California’s Impossible War on Oil and Gas

Determined to save the world from climate change, California has nearly shut down its oil and gas industry, though the Golden State currently gets 50 percent of its total energy from oil and another 34 percent from gas. The state’s most recent move was a decision by California’s Geologic Energy Management Division to deny new hydraulic fracturing permits on oil and gas wells.

The assault on oil and gas has been unrelenting. In September 2023, California attorney general Rob Bonta sued Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and BP for allegedly causing climate change-related damages and deceiving the public. A year before that, in September 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation to ban new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of any occupied structure—a restriction so likely to kill the industry that more than 623,000 registered voters have endorsed a referendum to repeal it this November.

The state government in Sacramento seems determined to be in the vanguard of an international movement to achieve the goals announced last December at the COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai. As part of a quest to achieve global “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, countries committed to tripling their nuclear-energy output, with the presumption that renewables—primarily wind and solar—would make up whatever was left over after the demise of oil, gas, and coal.

A careful examination of global energy and population trends strongly suggests that this is a delusion. The most authoritative source on global energy production is the Statistical Review of World Energy, published annually. In the 2023 edition, total global energy inputs for the previous year amounted to 604 exajoules. Based on current data on population and energy use, that equates to 288 gigajoules per capita in the United States and a mere 67 gigajoules per capita in the rest of the world. By 2050—the target date for achieving global “net zero”—total global population will likely level off at about 10 billion. If so, for every person in the world to have access to, say, 100 gigajoules, total global energy production will need to expand to 1,000 exajoules, an increase of 66 percent. Meantime, if all goes according to plan, coal, oil, and gas—which, according to the Statistical Review, provided 82 percent of those 604 exajoules of energy in 2022—will be completely phased out, providing no energy by 2050.

This is not possible. To begin with, the 82 percent figure is misleading, because most official sources, including the Statistical Review and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, inflate the reported energy inputs of “non-thermal” energy (that is, all energy sources except for the “combustibles”—coal, oil, gas, and biofuel), ostensibly to show how much of the less-efficient fossil fuel is already being displaced. In terms of actual electricity that these sources deliver to the grid: in 2022, 15.6 exajoules (EJ) came from hydroelectric power, 9.6 EJ from nuclear, 7.6 EJ from wind, 4.8 EJ from solar, and 2.8 EJ from biomass, plus another 4.3 EJ from biofuel (which already consumes an estimated 450,000 square miles of land, while displacing less than 2 percent of global transportation fuel demand). Altogether, “non-thermal renewables” (including nuclear) delivered only 44.7 EJ of power in 2022. We’ve got 27 years to boost that to 1,000 EJ.

And 1,000 EJ represents the bare minimum to which global energy production must aspire. For Americans to reduce their per capita energy consumption to 100 gigajoules from the current 288 would require extraordinary improvements in energy efficiency. Can electric vehicles, heat pumps, and other innovations increase efficiency that much? Because that’s what proponents of net zero and electrification of the economy must accomplish. Otherwise, 1,000 EJ will not be nearly enough for humanity.

Where will this energy come from? Tripling nuclear power would increase the non-fossil-fuel total to 64 EJ. Shall we double hydroelectric capacity, along with biomass and biofuel? That would get us to 87 EJ, though few would find it desirable to dam every remaining stretch of river and allocate nearly 1 million square miles of rainforest to growing cane ethanol and palm oil diesel. And this brings us to wind and solar: under this scenario, they would have to expand their output from 12.4 EJs to an almost unthinkable 913 EJs—an increase of 74 times.

It isn’t easy to summarize the challenges posed by massively increasing solar and wind energy. The uptick in mining; the land consumed; the expansion of transmission lines; the necessity for a staggering quantity of electricity-storage assets to balance these intermittent sources; the vulnerability of wind and solar farms to weather events, including deep freezes, tornadoes, and hail; and the stupefying task of doing it all over again every 20 to 30 years, as the wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, and storage batteries reach the end of their useful lives—all this suggests that procuring more than 90 percent of global energy from wind and solar is a fool’s errand.

California’s climate warriors may succeed in their quest to eliminate fossil fuel in the state, but it will come at a grievous cost to their fellow residents, and it’s an example that the world cannot possibly emulate. Geothermal energy may offset some of this. Perhaps nuclear capacity could more than triple. But the path for California and the world is to utilize coal, oil, and gas in as clean and sustainable a manner as possible. “Alternative energy” is not a viable alternative.

This article originally appeared in City Journal.

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