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Future of oil in a changing climate

iouyOil has a rosy future despite the threat of climate change, says David Waltham*. 

You’d expect a Petroleum-MSc Director to say that, and it is undeniably hard for someone in my position to be unbiased, but here’s my view anyway. 

The lazy solution would be to embrace climate-change scepticism - but that’s not scientifically tenable.  There are three relevant questions:  Is the recent CO2 rise natural or man-made?  Will that rise lead to temperature increases of several degrees?  Are such temperature rises dangerous?   Two of these can be answered in the affirmative immediately; the correlation been industrial output and atmospheric rise is close while the geological record shows that changing climates are associated with extinction events. 


So, the only serious debate concerns how far temperatures will rise.  The crux is feedback; the well-understood, small, direct warming from CO2 is only a problem if it is amplified.  Here, too, the weight of evidence is clear; palaeoclimate, historical and computer-model studies independently indicate that climate exhibits strong positive feedback.

The oil business must therefore adjust: but this does not mean that our industry - which played a leading role in global improvements in quality of life throughout the 20th Century - is doomed.  Far from it.  Most obviously, we cannot just turn off the oil-taps tomorrow.  The result would be a catastrophe far worse than the one we’re trying to avoid—global famine, wars and massive habitat destruction by desperate people.  But no-one has seriously proposed such a drastic strategy.

In contrast, I’m not convinced that any reduction in hydrocarbon supply is needed.  The required rate of CO2 decline is 1-2% per year and there are ways to achieve this while maintaining a healthy oil industry.  Carbon capture and storage, together with a steady switch from oil to gas for energy, goes a long way.  And then there’s petrochemicals. 


Petrochemicals account for 11% of consumption and this will continue to grow with global GDP.  That growth can replace much of the gradual decline resulting from decarbonizing our transport and energy systems.  The argument is a little simplistic—some petrochemical carbon ends up in the atmosphere—but the long-term future of oil lies in the stuff we make rather than in transport and energy.  Oil is a valuable commodity and we should stop setting fire to it.

Public debate has become highly polarized on many important topics, but problems are much better met by grown-up conversations that acknowledge the 50 shades of grey in any complex issue.  In the case of the future of hydrocarbons, we should resist the cosy myth that there’s a ‘war’ between environmentalism and big-oil, with everyone required to nail their colours to one or other mast.  We must not forget that the oil industry has been, and continues to be, overwhelmingly good for humanity – though there are demonstrable down-sides. 

Any other approach to the issue—such as denying that there is a global-warming problem—does a serious disservice to our industry and gives the oil business a bad name.


* David Waltham is Professor of Geophysics and Programme Director, MSc Petroleum Geoscience by Distance Learning, Royal Holloway. E: [email protected]