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Peak Oil and Environment

This article explores the environmental impact peak oil and future energy shortages will have. Updated Aug-2009

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Peak Oil and Environment — The Coming Environmental Impact

If you're still trying to decide whether "Peak Oil" is a real and rapidly approaching disaster or just the latest bad idea for a new "Survivor" theme, then you might want to start with our Peak Oil FAQ or this peak oil article.

For our piece today, we'll start from the premise that oil supplies will start to drop sooner rather than later and that this will have troublesome impacts on our economy and our way of life. We'll jump directly into addressing the relationship between the environment and peak oil—that is, the environmental impact of peak oil. Will we be smart enough to massively expand use of clean, truly sustainable energy technologies? Or will we instead take the easier but ultimately more dangerous path and expand the use of coal, heavy oil, nuclear, and other environmentally ill-advised energy sources? Will we accept the false choice of having to go dirty before we go dark?


Less Oil—Good News on the Pollution Front?

It might be tempting to think that burning less petroleum-based fuel in the future will reduce pollution. After all, there would be fewer tailpipe emissions from vehicles, fewer jets painting the sky with pollution, fewer motorboats and jet skis picture of car belching exhaust fumes leaking fuel into bays and rivers, and fewer snowmobiles making a smoky racket in our national parks and elsewhere.

Some peak oil analysts also deemphasize the threat from global climate change, asserting that the reduced burning of petroleum-based fuels in planes, trucks, cars, and other vehicles will reduce carbon emissions enough that we should forget about global warming and start spending all of our time worrying about peak oil. Indeed, in 2008, spiking oil prices and the beginning of the ever-worsening economic depression combined to reduce US CO2 emissions by 2.8% in 2008. Total global CO2 emissions, however, increased by 1.7%, and that's what counts.

Petroleum is the basic ingredient in plastics, pesticides, and chemicals—all of which are overused and misused, and are serious problems for the environment (and the people and creatures that live in it). Less of those things would be a positive, environmentally.

So, generally speaking, will less available oil will mean less pollution from petroleum-based products? Will peak oil have a positive impact on the environment? In the long term, it probably will. Unfortunately, in the near term, peak oil promises to have a devastating impact on the environment on a number of fronts. Let's go through some examples.


Non-Conventional Oil

The petroleum industry has a number of quality gradations for oil sources, but for our purposes, we can simply divide the sources for petroleum products into two categories:

  • conventional oil, which includes "light crude" and other crude oils that are relatively easy to extract and refine; and
  • non-conventional oil, which includes the heaviest liquid oils as well as the Athabasca oil sands in Canada, "Orinoco belt" bitumen in oil-rich Venezuela, and oil shale deposits in the western US.

Deposits of non-conventional petroleum sources are vast—much greater than the remaining deposits of conventional oils. There are two problems, though:

  • These sources are hard to mine and refine.
  • Their net "energy returned on energy invested" (EROEI) is not nearly as good as the EROEI for conventional sources. Their EROEI will decline even further if they are subject to "carbon capture" schemes (which we will discuss later).

The first problem directly translates into more pollution and environmental damage due to the methods that have to be used. The second also means more pollution at current rates of energy consumption, since more pollution is produced per unit of energy available.

Most petroleum analysts agree that conventional oil has already peaked and that total oil production levels have been kept stable by increasing production from unconventional sources. As the decline in conventional oil accelerates, there will be evermore pressure to exploit non-conventional sources, many of which were previously non-viable, either for economic reasons or because their extraction would cause too much environmental damage. Skyrocketing oil prices will take care of the economic impediments for most non-conventional oil sources (with the likely exception of oil shale). It also seems probable that public resistance to dirty production processes will wither as fuel becomes more expensive, shortages test our patience, and the economic impact of tighter, more expensive energy supplies takes us into leaner times.


Canada's vast deposits of oil sands (a.k.a. tar sands) are often cited as a primary solution to oil shortages in North America. Critics have a much less enthusiastic opinion due to the environmental impact of oil production from the sands.

Impact #1 — To extract oil from these deposits, the sandy tar deposits are usually strip-mined—which means the forests and wildlife on the surface are cleared away completely.

Impact #2 — In the refinement process, huge amounts of fresh water are used and polluted, turning nearby rivers from blue to brown.

Impact #3 — Natural gas—the world's cleanest-burning fossil fuel—is being used at a great pace to heat the mined sand so the oil can be extracted. Some pundits have likened this to turning gold into lead.

Impact #4 — The process is also very "dirty" when it comes to greenhouse gases, producing roughly twice as much greenhouse-gas pollution per barrel of oil as conventionally produced oil.

Despite all that, high oil prices have made the oil sands economically viable, and Canada aims to triple production over the next decade.


Deepwater Oil

At the dawn of the oil age, we were drilling for oil only on land. Then, as we realized that areas offshore (but not too far offshore) also had oil and gas deposits—and that we could extract those resources—we started drilling there too. That was more expensive than drilling on land, but as long as the price of oil made it economically feasible—and as long as environmental problems could be sidestepped—we drilled, extracted, and produced.

The next logical step is deepwater oil—further off-shore and in much deeper water. Indeed, there is oil in such places, and production of deepwater oil is now at a few million barrels per day (about 4% of total production).

There is more deepwater oil to be found and extracted, for sure, but deepwater oil has some technical, logistical, and environmental challenges:

  • Insufficient numbers of capable oil rigs.
  • Separating and dealing with the gas and water that come up with the deepwater oil.
  • Transporting deepwater oil and gas.
  • Dealing with deepwater accidents.

Despite these challenges, deepwater oil production is expected to double by the middle of the 2010s. Of course, such an increase is less than the overall rate of depletion from existing oil sources, but it's still a help. Remember, though, that the more extraordinary the effort required to extract, transport, and refine any source of oil, the less net energy you get from that oil source, and the more pollution you generate per BTU.



Many energy analysts correctly point out that coal, despite it's dirty nature, is likely to be a primary energy source for the world for decades to come:

  • There is lots of it, notably in the US and China, which are both big energy users and big importers of oil.
  • The technologies and infrastructure needed to utilize coal are well established.

Most of the coal today is used for electricity production, so what does that have to do with tightening oil supplies? There are two ways a scarcity of liquid fuels could increase demand for coal:

  • Coal To Liquids (CTL) for direct fuel substitution — Coal can be converted to a synthetic fuel that can be used like diesel or jet fuel.
  • Electricity to power plug-in hybrids — The emergence of plug-in hybrids will be a natural follow-on to the success of gas-electric hybrids. Such vehicles would indeed be very efficient, but we will need more electricity to feed them.

Each of these methods has environmental drawbacks:

Problems with Coal To Liquids

The Fischer-Tropsch process that can convert coal to synthetic liquid fuel was proven long ago. Hitler used it—though we won't automatically condemn it for that reason. In concept, the coal is gasified and the useful hydrocarbons are separated out for processing into a relatively clean-burning fuel while pollutants from the process, including carbon dioxide, are mostly captured.

That sounds pretty good on the surface, but....

  • The practicality and long-term viability of high-volume storage of carbon dioxide is unproven. If the carbon dioxide that results from the processing operation is not captured and stored (forever), the total "well-to-wheel" carbon emissions for CTL is double that for conventional fuels from petroleum.
  • Even though some carbon is captured during the gasification stage, burning the fuel in jets and surface vehicles would release just as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as burning conventional petroleum-derived diesel, which we already know is a problem that must be reduced.
  • In the US, the water usage required by the CTL refining process could tax the limited water supplies of the northwest (where most of the coal is).
  • The environmental impact of coal mining is notoriously bad, disrupting local vegetation and wildlife for decades; causing local air pollution; and causing water pollution that can sometimes persist for decades after a mine ceases operation.

Though the political squabbling over global warming goes on, there is overwhelming scientific agreement that global warming is a large threat to life as we know it. We won't get into any of that here, but it's important to recognize that the carbon constraints associated with global warming solutions will make finding real peak oil solutions much harder.

As the Peak Oil noose began to tighten from 2005-2008, fuel prices spiked and helped precipitate the current economic crisis. The world economy is heading into very difficult period that is likely to last for years, and new oil-production projects have been shelved, which means oil-supply limitations will be even worse once a recovery gets started. These factors will have far more immediate impact that the effects of global climate change (at least for those in the industrialized world, who have contributed most to the global warming problem).

We suspect that people's economic and energy pain is going to make them more willing to sacrifice progress on greenhouse gas reduction. It's always easier to ignore a long-term threat, even if in the end its damage potential is greater.

Energy solutions that are "global warming stupid" will not be of much help in the end. But, in the same way we sometimes put something on a credit card that we can't afford and won't be able to pay off, we'll probably do those stupid things anyway.

Problems with Coal-Based Electricity Generation

Beyond the environmental problems with coal mining, burning coal to generate electricity is notoriously dirty. While great improvements have been made over the years in air-pollution-control technologies for coal plants, many old, fume-belching plants remain online. Despite industry proclamations of the wonders of "clean coal" technology—coal-gasification combined cycle (CGCC) power plants are indeed a quantum leap from plants with even state-of-the-art emissions scrubbers—almost none of the coal plants currently under construction or on the drawing boards around the world are this super-clean type.


As with the Fischer-Tropsch process, to be considered truly "clean" in our greenhouse-gas-constrained future, the CO2 that is captured by a coal-gasification power plant will have to be kept out of the atmosphere—that is, it will have to be sequestered. Much work remains to prove that methods of transporting and storing carbon dioxide will work in the long term.

Even if you give the coal industry and its political allies the benefit of the doubt and assume a wholesale move to clean coal-burning technology, that would still leave the intractable issue of the pollution and environmental damage caused by coal mining. There are no easy solutions for that problem, and increasing the demand for coal will also increase the environmental problems associated with coal mining.



First, let's define the two main categories of biofuels:

  • Liquid fuels — typically ethanol or biodiesel, usually derived from plant materials like corn, sugarcane, soybeans (soya), or palm oil.
  • Biomass — firewood, brush, crop residue, and any other plant material that can be burned directly as fuel.

From some aspects, biofuels are a good thing. For instance:

  • Petroleum reserves will run out one day (or, more properly, what remains will be uneconomical to extract and refine). The crops we need to make biofuels, on the other hand, can be grown year after year after year.
  • Because crops are replanted every year and reabsorb the CO2 that was emitted when the previous year's biofuels supply was burned, the fuels are in theory carbon-neutral. (In practice, ethanol production uses non-biofuel energy, tarnishing its good greenhouse-gas balance.)
  • Overall, ethanol is cleaner-burning than gasoline, and biodiesel is cleaner-burning than regular diesel.

But the environmental impact of moving from petroleum-based fuels to biofuels deserves close scrutiny.

You won't be seeing organic or biodynamically grown crops being used to feed ethanol and biodiesel processing plants anytime soon. It will be standard crops, and that means the standard problems of industrial agriculture apply:

  • It's chemically intensive and highly polluting (i.e. lots of troublesome pesticides and fertilizers).
  • The corn and soybeans grown are typically genetically engineered, which means more chemical herbicide use and risks to the viability of organic farming because of overuse of the organic insecticide Bt in Bt corn.
  • Huge parcels of rainforest were already being cut down so soybeans could be planted to supply feed lots. Now, more of this will happen so that additional soybean farms and palm plantations can be established to keep up with demand from the biodiesel industry.

More of these crops means more impact from unsustainable farming practices—local air and water pollution, more chemicals in the environment and in us, more coastal dead zones. Increasing demand for ethanol and biodiesel will also mean more marginal farm land will be put into crops rather than letting it stay fallow, resulting in more soil erosion and more water pollution due to loss of riparian (streamside) buffer zones.



A List of Water Pollution Causes


The Effects of Industrial Agriculture Hurt the Health of Farmers and All of Us


Coastal Dead Zones in the USA and Around the World


Ethanol production has a barely positive EROEI—the energy available in the corn kernels just doesn't give you that much more energy in your tank than you put into the overall process, if you include farming, transport, and processing. Ethanol defenders are quick to point to the greater potential of "cellulosic" ethanol, where the whole plant can be used to feed the ethanol production process. True enough—if the nascent technology can be made production-worthy. But even then there would be a serious sustainability problem: Standard farming practices—those that give us the corn and other feed stocks—lead to nutrient depletion over time. Cellulosic-ethanol practices will cause much quicker nutrient depletion since the crop residue is not being returned to the soil to feed the organisms that make soil.


As corn, soybeans, and other food crops find higher demand from biofuels producers, food prices will begin a long-term rise. The impact in wealthy nations will likely be noticeable but not disastrous. Poorer nations are unlikely to do as well in the "food vs. fuel" tussle, potentially leading to more desperate and ecologically unwise farming practices as people try to feed themselves.

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute points out that the grain required to fill a 25-gallon gas tank once with ethanol will feed one person for a whole year. For more, see his guest article on food and energy.

The same goes for biomass that is burned. Taking whole plants from the farm fields, prairies, or forests and returning nothing will, over time, degrade the soil faster than natural processes can replenish it, and the yields will fall to the point that the EROEI is negative (if the predictable environmental problems haven't already put an end to the practice by then). For more on this topic, see our article on biomass and sustainability.

Some production of biofuels is inevitable and even beneficial. But a massive increase in crop production for liquid biofuels or harvesting of prairie and forest plants for burning or cellulosic ethanol production will not work in the long term due to soil fertility limitations. Boosters of biofuels understand plenty about energy but little about soil, and diving deep into this pool is a recipe for environmental disaster. Doing so will also divert precious resources from energy solutions that do have a chance of long-term success.


Nuclear Energy

Once plug-in hybrids hit the market, demand for electricity will start to rise even faster than it already is. Nuclear-energy supporters see this as an opportunity to promote their product.

Whether you believe the industry's claims that nuclear is a "clean" technology (see sidebar), what is indisputable is that nuclear waste is a problem that has no known solution. Even if the Yucca Mountain facility ever comes online—which it may not due to growing technical concerns—it will already be 3/4 full with just the spent fuel that now needs a final resting place. Greatly increasing the number of nuclear plants in the US and the world—whether under the guise of combating global warming or meeting rising electricity demand—would mean that multiple Yucca-type facilities would be needed.


The nuclear industry points to the fact that nuclear-generated electricity has great advantages over coal and even natural gas when it comes to air pollution, noting in particular that nuclear power produces no green- house gases. While it is true that the power-production part of the nuclear-fuel lifecycle is clean when it comes to air emissions—assuming there are no leaks or accidents!—if you count the mining and refining of uranium and the extreme and long-term requirements for management of radioactive waste, nuclear energy is not "clean" when it comes to air pollution—or in general.

Nuclear energy also makes little economic sense if "externalities" like fuel production and waste management are included. The fact that the US government had to pass a multi-billion-dollar incentive package before any private entity would consider a new nuclear plant shows what an economic loser nuclear is. (And note that these subsidies are on top of the billions the government already spends every year on nuclear-related issues.)

The nuclear industry has powerful friends, has good-sounding (if specious) sales pitches, and unarguably can produce needed power. So, we may go down this road. But a resurgence of nuclear power is probably the worst way in which we can "go dirty before we go dark"—not only will we create more highly toxic pollution for our own environment, that pollution will last for hundreds of generations to come.


A Few More Non-Solutions

Methane Hydrates

Deep in the oceans, there are vast deposits of methane (natural gas) trapped in the form of hydrates. The problem is how to extract these hydrates economically. In terms of environmental impact, the potential for such extractions to release some of the methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the air seems rather high.

The logistical difficulty of this energy source makes it an unlikely candidate for the future.

Biofuels from Animal Fat and Offal

This way of making energy will likely grow in popularity, if for no other reason than it's a way for agribusiness corporations to increase profits from excess animal parts, some of which are currently a waste problem.

Our objections to this energy source are twofold:

  • Similar to the objection raised in the biofuels section, animal feed comes from chemically intensive farming, which is an environmental disaster.
  • Today's concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are highly polluting themselves, and in many ways are cruel to animals. There are proper ways to raise food animals, but the bottom-line-driven factory-farming industry is interested only in efficiency, not in societal dictates for acceptable ways to raise and handle animals. We should not excuse these shortcomings just because we can get some fuel out of the bargain. (Along similar lines, we suspect most people would oppose a source of oil that required a return to the massive whale slaughters of two centuries ago.)


Hog Farming and Animal Welfare vs. The Cat Lady and Her Kitties


The Not-So-Bird-Brained Chicken and How to Improve Chicken Raising

See all  farm-animal welfare articles


First, here on earth, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not a fuel. Second, the technological challenges associated with hydrogen—for production, logistics, and efficient use—are daunting. Third, the only reasonably efficient way to make hydrogen today is from fossil fuels—typically natural gas—but that is still less efficient overall for delivering energy than just burning the fossil fuels themselves for energy.

If hydrogen's problems can be worked out, we'll cheer. But it will take decades, if it happens at all, and by then the problems of peak oil will have demanded more immediate solutions.

Water-Fueled Engines

Like perpetual motion machines and processes that return more energy than they consume, water-as-fuel seems an unlikely or even impossible concept, at least in any sense that the EROEI could ever be positive. So, we'll wait for the genius inventors who are claiming that this particular energy technology works to prove it.

Free-Energy, Zero-Point Energy, and New Electrics

Water-fueled engines are earth-based approaches that try to ignore the laws of earth-based physics. But there is much about the physics of the universe that earthling physicists still don't understand. In that realm, there may be new ways to tap energy sources that we can't yet fathom, energy sources that could provide copious amounts of energy that would dwarf all fossil fuels combined. That's a good area for research, but until such time as the universe reveals itself to us, we'd better focus on known, practical energy solutions.


The Chaos Factor

At this point, we've covered most of the solutions that would normally be thought of as having the best scalability and/or direct applicability to the coming liquid fuels crisis. Unfortunately, we've also shown that each of them has serious environmental repercussions, even if current environmental regulations are applied (which they are often not, of course). But it gets worse. Enter the "The Chaos Factor."

Free-trade promoters are quick to point out that economic prosperity is the best way to improve the environment; thus, we should be promoting more WTO-style trade with developing nations, not less. To some extent, their argument is specious—the prosperous West has solved much of it's environmental problem by exporting the polluting processes to developing countries, and we are largely stalled in our efforts to make progress on the remaining pollution problems at home and around the world. But the free-traders' assertion is correct to the extent that only in a prosperous society is the standard of living far enough above subsistence level to allow widespread support for accepting even the relatively minor economic costs associated with curbing pollution.

Now, let's take a step forward in time with the Ghost of Peak Oil Future. Oil is over $200 per barrel and gasoline is $9.50 a gallon. The US economy is in a severe depression, partly due to the drag on productivity caused by expensive oil, but more so from the blow that occurred when the country's unsustainable debt bubble (federal and personal) finally burst and foreign bond holders cashed in their chips. Unemployment in the US is 35%, and those with jobs are working for far less than they used to. Millions more families have lost their homes. Disruption of agricultural supply chains, inflation in the money system, and widespread hoarding leave grocery store shelves bare on a regular basis. Basic services such as electricity, roads, water, and telephones are starting to degrade due to lack of maintenance in the economically constrained times. In short, most are in survival mode.

In such circumstances, people are not likely to have much time to worry about keeping the environment clean, and there will be little political support for eco-issues. Worse, right-wingers will seize the opportunity to attack environmentalists, asserting that "eco-maniacs" caused the problem in the first place with "extreme regulations." That is actually the opposite of the truth—if our leaders had been listening to progressives' warnings about oil dependence and unsustainable energy addictions (as well as criticisms about the corrupt financial system and wealth-extracting free-market agenda) the disaster might have been avoided. But the corporate media will likely see "it's the environmentalists fault" as an easy story to sell to an angry, desperate public.


The peak in energy supplies may also be the peak in environmental regulation—or at least in enforcement of such regulations. We've already seen tightening energy supplies cause movement towards a less upright environmental posture:

-- Tens of thousands of coal-bed methane (natural gas) wells have been drilled all over the western US, with little regard to the impact on the environment or on those who ranch, farm, or otherwise live on the land in those locations.

-- The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has come under repeated threat of exploitation for oil extraction, even though extraction there would provide the US with only about a 6-month supply of oil.

-- Refinery pollution regulations were relaxed to try to help suppliers keep up with demand.

Will it really be that bleak? We hope not. But if we take even a few steps in the direction of bleakitude, it seems likely that all of the "solutions" discussed in the previous sections of this article will be pursued—and more. Environmental regulations will be "eased," "reformed" and "streamlined"—which is environmental doublespeak for "gutted"—and drilling, mining, refining, burning, nuking, and all other energy-related activities will proceed full-speed-ahead.



So, we see that peak oil and overall energy constraints have a lot of non-solutions—or at least solutions whose environmental impact is unpalatable. But what energy technologies might be helpful energy-wise without being harmful environment-wise? We explore that in Part 2 of this series, Peak Oil Solutions.

Know someone who might find this Peak Oil and Environment article interesting? Please forward it to them.

Updated: Aug-2009
(Original: 30-JAN-2007)


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  1. Peak Oil and Environment

  2. Peak Oil Solutions

  3. Peak Oil and Energy Demand

  4. The Resilient Household
(Peak Oil Survival/Preparedness)

This is Part 1 of a four-part series. You can  sign up  for the free GP email service so you don't miss any of our other great articles.

Environmental Impact of Peak Oil


Peak Oil FAQ
(Frequently Asked Questions)


Energy Peak & Relocalization
Coming To a Town Near You


Is Your City or County Prepared for Future Fuel Shortages and Power Outages?



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