Many members of the Energy Minerals Division are researching or working to develop non-fossil energy resources, including geothermal, critical and nuclear minerals, and some “colors” of hydrogen, all in service to human civilization’s ongoing energy transition.
Over the years, there has been a variety of reasons given for why the current transition is necessary – concerns about the long-term availability of fossil energy resources, the pollution associated with burning fossil fuels and preventing catastrophic global climate change due to emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane.
These are very real and important concerns, but what often gets left out of the public discourse on the energy transition is how complex and disruptive it will be, especially if we’re going to meet any of the ambitious goals set for this century.
These goals, framed as recommendations by organizations like the United Nations and other international agencies in cooperation with national governments, include reaching net-zero carbon emissions in the next few decades and phasing out coal and eventually most or all other fossil energy along the way, while investing in renewable infrastructure and improving energy efficiency.
Daniel Yergin points out in his recent article in The Atlantic that it took more than 100 years for coal to supplant wood as the world’s primary energy source and about as long for oil to surpass coal. Transitioning from our current energy system – with more than 80 percent of total energy coming from fossil fuels – to a more diverse mix of resources dominated by renewables in just three or four decades will require an unprecedented effort. Many in the general public don’t understand just how difficult it will be and how it will impact them, though they’re getting an idea from recent events. Over the last year, supply and demand shocks caused by extraordinary weather, supply-chain issues and infrastructure failures have led to major price spikes affecting coal and natural gas supplies in Europe, China and the United States, leading to intense (though mostly temporary) problems in delivering energy resources to end users. But these shocks have also demonstrated that even our well-established fossil-energy based system is much more fragile than many realize. Disruptions to this delicately balanced system are likely to continue and lead to many more such shocks as the energy transition moves forward.
Made Possible by Petroleum
In his article, Yergin goes on to say something that captures what is perhaps the biggest issue around the energy transition: “The degree to which the world depends on oil and gas is not well understood.”
This is a fact well known to people in the petroleum industry and many of us on the periphery in academia and government. We all have friends and family who are seemingly unaware of how ubiquitous products derived from petroleum are in their lives. It’s not just that fossil fuels power our electric grid and fuel our vehicles. There are few if any consumer or industrial products that don’t require some form of petroleum to manufacture or get to market. The agricultural industry as it exists today cannot function without gasoline and diesel to run equipment, but it also requires petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. Electric cars do not require direct input of hydrocarbon fuels, but their components don’t grow on trees. Mining and processing the metals needed for frames and batteries currently require a lot of fossil energy, and while alternatives to hydrocarbon-derived plastics have been in development for decades, cost and functionality still limit their use. Charging battery-powered cars will continue to rely on electricity from fossil energy for years to come in many places.
Even as we reduce our reliance on fossil energy, which I believe is a good thing, there’s going to be a long tail to the decline curve as we work to substitute in other resources, and in many cases, the alternatives are likely to be inferior in some ways, at least initially.
‘All of the Above,’ or Bust
In an article on the University of Texas at Austin website describing the Jackson School of Geosciences research and development efforts related to the energy transition, Scott Tinker, director of the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology and past AAPG president, said, “The energy transition must continue to lift the world from poverty to prosperity, which takes a lot of energy.”
“It must also clean up the impacts of all forms of energy on the environment,” Tinker also said. “That includes emissions from combustion of fossil fuels, but also mining impacts to produce and dispose of materials for wind turbines, solar panels, batteries and more, at scales never seen before. Geoscientists are needed in every phase.”
Another article posted on the World Economic Forum website by Noel Nevshehir poses the question “Could a hybrid approach that leverages fossil fuel energy alongside renewables be the answer?”
It’s hard to see how we’re going to achieve the very reasonable goals of continuing the trajectory of improving living conditions in developing countries, as well as maintaining the quality of life now enjoyed in developed countries, without an “all of the above” energy strategy. That strategy must then balance the needs to quickly bring alternative energy sources to market, reduce fossil energy use as much as possible and mitigate the effects of the carbon-intensive resources we can’t eliminate.
Continuing hydrocarbon reliance is a reality for the foreseeable future and presents what many see as a roadblock to one of the most high profile and specific goals of the energy transition – limiting global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees C and preferably to no more than 1.5 degrees in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement. In a recent paper in Nature entitled, “Unextractable fossil fuels in a 1.5 degrees C world,” Dan Welsby and coauthors estimate that for the world to have a 50-percent chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees will require that around 60 percent of oil and natural gas and 90 percent of coal be left in the ground. Jonathan Sultoon from Wood Mackenzie has estimated that a minimum of $50 trillion in investments will be needed between now and 2050 to achieve the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.
For some perspective – that is more than half the size of the current world economy.
How much of our remaining petroleum and coal resources do we really expect to remain unextracted?
For developing countries whose economies rely on fossil energy exports, how are they supposed to replace those revenues? Is there the political and economic will to make the necessary investments? Who’s going to pay?
These are just a few of the thorny questions such analyses raise.
What Can We Do?
The EMD Energy Economics and Technology Committee recently posted a report authored by co-chairs Jeremy Platt and Dieter Beike titled “Exploring the Energy Transition: Crosscurrents.” The report opens with the line, “The oil and gas industry is shifting attention to decarbonization only two years after setting records in oil, gas and products production and exports in 2019.”
This succinctly captures the intensification over the last two years of the wild ride the oil and gas industry has been on for more than a decade now. Platt and Beike analyze data from a variety of sources and discuss the issues around how continuing disruption affects the market during the age of COVID and decarbonization. It’s a good read and I think a great example of the kind of high-quality technical communication between professionals that AAPG and EMD are all about.
Speaking of communication, maybe we as geoscientists should take it upon ourselves and make more of an effort to communicate with and educate the public about issues like the energy transition. If we do it well, I like to think it’ll make a difference, or at least give our friends and neighbors a more realistic view of what the coming changes really mean for them and the world.
What do you think?
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