The scientific community widely agrees that increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will increase average global temperatures. And in order to avoid a global average temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius, the majority of “proved reserves,” need to stay in the ground, according to a report by researchers with the University College London Institute for Sustainable Resources.
Researchers found that “The widespread development of unconventional oil resources is incompatible with a decarbonized energy system.”
This means that risky, unconventional hydrocarbons and the processes by which they are extracted, including US shale oil, Canadian tar sands, Venezuela’s heavy crude, and Brazil’s pre-salt oil reserves, are not the solution to the world’s future energy needs, as the oil and gas industry and its proponents would suggest.
The report, Un-burnable Oil: An Examination of Oil Resource Utilisation in a Decarbonised Energy System, is set to be published in the journal Energy Policy in January. In the paper, researchers examine the volumes of oil that we cannot afford to use up during the transition to a low-carbon global energy system. Researchers concluded that “the large volumes of oil currently considered to be reserves cannot be produced before 2035” if there is to be a chance of limiting the global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. Furthermore,
A large disconnect appears to exist between policies permitting exploration in new areas, particularly in Arctic and deepwater areas, and pledges to restrict temperature rises to 2°C. The continued licensing of new areas for oil exploration is only consistent with declared intentions to limit CO2 emissions and climate change if the majority of fields that are discovered remain undeveloped, which fatally undermines the economic rationale for their discovery in the first place.
In other words, we can continue being beholden to the oil and gas industry and continue to “explore” dirty energy sources, but there is no point in doing so in light of the global commitment to limit the average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, a target agreed upon in Copenhagen in 2009.
Researchers examined two scenarios, one that incorporated a hypothetical “widespread and rapid adoption of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in both the electricity and industry sectors,” and one in which no CCS existed. Aside from reserves, the paper examines four other key types of oil resources. In all cases examined, CCS made little difference on the amount of resources that could be exploited in keeping with the global average temperature rise limit.
Key Points of the Paper:
Overview: Globally, 600 Gb of oil reserves “must remain unused by 2035” in a scenario where CCS is unavailable. That is equal to about 45 percent of available reserves. Even in a hypothetical scenario where “widespread and rapid adoption” of CCS occurs, 500 Gb would still have to remain unused by 2035 in order for there to be a chance of limiting the global average temperature rise to 2°C.
Arctic oil: “The development of Arctic regions is largely inconsistent” with the global average temperature rise limit of 2°C, even with CCS. Arctic oil could play only “minor role” even in a scenario with widespread and rapid adoption of CCS. The report also states that “it may be reasonable to classify Arctic resources as ‘un-burnable.’”
Light tight/shale oil: Though called a potential “game-changer” by some in the industry, research shows that “light tight oil does not rise nearly as rapidly as currently projected by some sources.” Although the paper does not directly address the debate over whether shale oil extraction, also known as horizontal drilling/fracking, researchers state their “results suggest that any parallel ‘shale oil’ revolution would not be at all helpful in the transition to a low-carbon energy system.”
Deepwater resources: On a global scale, 40 percent of deepwater resources “that are yet to be found must remain undeveloped, which rises to 55% if CCS is not available.” As with Arctic oil, the paper questions the rationale of ongoing exploration into deepwater resources, the majority of which could not be burned even if they were discovered.
Researchers point out that “without CCS there are next to no new natural bitumen or extra heavy oil capacity additions,” and with CSS, production of bitumen and extra heavy oil could only increase from current levels if there was a hypothetical “rapid decarbonization of the energy input required for their production.”
The paper also points out that the cumulative production of both Canadian bitumen and Venezuelan heavy crude are “significantly below” their estimated reserves; however, if the “declared ‘proved’ reserves of these countries were to be believed, then 80% Canadian reserves and 92% Venezuelan reserves must remain in the ground.”