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The Peak Oil Crisis

Global Warming

By Tom Whipple

A number of stories appeared in the press last week suggesting a discussion of the relationship between peak oil and global warming is in order. Most scientists believe that burning fossil fuels is the culprit behind global warming and if we don't get carbon emissions down soon, a lot more places will be under water by the end of the century.

Some believe peak oil and the resulting drop in liquid fuel consumption will be good for global warming. Others fear in the panic that will ensue from ever-higher oil prices, every environmental regulation on the books will be junked and a massive increase in the uncontrolled burning of coal will occur. Many are talking about the world going over a "tipping point" which would lead to the earth becoming barely habitable for thousands of years.

However, another way of looking at the relationship between global warming and peak oil is to ask what effect increasing temperatures might have on how soon peak oil comes and what happens after depletion sets in.

Last week NASA confirmed 2005 was indeed the warmest year ever recorded. One meteorologist pointed out it might have been the warmest year in the past 1 million years— impressive if true. Moreover, Accuweather reported that January 2006 is going to be the warmest January ever recorded in the US .

That warmest January ever, by the way, is the reason we aren't paying somewhere above $3 per gallon for our gasoline right now. It has been so warm since Christmas, that stockpiles of heating fuel in the US are building to well above normal. This in turn has kept the price of oil products down despite the fact that around the world nearly one million barrels a day of oil production has been shutdown for one reason or another.

At first glance it might seem global warming is producing warm winters, which reduce heating requirements and keep prices down. This is all true, but global warming does not distribute itself very evenly around the world.

At the same time most Americans were enjoying Florida-like temperatures, on the other side of the world a record freeze was developing. Temperatures plunged to minus you-name-it and natural gas supplies rapidly became natural gas shortages. The worst hit was Georgia where somebody blew up the gas pipes coming into the country, nature blew down the power lines, and 4.7 million folks were left in below zero weather without heat, cooking gas, or lights. This big freezes which then spread eastward into central Europe was the worst in many decades. Thus, it is beginning to look like an average worldwide temperature change of a degree to two just might be upsetting what we have thought of as normal temperatures in both directions.

We seem to be seeing warmer warm spells in some places and colder cold spells in other. Now what does all this have to do with peak oil? When the big freeze arrived in East Europe last month, those living closer to fuel supplies took what ever they needed to keep warm and therefore could not send the contracted-for amounts on down the pipelines to those further west.

Needless to say, those at the end of pipelines in Central and Western Europe were more than a tad upset and are currently rushing around looking for alternative sources of natural gas. Now this is where America gets involved.

As our domestic supplies of natural gas deplete, we are planning to import more and more of the stuff in liquefied form (LNG). Thanks to last month's freeze however, it looks as if we might have trouble getting as much as we want. We clearly are going to have to pay a lot more to keep whatever supplies are available from going to the Europeans and the Chinese who now see an urgent need to diversify their sources of supply.

So to review what has happened:

  1. Burning too much fossil fuel makes earth warmer; this upsets weather patterns around the world.
  2. East Europe is subjected to record cold temperatures and, naturally enough, uses its heating gas supplies to keep warm rather than exporting it to customers further west.
  3. Those further west get worried and seek to diversify their natural gas supply by building LNG terminals and establishing long term LNG contracts.
  4. Finally, the US faced with declining gas supplies will have more trouble finding LNG supplies abroad and will have to pay much higher prices.

A number of people have been wondering if global warming has something to do with all those hurricanes that have been tearing up Florida and our Gulf coast. Scientists out at Colorado State University (CSU), where they study such things, recently took a hard look at the issue and came up with a rather interesting appraisal.

Despite the fact that worldwide ocean surface temperature has increased by an average of three tenths of a degree centigrade in the last 30 years, the number of hurricanes forming around the world has remained about the same. Except in the Atlantic , where the number of storms nearly doubled. Between 1966 to 2003, on average, only one hurricane every two years crossed the US coastline whereas last year, four did. The CSU climatologists attribute this increased activity to a change in the salinity of the North Atlantic that is forcing warmer water in the mid-Atlantic, and not directly to the higher surface temperature induced by global warming.

Others, as I have mentioned before, attribute some part of the change in salinity to the melting of the north polar ice cap.

Thus, if these folks are right then another global warming connection to peak oil runs as follows:

  1. Global warming melts the polar ice, which makes north Atlantic less salty.
  2. This interferes with the thermohaline circulation, which leads to a warmer mid-Atlantic.
  3. The warmer mid-Atlantic is now spinning off more and bigger hurricanes than seen in previous years resulting in much damage to oil production facilities in the Gulf

According to the CSU scientists, early indicators suggest 2006 will be a pretty good year for hurricanes too. It currently looks as if this year will be only slightly less active than 2005. The odds favor at least one hurricane making it into the Gulf of Mexico and a slightly less than even chance that it will be a big one.

So there you have it. A case can be made that the consequences of global warming do seem to have some bearing on peak oil both before and after the peak arrives.