Could Peak Oil Actually Worsen Climate Change?

A couple of weeks ago the usually conservative International Energy Agency predicted that world oil production would peak by 2020.  Peak oil has moved in a short time from an obsession somewhere between the Warren Commission and the Yeti in reputability, to the stuff of mainstream news reports. You don’t have to look far on the Internet to find nightmare scenarios of a post-cheap-oil world–abandoned suburbs, idle factories, no cars.


But what does peak oil really mean? There are two post-peak futures that each seem more likely than the total collapse of civilization as we know it. A climate scientist named Ken Caldeira recently presented them at a meeting of his colleagues.

In one, we switch to wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and nuclear. (Relatively) clear skies ahead.

In the other, we switch to cheaper, more abundant, and far dirtier coal, and “unconventional” oil shale and tar sands, thus hastening the destruction of land, pollution of water and air, and catastrophic global warming.

What path does the outgoing administration support?

“On Oct. 31, Congress allowed a moratorium on oil shale leasing to expire. That paved the way for the Bush administration to finalize leasing rules last month that opened 2 million acres of federal land to exploration.”

And the incoming?

“The president-elect has called for 10 percent of all electricity to be generated by renewable sources—wind, solar and the like—by 2012 and 25 percent by 2025.

He also would reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change by 80 percent by 2050, an ambitious goal.”

The race is on. Shell Oil is digging pits under the Rockies as you read this.

Image: Tar Sands from