Unextractable Fossil Fuels

“If you want to succeed you should strike out on new paths, rather than travel the worn paths of accepted success.” John D. Rockefeller

by Bill Schlesinger

Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve added about 950 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and warmed the planet about 1oC.  Atmospheric scientists calculate that we should add less than another 1000 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere if we hope to hold Earth’s temperature rise to 1.5o C by 2050, which is considered a tolerable, if undesirable, future.

Of course, that means that a lot of the proven reserves of fossil fuels must remain in the ground—never to be exploited. And, we should not be erecting power plants and pipelines that anticipate a long future of fossil fuel use in society.  Just recently, Exxon-Mobil put out a press release touting the discovery of a new oil field with perhaps 10 billion barrels off Guyana.  Kudos to the Exxon geologists; that’s what they are paid to do. But, those at the helm of one of the world’s largest oil firms should be investing elsewhere for its future.

A new paper by Welsby et al. (2021) finds that 58% of the current proven reserves of oil and 89% of the proven reserves of coal must remain in the ground if we are to avoid raising Earth’s temperature by 1.5oC by 2050.  Solar and wind must power the electric grid, and thus most transportation.  Synthetic biofuels can replace jet fuel in airplanes. The future of fossil fuels lies only in their role as a raw material for petrochemicals, including plastics. Any continuing use of fossil fuels must be accompanied by appropriate levels of carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere, and with luck, the synthesis of many plastics may shift away from fossil fuels in favor of biomass and large-scale recycling.

Newly constructed solar farms produce electricity at lower cost than power plants using fossil fuels. Far from symbolic divestment in response to climate change, the real reason endowment managers should shed their holdings of fossil fuel stocks is that the future of the industry is so limited.  Look to solar, wind, tidal and geothermal power, with next generation batteries to capture renewable energy.  Those who control the world’s supply of rare earth elements, lithium, cobalt, and vanadium may be the Rockefellers of tomorrow.



Meys, R. and 6 others. 2021.  Achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emission plastics by a circular carbon economy.  Science 374: 71-76.

Tong, D., et al. 2019.  Committed emissions from existing energy infrastructure jeopardize 1.5oC climate target.  Nature 572: 373-377.

Welsby, D., J. Price, S.Pye and P. Ekins. 2021.  Unextractable fossil fuels in a 1.5oC world.  Nature 597: 230-234.

Bill Schlesinger

Emeritus Director of Cary Institute, Millbrook
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