Keep it in the ground: How we went from peak oil to too much oil

If you remember the 20th Century, you probably remember people worrying we’d run out of fossil fuel. It’s a worry with a long and often over-hyped history. As Matt Novak neatly demonstrates, people have been wrong about running out of oil for well over a hundred years. In 1909, it was thought the oil age had 25 or 30 years longer. In 1919, it was two to five years. In 1937, the director of US naval petroleum reserves, told the Senate Naval Affairs Committee it’d be gone in 15 years. And so on, and so on.

But this sort of rhetoric has looked dangerously out of date for a while. If anything, it’s flipped on its head. Today, the problem is not that fossil fuels will become scarce, but that we have too many. From this concern comes the campaigning mantra to “keep it in the ground”.

New or improved technologies, like fracking, mean we can access materials we’d previously thought either entirely unobtainable or at least too expensive to be worth extracting. The biggest change, however, is an awareness of climate change.

It’s increasingly rare to see fossil fuels imagined simply as a fuel. More and more, they’re seen as a poison too. We don’t just talk about what we can readily get out of the ground, but what we can safely put into the atmosphere. We’re increasingly hearing metaphors like “carbon pollution”. Or, as Al Gore put it at Davos: “Companies are insisting on their right to use our atmosphere as an open sewer.”

Bill McKibben can take some credit for popularising the rise of “keep it in the ground” as a campaign message. His 2012 Rolling Stone article, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, highlighted how many gigatons of carbon dioxide we can release into the atmosphere by 2050, and still have some hope of staying below two degrees warming and, more to the point, how many more gigatons on top of that already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves.

McKibben’s article quickly spun into a viral hit, followed by a wave of campus activism from which many networks of divestment campaigns emerged. It’s not just activist rhetoric though. McKibben draws on the idea of carbon budgets. International networks of scientists have been publishing these for nearly a decade to offer a detailed advice on how much carbon we are emitting into the atmosphere.

According to the 2014 budget — published last September — emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation are set to reach 40 billion tonnes, the largest amount in human history. We may be breaking records on renewable energy, but the same is true for emissions. As Professor Pierre Friedlingstein stressed at the time, our 1200-billion-tonne CO2 ‘quota’ will be used up in a generation:

If we carry on at the current rate we will reach our limit in as little as 30 years’ time – and that is without any continued growth in emission levels. The implication of no immediate action is worryingly clear – either we take a collective responsibility to make a difference, and soon, or it will be too late.

The refrain that carbon should remain in the ground gathered more public awareness earlier this month with the publication of a paper in Nature by UCL’s Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins. It states that a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80% of current coal reserves globally should not be used before 2050 if global warming is to stay below that agreed two degree target. Moreover, McGlade and Ekins identify the geographical location of the reserves which must be left untapped. According to the paper, the overwhelming majority of the coal reserves in China, Russia and the United States must remain unused — including, crucially drilling the Arctic — as well as over 260 thousand million barrels oil and 60% of its gas in Middle East.

  1. David Walker

    “As Matt Novak neatly demonstrates, people have been wrong about running out of oil for well over a hundred years.”

    In fact, the first concern over “Peak Oil” occurred in around 1860, when Scotland was the world’s largest – perhaps only significant – producer of petroleum products (not a lot of people know that!).

    Interestingly, it was in fact shale oil and was extracted by mining and quarrying.

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