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Michael Klare: Fossil Fuel Euphoria, Hallelujah, Oil and Gas Forever!

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By Michael Klare, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Cross posted from TomDispatch

For years, energy analysts had been anticipating an imminent decline in global oil supplies.  Suddenly, they’re singing a new song: Fossil fuels growing scarce?  Don’t even think about it!  The news couldn’t be better: fossil fuels will become ever more abundant.  And all that talk about climate change?  Don’t worry about it, they chant.  Go out and enjoy the benefits of cheap and plentiful energy forever.

This movement from gloom about our energy future to what can only be called fossil-fuel euphoria may prove to be the hallmark of our peculiar moment.  In a speech this September, for instance, Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission (that state’s energy regulatory agency), claimed that the Earth possesses a “relatively boundless supply” of oil and natural gas.  Not only that — and you can practically hear the chorus of cheering in Houston and other oil centers — but many of the most exploitable new deposits are located in the U.S. and Canada.  As a result — add a roll of drums and a blaring of trumpets — the expected boost in energy is predicted to provide the United States with a cornucopia of economic and political rewards, including industrial expansion at home and enhanced geopolitical clout abroad.  The country, exulted Karen Moreau of the New York State Petroleum Council, another industry cheerleader, is now in a position “to become a global superpower on energy.”

There are good reasons to be deeply skeptical of such claims, but that hardly matters when they are gaining traction in Washington and on Wall Street.  What we’re seeing is a sea change in elite thinking on the future availability and attractiveness of fossil fuels.  Senior government officials, including President Obama, have already become infected with this euphoria, as have top Wall Street investors — which means it will have a powerful and longlasting, though largely pernicious, effect on the country’s energy policy, industrial development, and foreign relations.

The speed and magnitude of this shift in thinking has been little short of astonishing.  Just a few years ago, we were girding for the imminent prospect of “peak oil,” the point at which daily worldwide output would reach its maximum and begin an irreversible decline.  This, experts assumed, would result in a global energy crisis, sky-high oil prices, and severe disruptions to the world economy.

Today, peak oil seems a distant will-o’-the-wisp.  Experts at the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) confidently project that global oil output will reach 115 million barrels per day by 2040 — a stunning 34% increase above the current level of 86 million barrels.  Natural gas production is expected to soar as well, leaping from 113 trillion cubic feet in 2010 to a projected 185 trillion in 2040.

These rosy assessments rest to a surprising extent on a single key assumption: that the United States, until recently a declining energy producer, will experience a sharp increase in output through the exploitation of shale oil and natural gas reserves through hydro-fracking and other technological innovations.  “In a matter of a few years, the trends have reversed,” Moreau declared last February.  “There is a new energy reality of vast domestic resources of oil and natural gas brought about by advancing technology… For the first time in generations, we are able to see that our energy supply is no longer limited, foreign, and finite; it is American and abundant.”

The boost in domestic oil and gas output, it is further claimed, will fuel an industrial renaissance in the United States — with new plants and factories being built to take advantage of abundant local low-cost energy supplies.  “The economic consequences of this supply-and-demand revolution are potentially extraordinary,” asserted Ed Morse, the head of global commodities research at Citigroup in New York.  America’s gross domestic product, he claimed, will grow by 2% to 3% over the next seven years as a result of the energy revolution alone, adding as much as $624 billion to the national economy.  Even greater gains can be made, Morse and others claim, if the U.S. becomes a significant exporter of fossil fuels, particularly in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Not only will these developments result in added jobs — as many as three million, claims energy analyst Daniel Yergin — but they will also enhance America’s economic status vis-à-vis its competitors.  “U.S. natural gas is abundant and prices are low — a third of their level in Europe and a quarter of that in Japan,” Yergin wrote recently.  “This is boosting energy-intensive manufacturing in the U.S., much to the dismay of competitors in both Europe and Asia.”

This fossil fuel euphoria has even surfaced in statements by President Obama.  For all his talk of climate change perils and the need to invest in renewables, he has also gloated over the jump in domestic energy production and promised to facilitate further increases.  “Last year, American oil production reached its highest level since 2003,” he affirmed in March 2011.  “And for the first time in more than a decade, oil we imported accounted for less than half of the liquid fuel we consumed.  So that was a good trend.  To keep reducing that reliance on imports, my administration is encouraging offshore oil exploration and production.”

Money Pouring into Fossil Fuels

This burst of euphoria about fossil fuels and America’s energy future is guaranteed to have a disastrous impact on the planet.  In the long term, it will make Earth a hotter, far more extreme place to live by vastly increasing carbon emissions and diverting investment funds from renewables and green energy to new fossil fuel projects.  For all the excitement these endeavors may be generating, it hardly takes a genius to see that they mean ever more carbon dioxide heading into the atmosphere and an ever less hospitable planet.

The preference for fossil fuel investments is easy to spot in the industry’s trade journals, as well as in recent statistical data and anecdotal reports of all sorts.  According to the reliable International Energy Agency (IEA), private and public investment in fossil fuel projects over the next quarter century will outpace investment in renewable energy by a ratio of three to one.  In other words, for every dollar spent on new wind farms, solar arrays, and tidal power research, three dollars will go into the development of new oil fields, shale gas operations, and coal mines.

From industry sources it’s clear that big-money investors are rushing to take advantage of the current boom in unconventional energy output in the U.S. — the climate be damned.  “The dollars needed [to develop such projects] have never been larger,” commented Maynard Holt, co-president of Houston-based investment bank Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Company.  “But the money is truly out there.  The global energy capital river is flowing our way.”

In the either/or equation that seems to be our energy future, the capital river is rushing into the exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels, while it’s slowing to a trickle in the world of the true unconventionals — the energy sources that don’t add carbon to the atmosphere. This, indeed, was the conclusion reached by the IEA, which in 2012 warned that the seemingly inexorable growth in greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide is likely to eliminate all prospect of averting the worst effects of climate change.

Petro Machismo

The new energy euphoria is also fueling a growing sense that the American superpower, whose influence has recently seemed to be on the wane, may soon acquire fresh geopolitical clout through its mastery of the latest energy technologies.  “America’s new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” crowed National Security Adviser Tom Donilon in an April address at Columbia University.  Increased domestic energy output, he explained, will help reduce U.S. vulnerability to global supply disruptions and price hikes.  “It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”

A new elite consensus is forming around the strategic advantages of expanded oil and gas production.  In particular, this outlook holds that the U.S. is benefiting from substantially reduced oil imports from the Middle East by eliminating a dependency that has led to several disastrous interventions in that region and exposed the country to periodic disruptions in oil deliveries, starting with the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74.  “The shift in oil sources means the global supply system will become more resilient, our energy supplies will become more secure, and the nation will have more flexibility in dealing with crises,” Yergin wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

This turnaround, he and other experts claim, is what allowed Washington to adopt a tougher stance with Tehran in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.  With the U.S. less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, so goes the argument, American leaders need not fear Iranian threats to disrupt the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf to international markets.  “The substantial increase in oil production in the United States,” Donilon declared in April, is what allowed Washington to impose tough sanctions on Iranian oil “while minimizing the burdens on the rest of the world.” 

A stance of what could be called petro machismo is growing in Washington, underlying such initiatives as the president’s widely ballyhooed policy announcement of a “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia (still largely words backed by only the most modest of actions) and efforts to constrain Russia’s international influence. 

Ever since Vladimir Putin assumed the presidency of that country, Moscow has sought to sway the behavior of its former Warsaw Pact allies and the former republics of the Soviet Union by exploiting its dominant energy role in the region.  It offered cheap natural gas to governments willing to follow its policy dictates, while threatening to cut off supplies to those that weren’t.  Now, some American strategists hope to reduce Russia’s clout by helping friendly nations like Poland and the Baltic states develop their own shale gas reserves and build LNG terminals.  These would allow them to import gas from “friendly” states, including the U.S. (once its LNG export capacities are expanded).  “If we can export some natural gas to Europe and to Japan and other Asian nations,” Karen Moreau suggested in February, “we strengthen our relationships and influence in those places — and perhaps reduce the influence of other producers such as Russia.”

The crucial issue is this: if American elites continue to believe that increased oil and gas production will provide the U.S. with a strategic advantage, Washington will be tempted to exercise a “stronger hand” when pursuing its “international security goals.”  The result will undoubtedly be heightened international friction and discord.

Is the Euphoria Justified?

There is no doubt that the present fossil fuel euphoria will lead in troubling directions, even if the rosy predictions of rising energy output are, in the long run, likely to prove both unreliable and unrealistic.  The petro machismo types make several interconnected claims:

* The world’s fossil fuel reserves are vast, especially when “unconventional” sources of fuel — Canadian tar sands, shale gas, and the like — are included.

* The utilization of advanced technologies, especially fracking, will permit the effective exploitation of a significant share of these untapped reserves (assuming that governments don’t restrict fracking and other controversial drilling activities).

* Fossil fuels will continue to supply an enormous share of global energy requirements for the foreseeable future, even given rising world temperatures, growing public opposition, and other challenges.

Each of these assertions is packed with unacknowledged questions and improbabilities that are impossible to explore thoroughly in an article of this length.  But here are some major areas of doubt. 

To begin with, those virtually “boundless” untapped oil reserves have yet to be systematically explored, meaning that it’s impossible to know if they do, in fact, contain commercially significant reserves of oil and gas.  To offer an apt example, the U.S. Geological Survey, in one of the most widely cited estimates of untapped energy reserves, has reported that approximately 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30% percent of its natural gas lie above the Arctic Circle.  But this assessment is based on geological analyses of rock samples, not exploratory drilling.  Whether the area actually holds such large reserves will not be known until widespread drilling has occurred.  So far, initial Arctic drilling operations, like those off Greenland, have generally proved disappointing.

Similarly, the Energy Information Administration has reported that China possesses vast shale formations that could harbor substantial reserves of oil and gas.  According to a 2013 EIA survey, that country’s technically recoverable shale gas reserves are estimated at 1,275 trillion cubic feet, more than twice the figure for the United States.  Once again, however, the real extent of those reserves won’t be known without extensive drilling, which is only in its beginning stages.

To say, then, that global reserves are “boundless” is to disguise all the hypotheticals lurking within that description.  Reality may fall far short of industry claims.

The effectiveness of new technologies in exploiting such problematic reserves is also open to question.  True, fracking and other unconventional technologies have already substantially increased the production of hard-to-exploit fuels, including tar sands, shale gas, and deep-sea reserves.  Many experts predict that such gains are likely to be repeated in the future.  The EIA, for example, suggests that U.S. output of shale oil via fracking will jump by 221% over the next 15 years, and natural gas by 164%.  The big question, however, is whether these projected increases will actually come to fruition.  While early gains are likely, the odds are that future growth will come at a far slower pace.

As a start, the most lucrative U.S. shale formations in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and Texas have already experienced substantial exploration and many of the most attractive drilling sites (or “plays”) are now fully developed.  More fracking, no doubt, will release additional oil and gas, but the record shows that fossil-fuel output tends to decline once the earliest, most promising reservoirs are exploited.  In fact, notes energy analyst Art Berman, “several of the more mature shale gas plays are either in decline or appear to be approaching peak production.”

Doubts are also multiplying over the potential for exploiting shale reserves in other parts of the world.  Preliminary drilling suggests that many of the shale formations in Europe and China possess fewer hydrocarbons and will be harder to develop than those now being exploited in this country. In Poland, for example, efforts to extract domestic shale reserves have been stymied by disappointing drilling efforts and the subsequent departure of major foreign firms, including Exxon Mobil and Marathon Oil.

Finally, there is a crucial but difficult to assess factor in the future energy equation: the degree to which energy companies and energy states will run into resistance when exploiting ever more remote (and environmentally sensitive) resource zones.  No one yet knows how much energy industry efforts may be constrained by the growing opposition of local residents, scientists, environmentalists, and others who worry about the environmental degradation caused by unconventional energy extraction and the climate consequences of rising fossil fuel combustion.  Despite industry claims that fracking, tar sands production, and Arctic drilling can be performed without endangering local residents, harming the environment, or wrecking the planet, ever more people are coming to the opposite conclusion — and beginning to take steps to protect their perceived interests.

In New York State, for example, a fervent anti-fracking oppositional movement has prevented government officials from allowing such activities to begin in the rich Marcellus shale formation, one of the largest in the world.  Although Albany may, in time, allow limited fracking operations there, it is unlikely to permit large-scale drilling throughout the state.  Similarly, an impressive opposition in British Columbia to the proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline, especially by the native peoples of the region, has put that project on indefinite hold.  And growing popular opposition to fracking in Europe is making itself felt across the region.  The European Parliament, for example, recently imposed tough environmental constraints on the practice.

As heat waves and extreme storm activity increase, so will concern over climate change and opposition to wholesale fossil fuel extraction.  The IEA warned of this possibility in the 2012 edition of its World Energy Outlook.  Shale gas and other unconventional forms of natural gas are predicted to provide nearly half the net gain in world gas output over the next 25 years, the report noted.  “There are,” it added, “also concerns about the environmental impact of producing unconventional gas that, if not properly addressed, could halt the unconventional gas revolution in its tracks.”

Reaction to that IEA report last November was revealing.  Its release prompted a mini-wave of ecstatic commentary in the American media about its prediction that, thanks to the explosion in unconventional energy output, this country would soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer.  In fact, the fossil fuel craze can be said to have started with this claim.  None of the hundreds of articles and editorials written on the subject, however, bothered to discuss the caveats the report offered or its warnings of planetary catastrophe. 

As is so often the case with mass delusions, those caught up in fossil fuel mania have not bothered to think through the grim realities involved.  While industry bigwigs may continue to remain on an energy high, the rest of us will not be so lucky.  The accelerated production and combustion of fossil fuels can have only one outcome: a severely imperiled planet.

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15 comments

  1. David Lentini

    The one thing there will always be plenty of, in fact that seems to increase without bound, is bullshit. I suspect much of the press and the claims about our bottomless pit of petroleum is just that—claims made by people who could care less whether about the truth.

    1. Obama and Washington are terrified of any hint the US is in a “decline”, which in their eye means losing power to control everyone. “Decline” means more defiance from the Middle East, more talk of a new reserve currency, and more interest in Russia and China as “equals” to the US. Talking up our new-found oil wealth can be seen as blunting or even halting all three.

    2. For Wall Street, this is just another way to bring in more suckers for a new asset bubble. If the wells pay off, then great. But IBGYBG (I’ll be gone; you’ll be gone) still rules.

    3. For the fracking states, talking up potential means more investment and more clout in Washington. When the bills come due for the environmental and health damage the current leadership will be out anyway. Besides taking care of those types of disasters is what the federal government is for anyway.

    As for the rest of us, get ready for a new petro-security state. I doubt there will be much concern over using eminent domain and other governmental strong-arm tactics on US citizens who get in the way of our fracking.

  2. Aaron Layman

    Yes, that euphoria is alive and well in Houston TX. Homes are still flying off the shelves amid the capital inflows into the oil and gas sector. Home prices on a per square foot were up 15% year over year in September in my area. The Houston area as a whole saw a 40% increase in dollar volume. The capital inflows are certainly boosting the real estate sector.

    Sadly, this scenario seems much like the debt ceiling fiasco in Congress…lots of optimistic expectations followed by a more sobering dose of reality. I can’t help but watch what’s going on in the Permian Basin where the oil & gas production is set to eclipse anything else in the U.S. If you haven’t been to the area or read the book (Friday Night Lights) you might be mistaken that this place would be a fabulous place to live. Having grown up there, I can tell you it looks like there’s a much better chance that it will one day resemble a scene from Mad Max.

  3. GRP

    The US will soon be an exporter of oil, oil products and LNG. But that won’t be because of increased domestic production of these items, but decreased demand for the same locally because of an economic collapse. However in order to export these items, the infrastructure for doing so should be developed. The only way not to raise suspicion while developing the infrastructure is to create the euphoria of an imminet increase in the production of these items.

  4. John Steinbach

    Klare leaves out perhaps the most important constraint on ‘unconventional’ oil supplies- cost.

    All of these technologies require oil prices in the range of $100/barrel or more to remain viable. If the price of oil drops due to recession/depression, unconventional oil production is no longer viable.

  5. okie farmer

    I’m hoping the euphoria will last long enough to get all our aging nuclear power plants decommissioned. I think that’s possible, if, in the medium term, enough production is forthcoming from unconventional energy. Long term (30+ years) I expect the unconventional ‘play’ will be over. Then we’ll be back with the peak oil conundrum.

  6. craazyboy

    Next year they’ll announce a massive gold discovery in Northern California and the prospects for paying off the National Debt never looked better.

    Concurrently, Lawrence Livermore Labs announces a new invention – the steam engine. Scientists predict huge potential for this technology. Could set off what they refer to as an “industrial revolution” and also the potential to develop machines used for public transportation.

    Shortly after the news went out on the wire, millions of Chinese made plans to set sail for the new America to participate in our upwardly mobile economy – coined the “American Dream” by the President and some members of Congress.

  7. Chris Rogers

    Lots of “hopium” and “koolaid” doing the rounds with regards the supposed hydrocarbons boom in North America.

    One little problem, apart from the fact all this supposed energy production consumes a heck of a lot of energy, is this little gem: WATER.

    The USA in many places is already running out of clean drinking water, and what does your elite want to do, pollute what little water is left.

    If I was a conspiracy theorists, I’d have to say many of these projections can be based on only one thing, a greatly reduced population – so God knows what the elite has in mind, but much of the legal framework and infrastructure is already in place.

    Now being risk averse, and fully subscribing to the view that we do indeed have climate change – be this a natural phenomena or manmade – urging on the side of caution means we should be lowering our consumption of hydrocarbons and increasing both renewable sources – and whilst many disagree with me on this – building out new nuclear facilities.

    On the nuclear front, I’m not supporting first generation/ second generation – in my opinion they should be closed now, rather, I’m talking 5th generation at a minimum, or, hopefully an investment in Thorium.

    Now, the USA is blessed with abundant areas to collect solar energy, has a huge river system, a large tidal resource on both the East and West coast, not to mention a reputation for developing new technology – so it amazes me that the elites wish to continue exploiting hydrocarbons which we know are destroying the planet, if not by CO2 emissions, then at least via environmental degradation and pollution – which brings me back to my one contention, what have the elite got planned for most of the population, particularly given many of the coastal regions will be deluged by water within the next 2 generations if the addiction to hydrocarbons does not stop.

  8. MrColdWaterOfRealityMan

    We don’t have an oil *suppy* problem. We have a net energy and price problem. A problem that’s getting worse over time.

    Sure, there’s lots of oil and/or some kind of hydrocarbons locked in the Earth. “Locked” is the operative word here. You can’t get at these new amazing unconventional hydrocarbons without spending MORE energy and MORE money that you had to spend to get Texas light sweet crude.

    Result: Over time, NET energy from unconventionals goes down, even as the price goes up.

    Well, so what, you might ask. We pay more, but we’ve still got it, eh?

    The problem is that oil is a “critical path” energy source. Everything that has to be transported is dependent on it. As oil prices go up, it costs more to transport everything. Profits decline. Some products disappear because they can’t survive without a worldwide market and a low price dependent on CHEAP transportation fuel.

    Imagine a world where there are no cheap electronics and most of the cost of those electronics is in transporation.

    Or worse, a world where extracting oil is too expensive because getting the pipe and supplies from Texas to Uzbekistan is too expensive. At that point, when high oil prices themselves cause higher oil prices, we have OIL PRICE FEEDBACK, where prices spike, and drop, and spike, and drop until they reach a permanently high plateau. We’ll still be using some oil then, I’m sure, but it surely won’t be how we power an industrial civilization.

  9. susan the other

    If Obama tries to hype this disinformation he will be even more despised than he already is. It’s unfortunate that we, as a country, need this kind of pep talk to keep our frantic delusions up.

  10. J Sterling

    Global warming denialists, population denialists and peak oil denialists all take advantage of the fact that these trends are both long term and noisy. Failure of the trends to ramp up dramatically enough to be obviously apparent to everyone, plus the fact that sometimes the trends pause for a bit, or even go down temporarily (it’s called noise) are trumpeted as refutations of the trend.

  11. david lamy

    Yes energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) provides an upper bound for fossil fuel extraction. If it takes one barrel of fossil fuel to extract one barrel of fossil fuel then the price is not relevant. This is not even accounting for the massive waste of fresh water which too will become harder and harder to procure.

    It continues to amaze me that there is so little basic analysis that would demonstrate the futility of future fossil fuel extraction on just the energy and resource limitations alone.

    Why do our news sources not critically examine these issues?
    (That’s a rhetorical question, no need to answer!)

  12. peter de haan

    One particular paragraph in the article is a bit misleading:

    “In particular, this outlook holds that the U.S. is benefiting from substantially reduced oil imports from the Middle East by eliminating a dependency that has led to several disastrous interventions in that region”

    This seems to suggest that:
    1) The US have been largely dependent on Middle East oil for consumption
    2) By substantially reducing this dependency, interventions will no longer be required.

    However, the US import is on average “only” around 700K barrels of oil from the Persian Golf. Compared to Europe and Azia, for example, the US have only a minor dependence on Middle-East oil to satisfy demand.

    In any case, interventionist policy is not a consequence of securing ACCESS to middle-east oil. The name of the game is securing CONTROL of middle-east oil. For planners in geopolitics the difference is very obvious, but poorly understood by the public at large.

  13. steve from virginia

    The exit from the petroleum paradigm is a lot closer than a lot of people think.

    +$100/barrel oil is too costly for the current fuel consuming infrastructure to support. Everything you see out your window was built assuming $20/barrel oil into the indefinite future. USA = underwater.

    What Klare and others leave out is the consumption side of the fuel equation. All the discussions are about extraction, none of them are about consumption, which is assumed to be tended by market forces.

    However, fuel use does not pay for the fuel nor does it pay for the fuel using instruments, what pays for all these things is credit and lots of it.

    Don’t believe me? Look for the slot in the dashboard of your car where the $20 bills pop out as you drive. You don’t have one? Sorry!

    Who — or what — pays the $8000 it costs the average driver every single year to buy and operate his or her car? A: banks offering unsecured loans to you, your boss, your boss’ customers … to everyone else in the country. These are debts that total hundreds of trillions of dollars.

    It isn’t Social Security or pensions that have bankrupted the world, it is the junk at the ends of everyone’s driveways.

    The cumulative credit costs are breaking, so is the credit system. The breaking process is both ongoing and continuous, it is symptomized by the budget fiasco in Washington as well as credit hiccups in Europe, China, Japan, India, Brazil, etc.

    The problem isn’t costs, it is meeted the costs. Our economy does not earn, it borrows when it cannot steal.

    Even if every aspect of he establishment works properly without error on the part of managers, by the end of next year there will be a fuel problem as the cost to gain new fuel will be higher than what customers can afford by way of credit.

    After that … (finger cutting gesture across throat).

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