Opinion: This is not about a new horror film. But it is about a difficult future if we don’t prepare for it.

The term “energy cannibalism” refers to a situation where an energy technology uses increasing amounts of the energy it produces to simply extract more energy from the earth. This dynamic leaves less energy for society to use to do other things than extract more energy.

There is a technical term for this situation; it’s called energy descent.

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Energy descent occurs when the amount of energy available to society to do work is reduced. There can be many reasons for this. The energy resource might be non-renewable and depleting; the price of energy may be so high that it is unaffordable; or it may take so much energy to extract the energy in the first place, that what is available for other uses is diminished. Energy cannibalism describes this last situation.

Energy cannibalism has been occurring for some years for both oil and natural gas, but we have largely been unaware of it. A group of scientists have recently been looking at this phenomenon in more detail. 

Peak oil – the energy cost of energy

Average oil liquids net-energy production from 1950 to 2050, compared to the gross energy. Source: Louis Delannoy, Pierre-Yves Longaretti, David J. Murphy, Emmanuel Prados

The top band shows the amount of energy required to extract liquid oil over an extended time frame. While there was always an energy cost of extracting energy, this Figure shows that the cost began increasing more rapidly in the 1990s. Because this energy cost of energy was so small for the early decades of the oil age, it received little research attention.

It was a US fish ecologist, Charles Hall, who began looking at the issue of net energy analysis – how much energy is available to do things other than produce more energy. This is a question that applies in the plant and animal kingdoms, as well as to energy technologies we have developed.

The reason for this change in the energy cost of energy is that there are many different types of oil liquids in our economy, each of which have a different energy cost of extraction. The large dark grey area (above) charts the net energy derived from what is called conventional oil.

Conventional oil is oil not too deep in the earth that is combined with natural gas. The natural gas pushes the oil out of the ground when a well is dug in the right spot. This provides a high net energy return for the effort.

Being clever people, engineers knew where to dig first to get this “easy oil.” As evident in Figure 1, the net energy of this easy oil peaked in the late 1970’s, and started declining. The net energy from this easy oil has been pretty flat since.

All the other types of liquid oil indicated by the other colour bands in Figure 1 are referred to as unconventional oil. These include deep sea oil, arctic oil, tar sands, and fracking, all of which require considerably more energy inputs to extract. Hence, each of their contributions to the available energy for society are smaller than that for conventional oil.

Because larger and larger amounts of harder to extract unconventional oil have been used from the 1980s, the combined energy cost of extracting this oil has also increased.

The chart show the percent change (dotted line) in energy cost of extracting oil over several decades. From the 1990s this percentage has been increasing rapidly.

Ramping energy to produce oil energy

Evolution of energy required to produce oil liquids, from 1950 to 2050.

The scientists researching this issue have developed a model to project what are likely future energy costs of oil extraction, as shown in both charts. They report that more than 15 percent of oil extracted today is used to produce more oil. Only a few decades ago, this percentage could hardly be measured.

Every year that we continue extracting oil from these unconventional sources, the energy cost of the oil will go higher and higher. The oil industry will be consuming more of its own product to keep extracting it; this is what is meant by energy cannibalism.

What is most significant is that the scientists studying this phenomenon project that by 2050, it will take 50% of the oil extracted to extract more oil. Because oil is such a core energy source this will have a profound impact on our economy and how we live our lives.

To make things even worse, the increased energy costs associated with energy extraction in Figures 1 and 2, only consider the energy costs of extracting the fuel. It does not include the refining and processing of the raw materials into usable fuel. There is an energy cost associated with these steps in bringing energy to a usable form.

David Murphy, one of the authors of the study, indicates that processing the raw material extracted “will require roughly 9% of the oil’s energy content in an energy investment into the refining process.” The energy costs of transporting that fuel to the actual point of use in your home or vehicle would use even more of the energy extracted, a step not reported in the study.

The same scientists did a similar study with respect to natural gas. The results show that energy cannibalism is occurring for natural gas as well as for oil. Both studies highlight what an increasing number of independent scientists have been saying about energy descent. Energy descent is already occurring and will accelerate over the next few decades.

What are the implications for climate change, the transition to renewables, and our energy future?

You might think this phenomenon of energy cannibalism for oil and gas is not necessarily a bad thing. We are supposed to be making a transition to renewable energy systems anyway. So what difference will it make?

Well, here’s the rub. We cannot undertake the renewable energy transition without using fossil fuels, especially oil and gas. The more we accelerate the energy transition the faster we accelerate energy cannibalism. We’re in a Catch-22 situation. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t (pursue the renewable transition route).

And here’s another aspect of this dynamic that rarely gets discussed in climate circles. If more and more oil and gas are going to be used to extract and refine more oil and gas, then the associated emissions with building a single wind turbine, for instance, are also going to increase proportionally. The same, of course, applies to making a total transition to an entire renewable energy system. The more energy used to produce a final product will emit more greenhouse gases. The result will be a spike in greenhouse gas emissions that the renewable system is intended to reduce. We get less benefit from more emissions. The above study shows this is already happening.

A group of Spanish researchers have modelled the climate consequences of a transition to a mostly renewable energy system. The associated emissions push the climate well out of the safety zone associated with warming less than 2 degrees centigrade. While this was one of the most sophisticated dynamic modelling exercises, they did not include the phenomenon of energy cannibalism.

There is also a major economic impact of energy cannibalism. The less energy the fossil fuel industry leaves for society to use, the more expensive energy will become.

Degrowth’s planned disruption may not seem attractive – until you consider the consequences of not preparing your family and your community for less and less energy, year after year, for the next few decades.

But perhaps most importantly, there will be less energy to run our current economy. We are heavily dependent on oil and gas and as it declines, some major adjustments will be required to how the economy works.

Will increased investment allow for more oil and gas to be extracted? Perhaps, at least for a brief period. But the consequences will be more greenhouse gas emissions, and a faster acceleration of energy cannibalism. We are unlikely to invest our way out of this dilemma.

Will new energy technologies, for example, nuclear fusion or green hydrogen, come to the rescue? Unlikely, given the scale of fossil fuel technology that needs to be replaced, and the short time window we have to reduce emissions. Any new technology will almost inevitably require fossil fuels for its production and expansion. Energy cannibalism will be hard to avoid with any renewable energy transition strategy.

These energy dynamics are a reality we must face to prepare for what is coming. Reduced energy availability need not be a scary future if we prepare for it. But currently, governments are not paying attention to this issue. Communities would be wise to prepare themselves, even if government continues to keep its head in the sand.

The increasingly evident climate crisis means we have to stop fossil fuel use as quickly as possible – essentially within the decade. The energy descent phenomenon means we need to give up the idea of relying on cheap, abundant energy and prepare for a lower energy future.

Preparing for a lower energy future is what the degrowth movement is about. It is about accepting the reality of energy descent, and ensuring that we have the social supports in place to ensure everyone has their essential needs met.

Degrowth is certainly a radical departure from our current trajectory. But rejecting or ignoring it because it is radical is a missed opportunity to use the short time we have to prepare for a future different from what we now expect.

Once considered, degrowth ideas are actually quite attractive. Degrowth is a planned descent of economic activities to focus on essential needs, and involves providing the supports everyone needs to deal with the inevitable disruption.

This planned disruption may not seem attractive – until you consider the consequences of not preparing your family and your community for less and less energy, year after year, for the next few decades.

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