Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Leaving fossil fuels in the ground vs. using them all up now

I wrote a think piece for Worldchanging playing off one of the basic arguments against climate mitigation (we'll be richer in the future and more capable of dealing with any effects) with the idea of leaving fossil fuels in the ground (will we also be more capable of using fossil fuels in the future, and should we strive to leave some?).

One thing that did not get into the article in time (but came the day after I submitted it!) was the fact that the Saudi King himself made reference toward specifically leaving some of their new found reserves for future generations! How is that for some new thinking!

Visit the site to read the commentary (, or see below.

NOTE: As one of the early bloggers notes, nuclear energy has a wide range of possibilities (over carbon-based fossil fuels), and those were too much to go into for one article, aside from the fact that I am definitely not an expert on nuclear materials, for fission or fusion (always 50 years away!).


Success is Winding Up with Oil in the Ground

Will we always be more capable in the future?

One basic economic argument against substantial climate change mitigation investments often centers on the concept that, because of monetary discount rates and historically-proven continuous economic and technological growth, society will be both ‘richer’ and more capable of dealing with possible negative effects in the future. Proponents of this argument often use it to reason that mitigation is simply too economically costly to pursue.

Can the same argument hold for production of fossil fuels? That is to say, if we are going to be richer and more capable in the future, won’t we have a better use for all energy sources, including fossil fuels? And will part of our ability to deal with societal issues, such as those caused by climate change, be predicated upon having available energy? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then we should keep our fossil fuels in the ground.

The reason that the idea of preserving fossil fuels and ecosystems for future generations is not widely held is that the pattern since the industrial revolution of the 1800s shows us that energy consumption is highly correlated to economic growth, and thus the ability to become ‘richer’ (Figure 1). But recently Ecuadorian officials have proposed that the international community pay approximately half of the assumed value an oil deposit that lies beneath the Yasuni Amazon ecological reserve in order not to extract the oil [1]. Is this a beginning to question the present value of fossil fuels?

In the United States before the industrial revolution, the labor of 95 out of 100 people were required to feed the population of 5 million. Today, the less than 3 out of 100 are required to feed the US population of over 300 million - with food to spare for export. How is this possible? Fossil fuels provide high energy density storage sources that literally take the place of labor, and since their large scale use, we have used them to accumulate knowledge in how to further reduce physical labor. The huge reduction in farming labor over the last 200 years has resulted in “extra” hours for people to get paid to do things like drive around taking photos of celebrities for gossip magazines.

Because fossil fuels are limited and have provided us with the luxury of excess time, a major goal of society should be to break the causation between increasing fossil fuel consumption and increasing human development. I say human development and not economic growth, because the social aspect of economics is only a part of human development [2]. Extracting more fossil resources by consuming more fossil energy only buys more time to learn how to design and implement sustainable energy systems.

The laws of diminishing returns for fossil fuels cannot be avoided on the time scale of human civilization. Human civilization operated on a 100% sustainable energy a few hundred years ago, and after fossil fuels become completely uneconomical in hundreds of years more, we’ll again operate on a 100% sustainable energy system. The question is: what is that next 100% sustainable system going to look like?

Will it not be a success if human society finds an acceptable sustainable arrangement where we have excess fossil fuel reserves still lying in the ground? That is to say, we could define success as solving the energy and development problem before running out of economical fossil energy resources. Why consume the last of fossil energy reserves? Since reserves are partially defined by the economics of extraction, they are also partially a measure of our culture in how we value things, including energy resources, food, and social goods. If we want future human civilization to live in a manner better than the time before fossil fuels, that demands using our fossil fuels today such that we learn not to need them in the future.

Today we can’t make a photovoltaic solar panel without fossil-powered electricity manufacturing plant. We couldn’t build a hydroelectric dam without fossil-powered vehicles and cement plants. We can’t make and install a wind turbine without fossil-powered steel factories and transport systems. We need to track the progress, or lack thereof, of the ability of renewable energy systems to make themselves.

We didn’t need Nobel Prize Chemist Richard Smalley to tell us that the sun is the only source of energy for a sustainable human society. What we do need is everyone focused on the issue of both cultural and technological adjustments to make the most of solar direct (sunlight) and indirect (wind, waves, crops) energy.

Carey King, PhD, works at the University of Texas at Austin's Bureau of Economic Geology. This is his first contribution to Worldchanging.


[1] Pearson, Natalie O. Ecuador Plans to Nix Exploitation of 1B Bbl Oil Deposit. Dow Jones Newswires. March 03, 2008. Available at:
[2] Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. First Anchor Books, 1999.