Reprinted from Transition Voice under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
By Tom Lewis
The Gulf Oil spill is old news, right? 2010? Over and done with. The seafood industry has recovered. tourists are back, BP has kept its promises to make things right.
We know that because that’s what the incessant BP commercials on television are telling us. BP seems to believe its own commercials, because it announced in June that it and the Coast Guard were ending regular patrols of the Gulf Coast (except for Louisiana) looking for washed up oil. It did this, it said in its exuberant announcement, because of its “extraordinary progress in cleaning up the Gulf,” which, it declared, is almost back to normal. Who you gonna believe? BP’s commercials, or your lyin’ eyes?
In June a 20-ton mat of “oiled material” was found off Louisiana, and another two-ton mat was discovered a week ago. Tarballs are a daily sight on the curve of beaches from Louisiana to Key West. Almost all of the oil in these materials appears to have come from the Deepwater Horizon blowout. And before BP virtually shut down its cleanup operations in June, nearly three million pounds of the gunk had been collected — in just six months, off the Louisiana coast alone. That’s the bad news. Now for the really bad news.
The ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico appears to be collapsing. The top end of that system — crabs, oysters, shrimp, finfish — provides food for humans and raw material for an enormous complex of industries, all of which are in serious, perhaps mortal, decline. Some of the evidence:
- The oyster season opened in Louisiana on October 15th. Veteran oysterman Brad Robin says that 70 per cent the harvest grounds are “dead or mostly dead.” He’s only using two of the ten boats in his fleet, he says, because “there is no life out there.” And it’s not just the oysters, he adds: “We’re seeing things we’ve never seen before.”
- Mississippi oystermen, who used to harvest 30 sacks a day, routinely, this year are struggling to find six.
- Grouper fishing takes are sharply down all along the Florida west coast, and many grouper caught have tar balls in their stomachs.
- The crab harvest is far below pre-blowout norms, and many crabs taken have deformities such as holes in their shells.
- Substantial numbers of shrimp taken are not marketable because they have large tumors or other deformities, such as a lack of eyes.
- 212 dolphins and other marine mammals have died this year in the northern Gulf. BP oil is a prime suspect.
There’s much more, of course, as any logical person would expect in the aftermath of a dump of 200 million gallons of crude oil into a pristine estuarine ecosystem. Numerous studies have chronicled the harm to corals, micro-organisms, and various species of fish — toxic, carcinogenic and genetic harm.
But in the happy TV world of BP — which is vigorously down-playing the size of the spill, rejecting claims for compensation, shutting down its cleanup, and arguing in Federal court that it should not even be fined for the spill — all is well along the Gulf Coast. No scenes of oiled feet, cancerous crabs, eyeless shrimp, dead dolphins. No interviews with bankrupt fishermen or desperate seafood wholesalers. Not here, on BPTV.
But so far, only Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana seems to have been offended by the fact that BP is “spending more money on television commercials [$500 million last year} than they have on actually restoring the natural resources they impacted.” But as Governor Jindal understands very well when campaigning on his own behalf, perception beats reality every time.
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One big problem with discussions of climate change is that the facts have become so alarming that it’s tempting to dismiss the mere recitation of them as “alarmist” and “needlessly hyperbolic.”
But what if alarm is entirely warranted? What if the shock of alarm is the only force sufficient to rouse us to action? I’m concerned that we’ve become so jaded that we’re increasingly immune to this sort of shock.
Watch this short video on the uncanny similarity between our current predicament and past mass extinctions (particularly with regard to the melting of methane hydrates) … and decide for yourself whether the video is merely “alarmist” or justifiably alarming:
Comment from YouTube page:
It is saying Landing Gear because the “Herc” is slowing down to about 150 knots/mph to make an efficient drop and he is coming coming right over the tree tops, so with that being said the flight control system is reminding the pilot at this speed and altitude the Landing Gear should be down normally.”
Reprinted from Common Dreams (under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License)
By Richard Heinberg
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. What’s an obscenity that starts with “f” and ends with “ck”?
Oh wait, sorry, this is supposed to be a serious article about fracking. That’s right, we’re talking about The Biggest Development in the energy world since the birth of the sun, the Revolution that is freeing America forever from bondage to oil imports.
But here’s the thing: though this revolution is only a few years old, it’s already losing steam. There are two big reasons why.
The first has to do with environmental problems that can’t be swept under the carpet any longer. The image of a homeowner lighting his tap water on fire in Josh Fox’s documentary film “Gasland” has become a cliché; still, for a while the industry was successfully able to argue that adverse impacts from fracking to water, air, soil, wildlife, livestock, and human health are negligible. Industry-funded studies declared the practice safe, and the EPA appeared to back them up.
Drilling companies tended to target economically depressed regions, where poverty forced most townsfolk to take whatever short-term jobs and production royalties were offered, while stuffing their concerns about nosebleeds, headaches, dying pets, intolerable noise, and tainted water. Meanwhile, citizens who suffered the worst health effects or property damage were led to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to receive settlement payoffs (including two children ages 7 and 10 who have been given lifetime bans from speaking about fracking), thus keeping their plight out of public view.
But the bad news just keeps leaking, like methane through a bad well casing. Former Mobil Oil VP Louis W. Allstadt, who spent his career running oil production operations and company mergers, now speaks on behalf of anti-fracking resistance groups, pointing to studies revealing that compromised casings (and resulting instances of water contamination) are far more common than the industry claims.
Meanwhile Los Angeles Times has uncovered documents showing that the EPA has systematically ignored evidence of environmental harms from fracking, choosing not to publicize or act on data collected by its own staff.
A few years ago fracking for shale gas or tight oil was still novel and confined to small regions, but now tens of thousands of wells have been drilled and millions of Americans have personal experience with the noise, truck traffic, fumes, and local political turmoil that seem inevitably to follow in fracking’s wake. Hundreds of anti-fracking citizen groups have formed, public sentiment is turning, and communities have begun seeking bans or moratoria on the practice. The industry is on the defensive: Wayne County, PA activists are currently celebrating the cancellation of 1500 drilling leases covering 100,000 acres of land.
Americans are being subjected to a massive PR assault attempting to persuade them that shale gas and tight oil have brightened America’s energy future. The problem? It’s simply not true.
New York State’s moratorium on fracking remains in effect, despite massive industry efforts to end it. Meanwhile the Colorado city of Longmont has voted to ban fracking altogether, and the State of Colorado is suing the city.
Fracking’s second problem is actually a bigger one, though less publicized: its production potential was over-sold. Everyone who pays attention to energy issues has heard that America has a hundred years or more of natural gas thanks to the application of fracking to shale reservoirs, and that the US is on track to out-produce Saudi Arabia now that oil is flowing from fracked fields in North Dakota and Texas. To most, the news at first sounded hopeful and reassuring. Yet as actual production numbers accumulate, it appears that claims made for fracking were simply too good to be true.
It turns out there are only a few “plays” or geological formations in the US from which shale gas is being produced; in virtually all of them, except the Marcellus (in Pennsylvania and West Virginia), production rates are already either in plateau or decline.
Why so soon? A major challenge bedeviling drillers is the high variability within shale plays. Each tight oil or shale gas-bearing geologic formation tends to be characterized by a small core area (usually a few counties) where production is profitable and plentiful, surrounded by a much larger region where per-well production rates are lower to start with and drop fast—often falling 60 percent during the first year. Given the expense of horizontal drilling and fracking, it’s hard to make money in non-core areas unless oil and gas prices are stratospheric. As the “sweet spots” get drilled to capacity, producers are being forced to the fringes, taking on more debt because sales of product don’t cover operating expenses.
With decline rates so high, promised production volumes are turning out to be so much hype. America’s hundred years of natural gas, heralded by President Obama as a national energy game-changer, actually amounts to a mere 24 years by official estimates, even less according to unofficial but well-informed calculations.
Oil analyst Rune Likvern says shale gas and tight oil suffer from the “Red Queen” syndrome, citing a character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In the story, the fictional Red Queen jogs along at top speed but never gets anywhere; as she tells Alice, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Similarly, with worsening well decline rates, it will soon take all the drilling the industry can do just to keep production steady; then, as all the best drilling sites are exhausted, the Red Queen will start falling behind. Before 2020, shale gas and tight oil production will top out and start to decline. Americans will wonder what happened to the lavish economic benefits the industry promised.
Recently Shell took a $2 billion write-down on its liquids-rich shale assets in North America. While no details were released, it’s likely the company was simply acknowledging the unprofitability of leases in non-core regions, purchased back when shale plays were being advertised as “manufacturing operations” in which companies could successfully sink a drill bit virtually anywhere.
The oil industry itself is starting to learn that the shale revolution just ain’t all it was fracked up to be.
Despite continuing profits, the oil-and-gas industry as a whole appears to have entered its sunset years. Major oil companies have seen production decline by over 25% in the last decade. Both the number of wells drilled and the amount of inflation-adjusted capital invested in exploration and production have doubled, with negligible results. Raymond Pierrehumbert, Professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, recently summarized the situation with crystalline brevity: “Oil production technology is giving us ever more expensive oil with ever-diminishing returns for the ever-increasing effort that needs to be invested.”
Which brings us to the bottom line. Americans are being subjected to a massive PR assault attempting to persuade them that shale gas and tight oil have brightened America’s energy future. What has really changed is the nation’s energy conversation: until recently, it was about how we should reduce our dependency on depleting, climate-changing fossil fuels. Now our “conversation” has become a one-sided harangue about the energy, jobs, and tax revenues the industry insists will flow from fracking from now ’til kingdom come, and how these outweigh environmental concerns.
The data do not support these claims. Therefore it is critically important that we return America’s energy focus to the most critical imperative of our time—the necessary and inevitable transition away from our current dependence on fossil fuels.
Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of eleven books, most recently Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future. Previous books include The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, and The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality.
By Guy McPherson
This essay updates my earlier effort to tally and describe self-reinforcing feedback loops with respect to climate change. At that time, seven months ago, we had strong evidence of nine such catastrophic phenomena. The nineteen I currently know about are described below. Only the final one is reversible over a temporal span relevant to humanity.
- Methane hydrates are bubbling out the Arctic Ocean (Science, March 2010). According to NASA’s CARVE project, these plumes were up to 150 kilometers across as of mid-July 2013. Whereas Malcolm Light’s 9 February 2012 forecast of extinction of all life on Earth by the middle of this century appears premature because his conclusion of exponential methane release during summer 2011 was based on data subsequently revised and smoothed by U.S. government agencies, subsequent information — most notably from NASA’s CARVE project — indicates the grave potential for catastrophic release of methane. Catastrophically rapid release of methane in the Arctic is further supported by Nafeez Ahmed’s thorough analysis in the 5 August 2013 issue of the Guardian.
- Warm Atlantic water is defrosting the Arctic as it shoots through the Fram Strait (Science, January 2011).
- Siberian methane vents have increased in size from less than a meter across in the summer of 2010 to about a kilometer across in 2011 (Tellus, February 2011).
- Drought in the Amazon triggered the release of more carbon than the United States in 2010 (Science, February 2011).
- Peat in the world’s boreal forests is decomposing at an astonishing rate (Nature Communications, November 2011).
- Invasion of tall shrubs warms the soil, hence destabilizes the permafrost (Environmental Research Letters, March 2012).
- Greenland ice is darkening (The Cryosphere, June 2012).
- Methane is being released from the Antarctic, too (Nature, August 2012). According to a paper in the 24 July 2013 issue of Scientific Reports, melt rate in the Antarctic has caught up to the Arctic.
- Russian forest and bog fires are growing (NASA, August 2012), a phenomenon consequently apparent throughout the northern hemisphere (Nature Communications, July 2013). The New York Timesreports hotter, drier conditions leading to huge fires in western North America as the “new normal” in their 1 July 2013 issue. A paper in the 22 July 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates boreal forests are burning at a rate exceeding that of the last 10,000 years.
- Cracking of glaciers accelerates in the presence of increased carbon dioxide (Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, October 2012).
- The Beaufort Gyre apparently has reversed course (U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, October 2012).
- Exposure to sunlight increases bacterial conversion of exposed soil carbon, thus accelerating thawing of the permafrost(Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 2013).
- The microbes have joined the party, too, according to a paper in the 23 February 2013 issue of New Scientist.
- Summer ice melt in Antarctica is at its highest level in a thousand years: Summer ice in the Antarctic is melting 10 times quicker than it was 600 years ago, with the most rapid melt occurring in the last 50 years (Nature Geoscience, April 2013).
- Floods in Canada are sending pulses of silty water out through the Mackenzie Delta and into the Beaufort Sea, thus painting brown a wide section of the Arctic Ocean near the Mackenzie Delta brown (NASA, June 2013).
- Surface meltwater draining through cracks in an ice sheet can warm the sheet from the inside, softening the ice and letting it flow faster, according to a study accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface (July 2013). It appears a Heinrich Event has been triggered in Greenland. Consider the description of such an event asprovided by Robert Scribbler on 8 August 2013:
In a Heinrich Event, the melt forces eventually reach a tipping point. The warmer water has greatly softened the ice sheet. Floods of water flow out beneath the ice. Ice ponds grow into great lakes that may spill out both over top of the ice and underneath it. Large ice damns (sic) may or may not start to form. All through this time ice motion and melt is accelerating. Finally, a major tipping point is reached and in a single large event or ongoing series of such events, a massive surge of water and ice flush outward as the ice sheet enters an entirely chaotic state. Tsunamis of melt water rush out bearing their vast floatillas (sic) of ice burgs (sic), greatly contributing to sea level rise. And that’s when the weather really starts to get nasty. In the case of Greenland, the firing line for such events is the entire North Atlantic and, ultimately the Northern Hemisphere.
- Breakdown of the thermohaline conveyor belt is happening in the Antarctic as well as the Arctic, thus leading to melting of Antarctic permafrost (Scientific Reports, July 2013).
- Loss of Arctic sea ice is reducing the temperature gradient between the poles and the equator, thus causing the jet stream to slow and meander. One result is the creation of weather blocks such as the recent very high temperatures in Alaska. As a result, boreal peat dries and catches fire like a coal seam. The resulting soot enters the atmosphere to fall again, coating the ice surface elsewhere, thus reducing albedo and hastening the melting of ice. Each of these individual phenomena has been reported, albeit rarely, but to my knowledge the dots have not been connected beyond this space. The inability or unwillingness of the media to connect two dots is not surprising, and has been routinely reported (recently including here with respect to climate change and wildfires) (July 2013).
- Arctic ice is growing darker, hence less reflective (Nature Climate Change, August 2013).
Meanwhile, Arctic drilling was fast-tracked by the Obama administration during the summer of 2012.
Guy McPherson is professor emeritus of natural resources and the environment at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. He’s written well over 100 articles, ten books, the most recent of which is Walking Away From Empire, and has focused for many years on conservation of biological diversity. He lives in an off-grid, straw-bale house where he practices durable living via organic gardening, raising small animals for eggs and milk, and working with members of his rural community. Learn more at guymcpherson.com or email Guy at email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: Tom Engelhardt — on his TomDispatch Facebook page – introduces this essay by energy expert Michael Klare as “one of the most shocking and important TomDispatch has ever published.” No wonder. Klare dispels the illusion that we are about to enter a Happy Age of Renewable Energy. Rather, he shows that we are entering an Age of More Extreme Carbon, with a radically accelerated global warming. Extreme energy production is the new, unstoppable Leviathan, reminiscent of Oppenheimer’s terrible vision from the Bhagavad Gita : “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com
The Third Carbon Age
Don’t for a Second Imagine We’re Heading for an Era of Renewable Energy
When it comes to energy and economics in the climate-change era, nothing is what it seems. Most of us believe (or want to believe) that the second carbon era, the Age of Oil, will soon be superseded by the Age of Renewables, just as oil had long since superseded the Age of Coal. President Obama offered exactly this vision in a much-praised June address on climate change. True, fossil fuels will be needed a little bit longer, he indicated, but soon enough they will be overtaken by renewable forms of energy.
Many other experts share this view, assuring us that increased reliance on “clean” natural gas combined with expanded investments in wind and solar power will permit a smooth transition to a green energy future in which humanity will no longer be pouring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. All this sounds promising indeed. There is only one fly in the ointment: it is not, in fact, the path we are presently headed down. The energy industry is not investing in any significant way in renewables. Instead, it is pouring its historic profits into new fossil-fuel projects, mainly involving the exploitation of what are called “unconventional” oil and gas reserves.
The result is indisputable: humanity is not entering a period that will be dominated by renewables. Instead, it is pioneering the third great carbon era, the Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas.
That we are embarking on a new carbon era is increasingly evident and should unnerve us all. Hydro-fracking – the use of high-pressure water columns to shatter underground shale formations and liberate the oil and natural gas supplies trapped within them — is being undertaken in ever more regions of the United States and in a growing number of foreign countries. In the meantime, the exploitation of carbon-dirty heavy oil and tar sands formations is accelerating in Canada, Venezuela, and elsewhere.
It’s true that ever more wind farms and solar arrays are being built, but here’s the kicker: investment in unconventional fossil-fuel extraction and distribution is now expected to outpace spending on renewables by a ratio of at least three-to-one in the decades ahead.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), an inter-governmental research organization based in Paris, cumulative worldwide investment in new fossil-fuel extraction and processing will total an estimated $22.87 trillion between 2012 and 2035, while investment in renewables, hydropower, and nuclear energy will amount to only $7.32 trillion. In these years, investment in oil alone, at an estimated $10.32 trillion, is expected to exceed spending on wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, hydro, nuclear, and every other form of renewable energy combined.
In addition, as the IEA explains, an ever-increasing share of that staggering investment in fossil fuels will be devoted to unconventional forms of oil and gas: Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, shale oil and gas, Arctic and deep-offshore energy deposits, and other hydrocarbons derived from previously inaccessible reserves of energy. The explanation for this is simple enough. The world’s supply of conventional oil and gas — fuels derived from easily accessible reservoirs and requiring a minimum of processing — is rapidly disappearing. With global demand for fossil fuels expected to rise by 26% between now and 2035, more and more of the world’s energy supply will have to be provided by unconventional fuels.
In such a world, one thing is guaranteed: global carbon emissions will soar far beyond our current worst-case assumptions, meaning intense heat waves will become commonplace and our few remaining wilderness areas will be eviscerated. Planet Earth will be a far — possibly unimaginably — harsher and more blistering place. In that light, it’s worth exploring in greater depth just how we ended up in such a predicament, one carbon age at a time.
The First Carbon Era
The first carbon era began in the late eighteenth century, with the introduction of coal-powered steam engines and their widespread application to all manner of industrial enterprises. Initially used to power textile mills and industrial plants, coal was also employed in transportation (steam-powered ships and railroads), mining, and the large-scale production of iron. Indeed, what we now call the Industrial Revolution was largely comprised of the widening application of coal and steam power to productive activities. Eventually, coal would also be used to generate electricity, a field in which it remains dominant today.
This was the era in which vast armies of hard-pressed workers built continent-spanning railroads and mammoth textile mills as factory towns proliferated and cities grew. It was the era, above all, of the expansion of the British Empire. For a time, Great Britain was the biggest producer and consumer of coal, the world’s leading manufacturer, its top industrial innovator, and its dominant power — and all of these attributes were inextricably connected. By mastering the technology of coal, a small island off the coast of Europe was able to accumulate vast wealth, develop the world’s most advanced weaponry, and control the global sea-lanes.
The same coal technology that gave Britain such global advantages also brought great misery in its wake. As noted by energy analyst Paul Roberts in The End of Oil, the coal then being consumed in England was of the brown lignite variety, “chock full of sulfur and other impurities.” When burned, “it produced an acrid, choking smoke that stung the eyes and lungs and blackened walls and clothes.” By the end of the nineteenth century, the air in London and other coal-powered cities was so polluted that “trees died, marble facades dissolved, and respiratory ailments became epidemic.”
For Great Britain and other early industrial powers, the substitution of oil and gas for coal was a godsend, allowing improved air quality, the restoration of cities, and a reduction in respiratory ailments. In many parts of the world, of course, the Age of Coal is not over. In China and India, among other places, coal remains the principal source of energy, condemning their cities and populations to a twenty-first-century version of nineteenth-century London and Manchester.
The Second Carbon Era
The Age of Oil got its start in 1859 when commercial production began in western Pennsylvania, but only truly took off after World War II, with the explosive growth of automobile ownership. Before 1940, oil played an important role in illumination and lubrication, among other applications, but remained subordinate to coal; after the war, oil became the world’s principal source of energy. From 10 million barrels per day in 1950, global consumption soared to 77 million in 2000, a half-century bacchanalia of fossil fuel burning.
Driving the global ascendancy of petroleum was its close association with theinternal combustion engine (ICE). Due to oil’s superior portability and energy intensity (that is, the amount of energy it releases per unit of volume), it makes the ideal fuel for mobile, versatile ICEs. Just as coal rose to prominence by fueling steam engines, so oil came to prominence by fueling the world’s growing fleets of cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships. Today, petroleum supplies about 97% of all energy used in transportation worldwide.
Oil’s prominence was also assured by its growing utilization in agriculture and warfare. In a relatively short period of time, oil-powered tractors and other agricultural machines replaced animals as the primary source of power on farms around the world. A similar transition occurred on the modern battlefield, with oil-powered tanks and planes replacing the cavalry as the main source of offensive power.
These were the years of mass automobile ownership, continent-spanning highways, endless suburbs, giant malls, cheap flights, mechanized agriculture, artificial fibers, and — above all else — the global expansion of American power. Because the United States possessed mammoth reserves of oil, was the first to master the technology of oil extraction and refining, and the most successful at utilizing petroleum in transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, and war, it emerged as the richest and most powerful country of the twenty-first century, a saga told with great relish by energy historian Daniel Yergin in The Prize. Thanks to the technology of oil, the U.S. was able to accumulate staggering levels of wealth, deploy armies and military bases to every continent, and control the global air and sea-lanes — extending its power to every corner of the planet.
However, just as Britain experienced negative consequences from its excessive reliance on coal, so the United States — and the rest of the world — has suffered in various ways from its reliance on oil. To ensure the safety of its overseas sources of supply, Washington has established tortuous relationships with foreign oil suppliers and has fought several costly, debilitating wars in the Persian Gulf region, a sordid history I recount in Blood and Oil. Overreliance on motor vehicles for personal and commercial transportation has left the country ill-equipped to deal with periodic supply disruptions and price spikes. Most of all, the vast increase in oil consumption — here and elsewhere — has produced a corresponding increase in carbon dioxide emissions, accelerating planetary warming (a process begun during the first carbon era) and exposing the country to the ever more devastating effects of climate change.
The Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas
The explosive growth of automotive and aviation travel, the suburbanization of significant parts of the planet, the mechanization of agriculture and warfare, the global supremacy of the United States, and the onset of climate change: these were the hallmarks of the exploitation of conventional petroleum. At present, most of the world’s oil is still obtained from a few hundred giant onshore fields in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and Venezuela, among other countries; some additional oil is acquired from offshore fields in the North Sea, the Gulf of Guinea, and the Gulf of Mexico. This oil comes out of the ground in liquid form and requires relatively little processing before being refined into commercial fuels.
But such conventional oil is disappearing. According to the IEA, the major fields that currently provide the lion’s share of global petroleum will lose two-thirds of their production over the next 25 years, with their net output plunging from 68 million barrels per day in 2009 to a mere 26 million barrels in 2035. The IEA assures us that new oil will be found to replace those lost supplies, but most of this will be of an unconventional nature. In the coming decades, unconventional oils will account for a growing share of the global petroleum inventory, eventually becoming our main source of supply.
The same is true for natural gas, the second most important source of world energy. The global supply of conventional gas, like conventional oil, is shrinking, and we are becoming increasingly dependent on unconventional sources of supply — especially from the Arctic, the deep oceans, and shale rock via hydraulic fracturing.
In certain ways, unconventional hydrocarbons are akin to conventional fuels. Both are largely composed of hydrogen and carbon, and can be burned to produce heat and energy. But in time the differences between them will make an ever-greater difference to us. Unconventional fuels – especially heavy oils and tar sands – tend to possess a higher proportion of carbon to hydrogen than conventional oil, and so release more carbon dioxide when burned. Arctic and deep-offshore oil require more energy to extract, and so produce higher carbon emissions in their very production.
“Many new breeds of petroleum fuels are nothing like conventional oil,” Deborah Gordon, a specialist on the topic at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in 2012. “Unconventional oils tend to be heavy, complex, carbon laden, and locked up deep in the earth, tightly trapped between or bound to sand, tar, and rock.”
By far the most worrisome consequence of the distinctive nature of unconventional fuels is their extreme impact on the environment. Because they are often characterized by higher ratios of carbon to hydrogen, and generally require more energy to extract and be converted into usable materials, they produce more carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy released. In addition, the process that produces shale gas, hailed as a “clean” fossil fuel, is believed by many scientists to cause widespread releases of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.
All of this means that, as the consumption of fossil fuels grows, increasing, not decreasing, amounts of CO2 and methane will be released into the atmosphere and, instead of slowing, global warming will speed up.
And here’s another problem associated with the third carbon age: the production of unconventional oil and gas turns out to require vast amounts of water — for fracking operations, to extract tar sands and extra-heavy oil, and to facilitate the transport and refining of such fuels. This is producing a growing threat of water contamination, especially in areas of intense fracking and tar sands production, along with competition over access to water supplies among drillers, farmers, municipal water authorities, and others. As climate change intensifies, drought will become the norm in many areas and so this competition will only grow fiercer.
Along with these and other environmental impacts, the transition from conventional to unconventional fuels will have economic and geopolitical consequences hard to fully assess at this moment. As a start, the exploitation of unconventional oil and gas reserves from previously inaccessible regions involves the introduction of novel production technologies, including deep-sea and Arctic drilling, hydro-fracking, and tar-sands upgrading. One result has been a shakeup in the global energy industry, with the emergence of innovative companies possessing the skills and determination to exploit the new unconventional resources — much as occurred during the early years of the petroleum era when new firms arose to exploit the world’s oil reserves.
This has been especially evident in the development of shale oil and gas. In many cases, the breakthrough technologies in this field were devised and deployed by smaller, risk-taking firms like Cabot Oil and Gas, Devon Energy Corporation, Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation, and XTO Energy. These and similar companies pioneered the use of hydro-fracking to extract oil and gas from shale formations in Arkansas, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas, and later sparked a stampede by larger energy firms to obtain stakes of their own in these areas. To augment those stakes, the giant firms are gobbling up many of the smaller and mid-sized ones. Among the most conspicuous takeovers was ExxonMobil’s 2009 purchase of XTO for $41 billion.
That deal highlights an especially worrisome feature of this new era: the deployment of massive funds by giant energy firms and their financial backers to acquire stakes in the production of unconventional forms of oil and gas — in amounts far exceeding comparable investments in either conventional hydrocarbons or renewable energy. It’s clear that, for these companies, unconventional energy is the next big thing and, as among the most profitable firms in history, they are prepared to spend astronomical sums to ensure that they continue to be so. If this means investment in renewable energy is shortchanged, so be it. “Without a concerted policymaking effort” to favor the development of renewables, Carnegie’s Gordon warns, future investments in the energy field “will likely continue to flow disproportionately toward unconventional oil.”
In other words, there will be an increasingly entrenched institutional bias among energy firms, banks, lending agencies, and governments toward next-generation fossil-fuel production, only increasing the difficulty of establishing national and international curbs on carbon emissions. This is evident, for example, in the Obama administration’s undiminished support for deep-offshore drilling and shale gas development, despite its purported commitment to reduce carbon emissions. It is likewise evident in the growing international interest in the development of shale and heavy-oil reserves, even as fresh investment in green energy is being cut back.
As in the environmental and economic fields, the transition from conventional to unconventional oil and gas will have a substantial, if still largely undefined, impact on political and military affairs.
U.S. and Canadian companies are playing a decisive role in the development of many of the vital new unconventional fossil-fuel technologies; in addition, some of the world’s largest unconventional oil and gas reserves are located in North America. The effect of this is to bolster U.S. global power at the expense of rival energy producers like Russia and Venezuela, which face rising competition from North American companies, and energy-importing states like China and India, which lack the resources and technology to produce unconventional fuels.
At the same time, Washington appears more inclined to counter the rise of China by seeking to dominate the global sea lanes and bolster its military ties with regional allies like Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. Many factors are contributing to this strategic shift, but from their statements it is clear enough that top American officials see it as stemming in significant part from America’s growing self-sufficiency in energy production and its early mastery of the latest production technologies.
“America’s new energy posture allows us to engage [the world] from a position of greater strength,” National Security Advisor Tom Donilon asserted in an April speech at Columbia University. “Increasing U.S. energy supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply disruptions [and] affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”
For the time being, the U.S. leaders can afford to boast of their “stronger hand” in world affairs, as no other country possesses the capabilities to exploit unconventional resources on such a large scale. By seeking to extract geopolitical benefits from a growing world reliance on such fuels, however, Washington inevitably invites countermoves of various sorts. Rival powers, fearful and resentful of its geopolitical assertiveness, will bolster their capacity to resist American power — a trend already evident in China’s accelerating naval and missile buildup.
At the same time, other states will seek to develop their own capacity to exploit unconventional resources in what might be considered a fossil-fuels version of an arms race. This will require considerable effort, but such resources are widely distributed across the planet and in time other major producers of unconventional fuels are bound to emerge, challenging America’s advantage in this realm (even as they increase the staying power and global destructiveness of the third age of carbon). Sooner or later, much of international relations will revolve around these issues.
Surviving the Third Carbon Era
Barring unforeseen shifts in global policies and behavior, the world will become increasingly dependent on the exploitation of unconventional energy. This, in turn, means an increase in the buildup of greenhouse gases with little possibility of averting the onset of catastrophic climate effects. Yes, we will also witness progress in the development and installation of renewable forms of energy, but these will play a subordinate role to the development of unconventional oil and gas.
Life in the third carbon era will not be without its benefits. Those who rely on fossil fuels for transportation, heating, and the like can perhaps take comfort from the fact that oil and natural gas will not run out soon, as was predicted by many energy analysts in the early years of this century. Banks, the energy corporations, and other economic interests will undoubtedly amass staggering profits from the explosive expansion of the unconventional oil business and global increases in the consumption of these fuels. But most of us won’t be rewarded. Quite the opposite. Instead, we’ll experience the discomfort and suffering accompanying the heating of the planet, the scarcity of contested water supplies in many regions, and the evisceration of the natural landscape.
What can be done to cut short the third carbon era and avert the worst of these outcomes? Calling for greater investment in green energy is essential but insufficient at a moment when the powers that be are emphasizing the development of unconventional fuels. Campaigning for curbs on carbon emissions is necessary, but will undoubtedly prove problematic, given an increasingly deeply embedded institutional bias toward unconventional energy.
Needed, in addition to such efforts, is a drive to expose the distinctiveness and the dangers of unconventional energy and to demonize those who choose to invest in these fuels rather than their green alternatives. Some efforts of this sort are already underway, including student-initiated campaigns to persuade or compel college and university trustees to divest from any investments in fossil-fuel companies. These, however, still fall short of a systemic drive to identify and resist those responsible for our growing reliance on unconventional fuels.
For all President Obama’s talk of a green technology revolution, we remain deeply entrenched in a world dominated by fossil fuels, with the only true revolution now underway involving the shift from one class of such fuels to another. Without a doubt, this is a formula for global catastrophe. To survive this era, humanity must become much smarter about this new kind of energy and then take the steps necessary to compress the third carbon era and hasten in the Age of Renewables before we burn ourselves off this planet.
Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left, just published in paperback by Picador. A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.
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Copyright 2013 Michael Klare
By Frank Bloksberg
“My name is Frank Bloksberg. I have lived in Nevada City for about 18 years. I am a lawyer and run a martial arts school, in Grass Valley, called Aikido’Ka. At Aikido’Ka, we train in aikido – known as the “Art of Peace.” Aikido’Ka is different than other martial arts schools, because we are dedicated to peacefully resolving disputes and performing community service. For instance, we have raised over $13,000 and 6,000 pounds of food for the Food Bank.
“Aikido’Ka has been open for 6 years. We’ve had a booth at every County Fair since we’ve been open. The County Fair is a huge outreach opportunity for us. We meet a lot of our future students there. Deciding not having a booth is a really big deal for us.”
To read Frank Bloksberg’s letter in full, click here.
Reprinted from Transition Voice (Creative Commons License )
By Erik Curren
Gasland 2, the sequel to Josh Fox’s documentary about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, introduces a frightening image.
It’s not another money shot of tap water on fire, though the water well hose lit up by the owner of a multimillion dollar home in Parker County, Texas is a wonder.
Nor is the most frightening image an internal gas industry memo labeling residents of small towns in Pennsylvania or New York State an “insurgency” that must be put down with PSYOPS techniques honed by the military in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The most frightening image in Gasland 2 is a map of the United States covered with potential fracking sites.
The United States of Fracking
Look at the map. It’s hard to find a state whose water supply doesn’t originate in or cross through a place that the industry would like to frack.
So what? The U.S. government says that fracking can be done without harm to groundwater. And the industry claims that no study has ever proven that fracking has contaminated one single water supply.
Don’t believe them, says Fox, with plenty of science to back him up. Using that science, the Gasland 2 website gives a clear answer to the question “Is fracking safe?”
No. Fracking, as currently practiced across the United States, poses serious risks to the health and safety of communities and the environment.
Water supplies across the country have been contaminated by fracking. There have been multiple documented cases where natural gas, or methane, has migrated out of wells and into underground aquifers. The fracking process also forces gallons of chemically-treated watered into the ground along with numerous byproducts including chemicals, naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs), dissolved solids, liquid hydrocarbons including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, and heavy metals.
Wanna be a farmer? Fuggedaboutit.
The implications of fracking America go far beyond whether your natural gas bill stays low or some bedraggled folks in flyover states get somewhat more bedgraggled because they have to have their drinking water trucked in.
Rural areas have had it tough for decades, losing family farms to industrial agriculture, losing Main Street shops to Walmart and losing young people to the allure of the big city. Yet these days, judging by all the back-to-the-landers, homesteaders and greenhorns fleeing corporate cubicles for fields of produce and pigs, you’d think that rural America was on the verge of a renaissance, ready to step up and provide the nation with wholesome food, natural carbon sequestration and a sense of community that our alienated citizenry yearns for.
Then — bam! — enter the frackers to put the kabbash on this happy ending and put rural areas back in their place as sacrifice zones for polluting industries.
By contaminating water supplies from sea to shining sea, the industry’s final desperate gambit to keep the fossil fuel party going for a few more years could render much of rural America uninhabitable. As despoiled rural communities shut down, families will have no choice but to seek housing and work in the city. And the cruel joke at the end of it all is that natural gas may turn out to be a bubble, with fracking ruining millions of acres of perfectly good land for only a few years of gas supply. The wells may run dry in five or ten years, but the pollution will remain for decades.
Meanwhile, urban escapees will have to forget their dreams of moving to a rural area, buying a little farm and building a self-sufficient homestead. If fracking renders large areas of countryside unfit for sustainable farming, not to mention plain old human habitation, disaffected downtown office workers may little choice but to stay in their cubicles, shut up and do their work — at least until the next round of layoffs.
Making the world safe for frack-ocracy
An image nearly as scary as the U.S. map is a corresponding map of the world showing shale plays that industry would like to sink its teeth into.
But don’t think the Obama Administration, which touts natural gas as a clean fuel that will help reduce climate emissions, is just sitting around waiting for other nations to get into fracking. Fortunately for top U.S. gas drillers such as ExxonMobil, Chesapeake Energy and Anadarko, the administration has recruited the U.S. taxpayer to help pry open reluctant markets like Poland and India through the State Department’s Global Shale Gas Initiative (now known as theUnconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program).
Watch the Gasland 2 trailer. Then, find a screening near you or get a copy of the DVD to watch at home.
Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in 2009 and serves as managing partner of Curren Media Group. In 2012, Erik was elected to the city council of Staunton, Virginia.