome News from the IEA

My apologies for still more sobering news. There is actually a positive purpose at work here, though it requires a little more patience. Early this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris confirmed that global energy use and emissions rose significantly in 2018. This came after several years when it seemed as if these key factors had plateaued or even peaked, and so might begin their anxiously awaited descent. But no—though 2018 did prove a banner year for renewables in a number of nations, fully 70% of the new energy growth was in gas, oil, and coal.

Sobering, too, are forecasts for the next two or three decades. A representative sample, released by BP in 2019, provides a series of future scenarios, the most dramatic of which, in terms of carbon reduction, shows renewables plus nuclear accounting for half of global power generation by 2040. The forecast is little different for other respected, international voices, like the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris, Energy Information Administration in the U.S., the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., Bloomberg New Energy Finance, et al.

Some readers will know that IEA’s forecast has drawn outrage and controversy. A letter signed by dozens of scientific, political, clerical, and investment dignitaries was sent to Fatih Birol, head of the organization, complaining that it’s analysis and outlook on the next few decades was too “fossil fuel friendly.” None of its future scenarios, that is, accords well with the Paris goal of changing the energy mix so that further global warming can be held below 20C, a level at which massively destructive impacts will happen and remain irreversible for many decades. All of the IEA’s scenarios, the letter said, show too much continued use of fossil fuels.

At the core of such complaint is the belief that the IEA’s annual publication, World Energy Outlook (WEO; website here), where the scenarios appear, is itself a great power on the energy scene. It is presumed to be the “gold standard,” viewed by decision-makers everywhere as a road map or even blueprint to guide actual policy. This gives it a global impact all its own, one that embraces political positions, government R&D, private investment, academic research, even prayers to the Almighty.

Experience with government officials, large companies, and energy experts indicates this is far from true. The argument that if the IEA adopted a 1.50 scenario as its main forecast much of the world would then turn away from all fossil energy is absurd, however expressive of justified anxiety. No such holy writ or tablet exists in the energy domain.

No decision-maker or her/his staff I’ve ever encountered employs a single source of information to make critical choices. BP’s Annual Statistical Review, for example, with 65 years of publication, and its more recently founded Energy Outlook, are as widely consulted as the WEO. A well-known series of other forecasts—including from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the World Energy Council, OPEC, the Institute for Energy Economics Japan, ExxonMobil, Shell—are published regularly and together have a distribution equal or greater to that of the WEO. Moreover, they are free (WEO costs 120 euros). Not to be ignored are a host of annual conferences that routinely include talks on the future of energy, such as the meetings put on by IHS-Cera, BloombergNEF, Platts, and the International Energy Forum, to name but a few. 

The truth is that the WEO constitutes but one part of a global network of sources that are regularly looked at, selectively and variably, by experts and policy-maker staff. So it is an error to view the WEO as the one source to rule them all. Indeed, the publication has often been under attack for various flaws and failures. In the 2000s, it was routinely rebuked for not properly predicting the Armageddon of imminent peak oil. Since then, it has been taken to task more than once for its refusal to acknowledge the world will be ruled by renewables at mid-century, or earlier.

Could the IEA craft scenarios that agreed fully with demands for a rapid transition to non-carbon energy? Absolutely. It would make some sense to do this, in fact, to show what is needed for reducing emissions to where warming didn’t exceed 1.50 and 20. These could be called the “Aggressive New Policy” and “Paris Policy” scenarios, for example. Their purpose would be to show what alternative changes to the energy mix could bring about the required reduction in emissions.

Yet this has already been done by the most recent IPCC reports, including the 2018 Summary for Policy Makers. This offers four such pathways to keep warming under 1.50. Why repeat what the IPCC has done? The only strong answer, as the letter to Dr. Birol itself maintains, is that the WEO act as a global policy advisor, who has the agreeable ear of policy makers everywhere on planet Earth. Were such the case, the energy challenge might well have been solved some time ago.

To what degree should any effort of data gathering and analysis on global energy adopt the role of advocacy? If climate change be a threat of unmatched scale and severity, shouldn’t such work routinely contribute to the understanding of what must be done? Yet we also need to know what is not being done, what the reality of energy use is across the world. Such is what the IEA has cleaved to most closely, what actual global trends and policies are in play. As most experts would argue, it is essential information that these trends and policies do not augur a sudden turn from carbon energy in the next few years. On the contrary.

As of now, they show that nearly every move toward decarbonization, whether in the UK, Japan, or China, is being countered by elevating use of fossil fuels, whether elsewhere or domestically. Even in the U.S., coal or nuclear plants that close are regularly replaced by natural gas. In the case of coal, this means a lowering of emissions; with nuclear, it means the opposite. After nearly two decades and $4 trillion invested in renewable technologies, carbon dependence has yet to begin a serious worldwide retreat.                

Of Cabbages and Kings

Perhaps these ugly truths are the real source of anger at the IEA. Indeed, no small bitterness belongs to those who demand that the world be different next week than it is today, that it utterly abandon, in a historical heartbeat, two centuries and $trillion of energy development and use.

Knowing what climate change is predicted to bring, it is hard not to sympathize with such a position. That some nations are responding with intent to change, while many others offer words more than actions, also gives little cause for celebration.

Fossil fuels are not going away quickly or soon. They will be with us for a while yet. If it seems productive to push back against this clear truth, to search for proof that it must not be so, the effort is likely to exact a heavy price either in rage, despondency, and despair. It may also end up a pillar to the naïve, distracting belief that a few evil forces are to blame for the whole situation (Big Oil being a common choice for Satan’s emissary).

Dealing with energy reality will mean transforming fossil fuels into a seriously declining presence, perhaps starting by the late 2020s or 2030s. Again, they will not rapidly or suddenly disappear. No major forecast has them at less than 50% of global energy use by 2040-2050. But this would mark a colossal change—actually, a massive set of changes at many levels of society, from transportation to commerce to daily consumer products if oil use had fallen by a third or more. A new energy era would have arrived. Would it keep global warming under or around 1.50? Not likely, unless technologies to control carbon, via capture (power plants, heavy vehicles) or removal (from the atmosphere), preferably both, had become commercial and widely used. Otherwise, the world would be looking at a warming of more than 20, the Paris target. This because net carbon emissions would need to be at zero by mid-century.

A Different View

For those who find this beyond all acceptable bounds, there are two responses. First, the blunt fact of scale. Again, the global systems involved in extracting, transporting, refining, distributing, and consuming oil (never mind coal or natural gas) are so immense as to involve many tens of millions of people, innumerable forms of technology, and every conceivable vehicle—land, sea, and air—and the largest global commodity market that has ever existed.

Oil and the things made from it utterly penetrate modern life from the largest commercial and military jets to a printed letter on a page. It is central to the economies of more than 150 countries and a fundament to the national sovereignty and political influence of OPEC countries, Russia, and a dozen smaller producers. Such helps explain why there are more than two million oil wells operating worldwide and over three million miles of pipelines. All of which leads to a view of fossil fuels that this essay is written to put forward.

It is this: these fuels, especially oil and gas, are necessary to power their own demise. They must be used in ways that will eliminate the need for them. Put differently, as they run the world, a low-carbon future cannot be manufactured and built without them. Remove them too quickly, out of fear and loathing, and the capability to erect new energy systems will be profoundly compromised. In concrete terms, few if any solar panel factories are operated entirely with non-carbon electricity, and even if they were, their products will be transported by vehicles powered by petroleum, as will the workers who will install them.

Beyond this, the metals they contain (e.g. cadmium, gallium, indium, tellurium, selenium, aluminum, copper) were extracted from mines, whose operations are powered by fossil energy. Issues of cost, life-cycle emissions, carbon “debt,” and the like are all irrelevant here. The simple point is that making, delivering, and installing elements of a zero-carbon energy system all depend, for the time being, on fossil fuels. Such is no less true for wind, geothermal, tidal, hydro, and nuclear. Fossil energy is absolutely essential to its own replacement.

There is nothing complex about this at the level of basic understanding. It might seem as obvious as table salt. But in many discussions, such as those surrounding the Green New Deal and similar ideas, in which fossil fuels are often demonized and treated as a single and singular enemy to all that is clean and green and good, the reality of their necessity gets overlooked or ignored. I use the word “necessity” in a wholly practical sense. These are the fuels that built and now run the modern world, so they must be used to build the next one. Their capabilities must be put towards creating what comes next, thus their declining use and eventual departure.

Again, energy experts view all this as self-evident. But it clearly isn’t. Public discussion, interviews, reports, and published “roadmaps” about an unstoppable surge in solar and wind power that will bring the near-death of fossil energy by mid-century are legion, even in the midst of news that emissions continue to rise. Can nations like the U.S., Germany, and China extract all the metals and other materials, build many hundreds of millions of electric cars and trucks in the next two decades, and deliver them to countries around the world, and do all this mainly using solar, wind, and hydropower? The question is at best rhetorical. At some point, all of the cheerleading and hopeful hype about renewable energy taking over the world in 20-30 years will be deflated by pointed facts on the ground.

Before and after that happens, we will need a way to comprehend the place of fossil energy and the need for it in the Great Transition. Naming it a matter of self-elimination seems fair, at least in part. But whatever we call it, the role remains the same. It has become evident to a great many, including those in the energy industry itself, that the days of carbon’s overwhelming preeminence are numbered. Even if we don’t know exactly what that number will be, we do know that the modern world must progressively abandon the fuels that built it. But it must use them to do so. It is only through directed application of fossil fuels that a non-fossil era can emerge. The energy system the world now has will inevitably provide the powers needed to bring the new, non-carbon era into being. 



Scott L. Montgomery is an author, geoscientist, and affiliate faculty member in the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle. He has 25 years' experience in the energy industry, where he worked on projects in many parts of the world. His many technical publications include papers, monographs, articles, and textbooks, mainly focused on cutting edge hydrocarbon plays, technologies, related impacts and issues.

Image credit: Jeremy Buckingham via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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