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Study: Oil Transition Carries Major Environmental Risks

Global supply of liquid hydrocarbons from all fossil resources and associated costs in dollars (top) and GHG emissions (bottom). Click to enlarge.

The increasing use of substitute fossil-based liquid hydrocarbons—either unconventional crude oils or synthetic liquid fuels (synfuels)—will dramatically increase global greenhouse gas emissions unless mitigating steps are taken, according to a new study by researchers at UC Berkeley.

The authors argue that the global energy system is in the early stages of a transition from conventionally produced oil to a variety of substitutes, bringing economic, strategic, and environmental risks. They further argue that without appropriate policies, tradeoffs between these risks are likely to be made so as to allow increased environmental disruption in return for increased economic and energy security.

Their work is reported in the paper “Risks of the Oil Transition,” published in the new Institute of Physics open-access electronic-only journal, Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

Liquid fuels for transportation are increasingly coming from a wide range of sources other than conventional petroleum. We call this the oil transition and we conclude that the environmental risks associated with this transition are much bigger than the risk to a country’s economy or the security of their fuel supply.

—Alex Farrell, lead author

Under the category of substitutes for conventional petroleum (SCP), the authors consider synthetic crude produced from oil sands and oil shale, heavy oil production, and Fischer-Tropsch synthetic fuel production.

We have calculated that production of fuels from low-quality and synthetic petroleum, such as tar sands, could have greenhouse gas emissions 30%-70% greater than the emissions from conventional gasoline. Tar sands are already being used as a source for gasoline, with over one million barrels refined each day in Alberta, Canada. With oil selling for $60/barrel on the international market, the $30/barrel production cost for tar sands is no longer an obstacle to production as it used to be.

—Alex Farrell

The authors suggest approaches that can mitigate all three risks, beginning with the diversification of energy supply and including demand reduction and better transportation planning.

Fossil-based SCP technologies with CCS [carbon capture and storage] could provide supply diversity in the near term if adequate investments were made. Because of the fuel-related GHG emissions, fossil SCPs might be appropriate only as a short-term response, although the path dependence of energy system investments suggests there may be no such thing as a purely short-term response.

The true challenge of the oil transition is to develop and deploy environmentally acceptable energy technologies (both supply and demand) rapidly enough to replace dwindling conventional oil production and meet growing demand for transportation energy.

Because of the large environmental and security externalities involved, markets alone will not respond to this problem, so government policies to manage the all three risks of the oil transition are needed now.


  • Risks of the oil transition”; A E Farrell and A R Brandt; Environmental Research Letters, Volume 1, Number 1, October-December 2006


Rafael Seidl

Three guesses as to who funded this research.

Note that it specifically excludes CNG, biofuels and electric vehicle technologies to make conventional oil look as good as possible.


Master of one trade, not jack of all...

maybe, just maybe, the folks who did the study happen to be experts in oil. Their research specifically excludes all fuels that aren't based directly on oil.

Rafael Seidl

Stormy -

precisely my point. They weren't interested in looking at ways to solve the problem of how to personal mobility. They were looking at how conventional oil could defend its dominant share of the transportation fuels market.


From the article:

“Of course, other technologies could also diversify the supply of transportation energy such as advanced, environmentally friendly biofuels, hydrogen; or partially or fully electric vehicles utilizing low carbon electricity (possibly including fossil fuels plus CCS, renevables, and nuclear power.”

So, Rafael, you can safely add agricultural, hydrogen, and nuclear pork-seeking lobbies to the list of fund-providers.

Harvey D.

stomv & Rafael:

Completely independent studies are a very rare commodity. Most scientific studies are financially supported by interested groups and their findings are therefore very often biased, so (maybe) this one.

Tobacco, oil, coal, farm, legal drugs, healty care, environmental (green groups) etc conglomerates spend billions for this type of scientifically flavoured propaganda.

United Nations and the occasionnal university (not all) studies are normally more reliable.

People publishing those studies should be obligated to state, very clearly in the preface, who financed it directly or indirectly.


People publishing those studies should be obligated to state, very clearly in the preface, who financed it directly or indirectly.

In academic journals it's customary to state acknowledgments at the end. And so it is in this article as well, where the authors acknowledge support by the "Climate Decision Making Center" (some organization funded by the NSF and CMU) and the "Energy Foundation" , whose homepage at least immediately doesn't scream oil-industry-shill at you. Perhaps a more thorough investigation would show otherwise, I don't know.



UN practically does not do any research. They rely mostly on university science worldwide. What they really do, is form extremely politically biased bodies which interpret and twist in their summaries bulk of scientific researches any way they are pleased. This is the extreme case with climate change, and often with economic development, sociological researches, etc.

And no, science does not work according to funding supplier desire. Valid mathematics and statistical verification, formal logic, repeatability of experiments, ability of theories to correctly predict FUTURE results of experiments and observed data, multidisciplinary cross-reference, Occam’s principle for the change.

That’s why any attempt of any individual not to discuss particular findings of the scientific research, but rather discredit the authors by unproved accusations, clearly places the critican into the camp of politically motivated boors.

...appropriate policies, tradeoffs between these risks are likely to be made so as to allow increased environmental disruption in return for increased economic and energy security.

I'm sorry, but those Berkeley researchers are just not seeing the Big Picture here. Everyone gets their own mini-nuclear reactor, cheap power, problem sol-ved.

Next we need to work on some "Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz" for the Oceans.


BTW (By The Way): Would there be any correlation to the Rockefeller and Snowe open letter to ExxonMobil?

Adam Brandt

As the second author of this paper (A. Brandt), and daily GCC reader, I am surprised to see that the discussion of our research has focused on our funding sources. As noted by J.J., we state that we received funding for this research from the National Science Foundation through Carnegie Mellon Universitiy as well as minor funding from the Energy Foundation. The CDMC seeks to understand how to make decisions about climate mitigation in spite of the deep uncertainty that exists regarding the costs of mitigating emissions and the potential damages from climate change.

I would hope that upon reading the article, others do not conclude that we are attempting to make conventional oil "look good." We chose to focus on the resources that we focused on for two reasons: first, they are directly usable substitutes for conventional oil without changing automotive or fuel distribution technologies; and second, we had to narrow the scope of the analysis to make it a tractable project. The primary author (A. Farrell) has recently published research on ethanol in Science that is on the whole favorable to ethanol as a petroleum substitute.

The real point of the paper, in fact, was to illustrate that we are in danger of ignoring the "tangled" nature of this problem. If we focus only on the enery security or economic nature of the problem, as many tend to do, we will likley end up ignoring the entangled environemental impacts of these substitutes. Rather than trying to make conventional oil look good we were trying to show that if we look holistically at the fossil-based resouces that are being promoted for energy security (e.g. oil shale or CTL), they in fact have large environmental tradeoffs.

Roger Davis

I really don't know why so many of you guys are so cheesed about this paper. I thought it was an interesting summary of the likely reserves of fossil synfuel feedstocks, production costs and CO2 emissions. The authors seem to be warning that if typical big energy investors follow the path of least resistance and exploit these resources the impact of peak oil will be mitigated but the planet will be destroyed. Exactly what are you disagreeing with them about? Yes, nearly all of us here are ardent renewable advocates (and quite possibly these authors, too), but don't you think it's important to quantify these reserves and estimate the impact of their development?

Paul Dietz

I really don't know why so many of you guys are so cheesed about this paper.

Kneejerk antiestablishmentarianism.


Adam thanks for your comments. The message seemed clear enough to me, after all the first line includes "fossil-based" which obviously does not include biofuels etc. I also find your message to be an important one when countries like Australia are considering syngas from coal as a major liquid fuel supplement. I think the message of the Stern report has still not really sunken in yet. ie short term economic costs for mitigation are much smaller than the future costs of climate change. I also find it disturbing the level of paranoia here regarding university research. If university scientists wanted to promulgate the views of those that pay them (views that aren't really obvious for the NSF, DOE or NIH) most of them would be in advertising. The pay is much better.


I find this article very useful. It compiles into one readily understandable picture estimations of fossil reserves to produce liquid fuel, cost of their exploration, their EROI and consequently energy intensity and CO2 emissions of potential exploration. All numbers correlate well with all I have read on the subject.

Now, one could use this data to predict oil prices, potential technologies to substitute for anticipated oil shortages (including biofuels and electric vehicles), plan for carbon sequestration or for personal bombshelter up in the mountains. Whatever your desire. The fact that the article does not predict immediate doom from ice caps avalanche or nuclear war over last drop of oil does not make it biased.


This only reinforces the logic of a cap for fossil derived CO2. In the absence of joint production more CTL means less electricity, cement or whatever. People then have to make choices like driving their car vs home air conditioning.


I'm just glad somebody spoke up. I read the article, I read the study and then I read the comments and wondered 'did these people read the same thing I did?'
"Kneejerk antiestablishmentarianism" is right! I've heard of reading between the lines but those guys were writing a novel between the lines, and it was a work of fiction.

Roger Pham

Perhaps a future article from the same source could compare the environmental impact of alternative liquid fuels vs. hydrogen, methane, and battery electricity to help guide public and private decision makers how to appropriate funding for these various future fuel sources. Clearly, the situation of "jumping from the frying pan into the fryer" is not a good prospect to be looking forward to.

Adam Brandt


That is, of course, the next logical step for this type of research. The pathways between primary fuel (be it fossil or photon) and the final energy carrier are numerous and increasing in number. Such an analysis would allow us to compare different ways to get energy into an automobile, such as CTL vs. coal fired electricity with CCS into a battery, or CNG vs. GTLs, or solar electricity vs. solar hydrogen. That would also allow the comparison of biofuels, which are not comparable on the same "resource-spectrum" diagram as the other fuels.

I think the image of "jumping from the frying pan and into the fire" is a relevant one here, and it captures the point of the article well.


As I have commented before - I strongly feel we should be making every effort to transition to BioDiesel.

There are many obvious reason, not the least, that the existing distribution infrastructure is already in place.

Lee Dekker

I'm surprised that anyone researching this subject would be surprised at running into strong skepticism and suspicion.

Considering the history, including the recent history, of oil companies actions, and the natural tendency of bigger animals to eat smaller animals, this type of skepticism should be both expected and appreciated.


"in spite of the deep uncertainty that exists regarding... the potential damages from climate change."

Well, I think that Adam Brandt answered my question as to whether there is a correlation between this article and the Rockefeller and Snowe open letter to ExxonMobil.

"I would hope that upon reading the article, others do not conclude that we are attempting to make conventional oil 'look good.'"

No, I would conclude that you are telling us that Big Oil sets policy and is telling us to accept the "tradeoffs" they have chosen for us.

If I were journalist, wanting a story from this spin, I would "follow the money".


Nationally for US, crude oil used to get ~15-1 EROEI, a generation ago. Now, with fields aging, and offshore sources becoming predominate, it is more like 11-1. This is roughly a 44% increase in energy intensity, for the oil industry. This primarily comes in the form of electricity, heavy diesel fuel, and natural gas/petroleum gas. As we continue to reach for ever more remote locations, and wring more from depleted reserves, we will spend more to get it.
__Even the Saudis will see this as Ghawar runs out of oil in the easily produced portion of the field, leaving more difficult and costlier parts left to exploit. The ~$5/barrel it currently takes to produce the crude, may go to ~$10/barrel, perhaps even $15. Depending on what figures you use, there will be a plunge 2010-2015, as production crashes from 5MMbbl/day->1MMbbl/day, or 1MMbl/day reduction per decade starting 2010. For Saudi production in general, the peak will likely arrive by the middle of next decade, with a dropoff in output by 2025.
__Unless ther is an ace to be pulled out of Lybia, and oil shale, and extra heavy crude, and tar sands, and CTL, and GTL, and oil extraction technology we could see peak oil by 2020.


Mr. Brandt,

Have you yet done any analyses of cycles which do not assume the need to continue feeding the legacy vehicle fleet?  I have a (ahem) modest example here.


To make matters ever more exciting The Globe & Mail publishes a lengthy article today on "Carbon Dioxide Isn't the Villain It is Made Out to Be."

Let's just keep playing the disinformation game to avoid the hard work!


Wow, Jcwinnie, thanks. I finally got the idea what is the problem:

“In spite of DEEP UNCERTANTY that exists regarding…the POTENTIAL damages from climate change…”

No GW fascist would ever forgive the scientist such wording.

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