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I just posted this other question regarding oil, and as a follow-up, I would like to ask if oil can be used as a fuel source for energy without contributing to global climate change?

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  • Discussion so far ignores one option: fusion power. Use oil as a source of hydrogen to fuse, then use the remaining carbon etc in some non-climate change inducing way.
    – Móż
    Feb 7 at 0:28
  • @Móż That sounds like the beginning of a useful answer! Feb 7 at 14:57
  • It's a fantasy answer, even more unlikely than carbon capture. Fusion power has been 20 years in the future for more than 50 years now...
    – Móż
    Feb 7 at 23:46
  • @Móż That was 50 years ago. Fusion energy was established 30 years ago. It's just that it created a rift in the time-space continuum and we are now stuck in time 50 years ago. C'mon, get with reality. :) :) :) Feb 8 at 8:42
  • without contributing to global climate change at what threshhold? Burning hydrocarbons for energy always contributes something >0 to global greenhouse gas concentrations, as a matter of chemistry; but how much depends on (1) how much you burn, and (2) what else you're doing besides. Burn enough & you have a significant contribution to greenhouse effects unless you also find ways to capture & sequester enough emissions to counteract. But you'd need to say more specifically how much/little net effect you'd count to get a meaningful idea of how much (1) or (2) would need to change to avoid it Feb 8 at 16:20

2 Answers 2

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There are two ways oil can be used as a fuel source for energy without contributing to global climate change.

The first is carbon capture and storage. However, part of the allure of oil is that it's very volumetrically dense, meaning a liter of oil contains a lot of energy at 1 bar pressure. Not so with natural gas, you have to have at least 700 bar pressure and even then a litre of compressed natural gas won't contain much energy. The problem is the burning product, carbon dioxide, is a gas and therefore not volumetrically dense. You'd have to compress it to very large pressures, meaning a pressure vessel is needed, and still it would take a lot of volume. If you have an oilfield and extract a liter of oil, and then burn it into carbon dioxide, you can't store the carbon dioxide in the liter of freed space on the oilfield. Gasfields are different: extract a given volume of gas, burn it to carbon dioxide (and water), and store the carbon dioxide in the freed space. The carbon dioxide fits in there. So if oil is being used at great rate, it usually means we need energy-dense fuels and that eliminates carbon capture and storage.

The second is making oil from renewable sources. Renewable oil is exactly the same compounds. Finland plans to have 30% biofuel energy content requirement in 2029 for all fuels. We already have reached 19.5% in 2022. And the 2029 target was made before the accelerating adoption of electric cars that reduce oil use. So with the accelerating adoption of electric cars, it probably would be realistic to raise the target for 2029 to 35%.

So most users of oil can use renewable oil. It's a bit more expensive, but not by much. It can't be produced at the rates oil is being used today, but if light road transportation only (the main user of oil) switches to electric vehicles, the remaining oil users which constitute only a small percentage of oil use can still continue to use oil, only using renewable oil instead. It's chemically the same compounds.

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    That ignores the cost of doing either. If we spend resources on CCS or synthetic oil, they aren't available to address contributions to climate change that we can't avoid. So by choosing the more resource-intensive reduction, we're choosing a net increase in climate change.
    – Móż
    Feb 3 at 1:12
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Not of itself. Using oil as fuel means burning it and that means producing carbon dioxide.

There are a lot of things we can do after burning oil to avoid releasing the CO2 to the atmosphere, but none of those things are specific to CO2 from oil. For example, we can plant trees to absorb the CO2, but that works for any CO2.

(edit) I'm focussing on CO2 and the atmosphere to make my language simpler and hopefully easier to understand, when I mean "CO2 equivalent" and "global ecosystems", ignoring the diffence between money and resources, as well as indirect contributions to climate change (if an oil spill kills an ecosystem that contributes to climate change, but that's hard to discuss in the context of "is it theoretically possible to..."). At heart this is an economic argument, "by taking resources from here to use there, you're making climate change worse".

But: we burn oil, we get CO2. How do we stop that contributing to climate change?

At the simplest level, we can capture the CO2 and store it forever ("carbon capture and storage"). Let's ignore what "forever" means, and just accept that it can be done. There are companies that say they can do it. They charge money for doing that.

So we ask: is spending that money the cheapest way to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere?*

The answer is no. Not now, and there doesn't seem to be any prospect of that changing. The various CCS experiments around the world have all been very expensive to build and operate, and many have been shut down or are running at minimum capacity.

What does that mean? It means that for a given amount of money, we can reduce climate change by a small amount using CCS (is, burning oil without adding to climate change), or by a much larger amount by spending the money somewhere else - usually by planting trees.

Well, why don't we just plant trees so we can burn oil without making climate change worse?

That's because we don't have to burn oil for energy, so that's an easy thing to stop doing. At least compared to breathing which is very difficult to stop doing. But we do need to reduce CO2 emissions, and things are so bad we need to be actively taking CO2 out of the atmosphere (and oceans).

  • this is the basis of carbon taxes: by having a "free market" in CO2 reduction we spend resources most efficiently
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  • What about carbon capture and storage?
    – LShaver
    Feb 1 at 22:22
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    That is not specific to burning oil / fossil fuels. If it's useful it could be done without burning oil.
    – Móż
    Feb 3 at 0:32

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