At Federal Energy Conference, Forecasts Predict Bright Future for Fossil Fuels

Read time: 7 mins

This year’s annual Energy Information Administration conference started off on a somewhat positive note with a presentation by Dr. John Holdren, the Obama administration director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Holdren was clear in his presentation that the risks of climate change are real and deserve urgent action. 

He noted estimates of 15 feet of sea level rise being baked in with warming of only 2 degrees Celsius — a target that clearly will be difficult to meet. He commented on the following slide of predicted fossil fuel consumption growth as “very striking” and noted that “There really is no time to lose in shrinking emissions.”

However, in the question and answer session after his presentation he changed his tune to a degree by saying, “I subscribe to the view that natural gas is a very helpful bridge fuel to a much lower emissions future.”  

This is in sharp contrast to the reality about natural gas which was highlighted again last week in a new report by Oil Change International

Expanded natural gas production is a bridge to climate disaster,” said Stephen Kretzmann, Executive Director of Oil Change International. “Our report shows that even if we entirely eliminated emissions from coal and oil, the emissions from the natural gas boom alone would still blow our climate budget.”

In addition to embracing the idea of natural gas as a bridge fuel, Holdren didn’t support the idea of keeping fossil fuels in the ground saying that it doesn’t “seem to be in the cards.” As DeSmog has reported previously, this is a consistent message from the Obama administration. 

If there was any question about who was dealing the cards, that was cleared up during the rest of the conference. 

Tesoro CEO Declares “Enough is Enough”

Directly following Holdren’s talk was one by Tesoro CEO Gregory Goff. And while one would expect an oil and gas company executive to have enjoyed Holdren’s presentation — especially the statement about forecasts showing that “It is still true in 2040 that fossil fuels are the dominant source of energy for the world” — Goff took a different approach. 

Goff started off letting everyone know that compared to Holdren he would “maybe offer a little bit of a different view on certain things.”

He then addressed the audience saying, “Let’s take a deep breath, let’s take a time out. And consider the facts.” And then Goff went on the offensive and his promise to consider the facts went by the wayside. 

While the reality is the United States is producing record levels of oil and gas, Goff said, “The all out war on fossil fuels by this White House over the last 8 years has reached tsunami proportions.” 

To put things in perspective, when President Obama was elected, the US produced roughly 5 million barrels of oil per day. Daily production in 2015 reached approximately 9.5 million barrels per day. If Obama is fighting a “war on oil” he is losing that war in epic fashion. 

Goff then took it to another level by describing efforts to hold ExxonMobil accountable for potentially misleading investors on the facts of climate change as an “assault on free speech.” 

And he removed any doubt that the industry was going to change course when he said, “It is long past time that the oil and gas industry stands up and declares that - enough is enough.” 

A portion of this speech was given with the backdrop of a slide showing sub-Saharan Africa. Goff talked about how the oil industry could help improve the lives of sub-Saharan Africans as if the industry was really just interested in helping the people of the world — while ignoring the reality of the oil industry’s track record in Africa and developing countries around the world. 

It was quite a performance. And with Goff receiving such a prominent speaking slot at the annual government conference, it is easy to see why Holdren doesn’t think any effort to keep fossil fuels in the ground “is in the cards.” 

Global Coal Growth Continues

The day after the conference, news outlets including the New York Times ran stories on how China had plans to “curb” new coal powered plants for electricity generation. Articles like that combined with stories about the demise of the US coal industry might lead one to think coal is on the way out due to Obama’s “war on coal”.

Additionally a new study just published in Nature argues that China’s coal consumption likely peaked in 2014. The Guardian reported on this study with an article brimming with optimism including a headline saying that this is a “turning point in the climate change battle.” 

That was not the message heard at the EIA conference where presentations on projected coal growth in China, India and Southeast Asia made it look like a robust growth industry. The reason why was explained by Xizhou Zhou of IHS. Coal is the cheapest fuel source available. And until some entity comes up with money for developing countries to pay for the gap between coal and more expensive and cleaner power sources, coal wins. 

In the presentation on China, it was pointed out that coal powered plants are being shut down in China’s coastal regions because this is where the big cities are located and the people who live there are fed up with not being able to breathe the air. 

However, they also have built high capacity transmission lines from the interior areas of the country so that power generated by coal plants there can be sent to the big cities. So while other sources of electricity generation are expected to grow faster than coal through 2040, forecasts still show coal increasing as well.

And the new study from Nature does note that the slowdown in coal consumption in China is directly tied to a big dip in China’s economy, especially coal intensive users like the concrete and construction industries. Has China’s economy slowed down for good? Or is this much like when US emissions dipped during the Great Recession which proved to be a temporary bit of good news as emissions bounced right back up when the economy improved. That remains to be seen.

Regardless, no one is expecting peak coal for other developing countries any time soon. The presentation on India ended with the following conclusion: Cheap coal remains critical to Indian economic growth. The same message was given in the presentation on Southeast Asia predicting a, “a doubling of electricity demand by 2030, dominated by coal.” 

The Guardian article includes a quote from Professor John Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research: 

If we take the 2C target seriously, coal really has to disappear. I think coal will have to be phased out completely in all countries of the world by about 2035.” 

Based on the information presented at the EIA conference, the potential for zero coal consumption by 2035 doesn’t seem to be a reality-based goal. 

Adaptation Appears To Be In The Cards

After two days of hearing about the strong future predicted for the fossil fuel industry — combined with either outright attacks on climate science or simply not even addressing the issue — it became clear that the goals outlined in Paris at COP21 are highly unlikely to avoid dangerous climate impacts. Which helps explains why on one of Holdren’s slides he mentioned that Obama’s climate strategy included a strategy of “adaptation.” 

Based on this year’s conference and the rejection of the Keep It In The Ground scientific mandate, it appears adaptation is going to be the most widely used climate strategy in the future. 

Blog Image: Justin Mikulka

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