Part II. The Future of Energy: Why the price of oil and gas should increase (but will it?)

– Robert U. Ayres. Paris, 29 October 2014

Photosynthesis was (and is) the biological process that removed carbon dioxide from the primitive atmosphere and left some of the oxygen in the atmosphere and sequestered CO2 in the earth’s crust. That happened as living organisms, such as diatoms, in the oceans attached carbon dioxide to calcium ions to make shells for themselves and left them as chalk or limestone. This went on for billions of years. When the oxygen level in the atmosphere rose enough, the new ozone layer cut the UV radiation level and made life on land feasible. Plants moved onto the land, and thrived spectacularly during the so-called Carboniferous era, several hundred million years ago when the CO2 level was still quite high by present standards. For over a hundred million years immense accumulations of dead plant biomass were covered by silt from erosion of the land surface. Meanwhile the bodies of dead marine organisms accumulated in some places under the sea. These accumulations were gradually compressed and “cooked” (pyrolized) releasing some of the hydrogen and converting the rest of the mass successively into peat, lignite and coal or (in the case of marine biomass) into bitumen and petroleum.

These accumulations constitute an energy (exergy) resource that currently drives industry and human civilization. We humans are now “un-sequestering” those stored hydrocarbons, combining them with oxygen and putting CO2 back into the atmosphere. Moreover, we are doing this at a rate thousands or even millions of times faster than the original accumulation. This ultra-rapid dissipation of stored exergy in the form of hydrocarbons clearly cannot continue indefinitely, not because we will run out of carbon fuels immediately, but because the atmospheric buildup of CO2 cannot continue much longer without catastrophic climatic consequences (IPCC 2007, 2014).

Indeed, consequences of climate change are already showing up in many parts of the world. Droughts are causing major problems, resulting in abandoned farms and overcrowded cities, not only in inflammable southern California. In southeastern Brazil the reservoir providing drinking water for 9 million people in Sao Paulo is now down to 5 percent of previous normal. in Central Asia Lake Aral is now virtually a memory. In Africa the Sahel and the headwaters of the Nile are drying up, as is the hinterland of Iraq and Syria, once watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers {Klare, 2001 #2911}.  These changes are forcing millions of rural farmers and herdsmen into already overcrowded cities where there are no jobs for them and where their children become ready recruits to religious extremism, Islamic or otherwise.

However, reverting to the problem addressed in this essay, the end of that era of rapid utilization of fossil fuels is already in sight. The fact that discoveries have lagged behind consumption has been known for a long time (Figures 1 and 2). Some years ago the oil geologist M. King Hubbert, taking into account discovery rates and depletion rates of known fields, predicted that global oil output would peak between 2000 and 2010 {Hubbert, 1973 #2524}{Hubbert, 1980 #6246}. Others, notably Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere came to the same conclusion {Campbell, 1998 #1087}. Figure 3 traces the actual history of production from 2002 through 2005. Saturation seems evident.

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* For the full text of this article you are invited to click to the Exernomics site at


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