Peak Oil May Worsen the Climate Crisis

In the panic over fuel prices, cutting greenhouse gas emissions may be forgotten.

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It's hard to know whether we should be more worried that consuming oil is killing the planet or that there's way too little of this killer oil left.

Joe Romm of Climate Progress has an article that is getting a lot of attention in Salon, called "Peak Oil. Consider it Solved" (subscription required). His argument is that if we do what is required to address climate change—greatly increase fuel efficiency, including a switch to plug-in hybrid vehicles, and find alternative, abundant, and affordable low-carbon fuel sources, we will have slipped out of our chokehold of dependency on a finite fuel source.

At Climate Progress, he summarizes his worry-about-climate-first argument: "The bottom line is that if we solve the climate problem, we will solve the peak oil problem. If we don't solve the climate problem, peak oil will be a somewhat painful, but relatively short blip on the history of humanity compared to the extremely painful, multi-century tragedy our children and the next 50 generations after them will face."

But now comes the response from the peak-oil folks. Dave Cohen at Energy Bulletin argues the world is going to be in the grip of fuel shortages before the solutions that Romm talks about come to fruition. "Many climate activists have tunnel vision that prevents them from appreciating the real oil supply problems we have to solve right now," he writes. "Everything is viewed through the lens of climate change. This view is naive—we're about to get plowed under by the oil market fundamentals."

Although I believe we ought to keep our eye on the long-term climate problem, I fear it's quite likely that the short-term panic over fuel prices will lead us in some unhelpful directions on the environment. This USA Today story, although a couple years old, neatly summarizes how high heating oil prices have the potential to create more wood burning pollution. And not too long ago, we took a close look at the unconventional oil business being spurred by high oil prices and its unsavory implications for climate.