Ae professor of geophysics, I spent 36 years training young geologists destined to work in the fossil fuel industry in search of oil and gas. But now I think it’s time to stop exploring for fossil fuels and stop the development of all new oil and gas fields. We can’t safely set all the fuel we’ve found on fire, so why look for more?
BP annual energy balance by 2021, it is estimated that the world has discovered 1.7 trillion barrels of oil, 188 trillion cubic meters of gas and nearly three trillion tonnes of coal that are commercially extractable – but have yet to actually be mined .
My calculations, based on the typical carbon contents of these fuels and the expected effects of emissions on temperatures, suggest that emissions from using these barrels of oil alone would raise global temperatures by nearly 0.6 ° C. Using natural gas would add another 0.2C. And as with coal, burning everything would raise temperatures by an additional 2 ° C.
The conclusion seems clear: if we are serious about limiting global warming (already at 1.1C above pre-industrial levels) to “well below 2 ° C” – as specified by the Paris Agreement on climate change – we can only burn a small fraction of our known reserves of fossil fuels.
Others have come to the same realization. A recent and more detailed analysis in Nature likewise concluded that to meet global climate goals, most fossil fuel extraction projects cannot proceed. And in May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) explicitly called for the end of new oil and gas fields, as well as new coal mines and mine extensions, around the world.
Some countries take this idea seriously. Countries like France, Ireland, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Denmark have already placed partial or total bans on fossil fuel exploration in their jurisdictions.
And these last two went further, also launching the Beyond oil and gas alliance at the United Nations climate conference Cop26 to encourage more nations to implement similar bans. Although Wales quickly joined the alliance, neither England nor Scotland seems likely to join soon, although that may change depending on recommendations will be proposed by the UK government’s committee on climate change in early 2022.
Surprisingly, the end of new oil and gas fields could be in the financial interests fossil fuel companies. Exploring and developing a new domain costs Billions pounds: money that could be saved by not investing in areas that, due to climate concerns, might never be used. Limiting supply also helps maintain oil and gas prices, and therefore the value of existing oil and gas fields.
In contrast, the continued addition of new capacity to extract fossil fuels will cause prices to collapse as climate change actions hopefully lead to a sharp reduction in demand for fossil fuels. Such a drop in prices would not only hurt oil company profits, but would also encourage additional use of fossil fuels and make climate goals even more difficult to achieve.
Ending new oil and gas deposits may also be in the interest of countries that are financially dependent on the export of fossil fuels. The IEA pointed out that if we stopped developing the fields now, most of our oil and gas would still end up coming from oil exporting countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
However, this message is not being listened to by most players in the fossil fuel industry. Although I think the oil industry is preparing for a low carbon future Faster than most environmentalists believe, current plans for this “energetic transition”Towards renewable energies still include the exploration and development of new fields.
A rationale for further exploration is that carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques, where carbon dioxide is captured and safely buried underground, can help reduce emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels.
We know that CCS can help the world go carbon free. And he’s already doing it. For example, in the North Sea, where we successful project has buried carbon dioxide one kilometer below the seabed at a rate of one million tonnes per year since 1996. However, CCS is unlikely to spread enough to ignore the fact that we have much more reserves of fossil fuels that we cannot safely burn.
Plans to keep climate change at 1.5 ° C targets in general include CCS, but none see it as more than a small part of a wide range of approaches. For example, the IEA program to achieve zero net emissions by 2050 involves capturing and burying carbon dioxide at a relatively ambitious rate of 7.8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year. But doing so would still only allow us to consume an additional percent of existing oil reserves each year.
Further exploration and development is also warranted by suggesting that less climate-friendly fields could be closed to build new, more efficient ones, producing fewer emissions for every barrel of fuel extracted. But this is not convincing.
We are already seeing owners of coal-fired power plants shut down prematurely claim compensation for lost income, making these closure plans costly to implement and complex to negotiate. Paying investors in the oilfields will be even more difficult and costly. It would be much better for people and the planet if there weren’t any other investments in the first place.
David Waltham is Professor of Geophysics at Royal Holloway University in London. This article first appeared on The conversation