Conservation Not Technology will be our Savior – Chris Martenson (Part 2)

By James Stafford, editor of OilPrice. Cross posted from OilPrice

In part 2 of our interview with Chris Martenson, economist and editor of the popular financial website Peak Prosperity, Chris talks about:

• How tight oil is being oversold
• An idea for solving the storage and bBattery problem
• How price, not technology, has unlocked boom reserves
• Why it’s about conservation now, not new technology
• Why we should be concerned about another financial meltdown
• Future opportunities for investors
• Why exporting natural gas is a terrible idea
• Why Governments should help renewable Energy innovation
• Why net energy returns are the MOST important thing

In part 1 Chris spoke about: Why we shouldn’t be speaking about Energy Independence, why we could see $200 a barrel oil in the near future, why peak oil is not a defunct theory, what we aren’t being told about the shale boom, and much more… Click here to read part 1 With cheap oil looking like a thing of the past, what other energy sources should we be looking at developing? What are your thoughts on nuclear?

Chris Martenson: I believe nuclear can be done much more elegantly and safely than we’re currently doing it. And I am intrigued, also, by the possibility of thorium reactors. There are a variety of developments that we could look into. It will take quite a bit of investment, and there are a number of issues to be worked through, clearly. But nuclear does provide us with the possibility of having very low emission, very cheap electricity, which is important.

And if we’re going to talk about how we need to move towards electricity, which I believe we do, the thing we need to solve first is storage. We need to figure out how to store electricity.

The batteries that we can manufacture at scale have not advanced much since Volta first invented them in the 18th century. So we need batteries, we need storage, we need to start building zero-footprint buildings. All of these things can be done, but we really are not yet doing them on a serious basis.

Saving energy is something that really gets overlooked, but it’s where the biggest savings always happen to be. If I could wave a magic policy wand, I would take just one month from the Federal Reserve and I would dedicate it to a national prize to whoever can solve making batteries at scale from common materials and at a much higher energy density. The tasty prize would be $40,000,000,000, which may sound like a lot but is roughly two weeks of money printing by the Fed. What role do you see renewable energy playing in the future? And do you think governments should help innovation in this area?

Chris Martenson: Governments right now are providing more than half a trillion dollars in subsidies for oil and gas, so they’re already in the business of shaping the alternative market, mainly by making their competitor’s products much cheaper. So is there a role for government to play in helping to boost alternatives at this point? The answer has to be yes, because there really isn’t a lot of time left on the clock. Left to its own devices, the market would deliver us an alternative energy future, but history suggests that energy transitions take a minimum of 40 years, sometimes 60 years, and we don’t have that kind of time.

When we’re truly threatened, such as when a nation has to go to war, we’d never think of leaving that up to the markets. When you’re in a predicament and coordination is necessary–to be effective requires a collective response, not 300,000,000 individual responses.

I see the challenges to us at this date, such as declining net energy and debt markets, tuned for an energy reality that does not currently exist, being so profound that we’re going to need a response along the lines of World War II times an Apollo project plus the Manhattan project. In other words, a response more complete, complex, and challenging than anything we’ve ever faced. So on that basis, absolutely I think we need a collective response because we are quite rapidly running out of time. In other words, a government response. And what can cause this to happen? As you say, there’s no political will to make these changes at present.

Chris Martenson: We need a different narrative. Right now, the narrative we’re running is simply this: “We need our economy to grow.” That’s the first, second, third, and last piece of discussion that we ever seem to have.

It turns out we need another narrative in here which says, “Hold on. We can’t grow infinitely, we know this.” The question becomes, “When the remaining resources do run out, where would we like to be? What do we want the world, the landscape, and our energy infrastructure to look like?” And that’s the thing that’s completely missing. We’re just saying, ‘Our strategy is we’re just going to continue to grow.’ It’s not a strategy, it’s a tactic.

I am among many people who are working fervently if not feverishly to help change our narrative in time. Away from a story of growth for its own sake and towards a future shaped by design, not disaster, where we value prosperity first and growth second, if at all.

How do we do this? I really don’t know the answer to that because it has never been done before at this scale. But people and cultures do change, all the time in fact, and so this is not an impossible task, just a very tricky one, which makes it both challenging and fascinating. You mentioned earlier that you thought the shale boom was being oversold. What are your thoughts on America’s oil and gas boom?

Chris Martenson: Well, this is really important. The current story is something along these lines: “Hey, look at how clever we’ve been. Because of the magic of technology, we have discovered how to unlock these incredible oil and gas resources that we just didn’t even know about before.”

When I talk to people who are in the oil business, they say, “Oh, no, no, we’ve known about those shale deposits, we’ve been drilling into and through them for decades. We’ve had horizontal drilling for decades; we’ve had fracking for decades. What we haven’t had is $80-a-barrel oil reliably enough to support us going into those with those technologies.”

So what really unlocked those reserves was price. Not technology, not cleverness, not ingenuity. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of very clever, ingenious stuff going on in those drilling actions, but price was the primary driver here.

Here’s the thing, though: When more expensive energy comes out of the ground, it means that everything that you use to go get that energy, after a lag, becomes more expensive too. This is doubly compounded by this idea that there’s less net energy coming from these finds.

They use more energy to get that energy, but that more energy is more expensive. So that feedback loop is already in play here. It simply means that there’s less to be used as we like elsewhere in the economy.

When I look at America’s apparent energy abundance, I’m a little worried that it’s been oversold. In particular, the dynamics of depletion that exist in both the tight shale oil and shale gas plays are very different from conventional reservoir depletion dynamics. I’m concerned that people are accustomed to the old and relatively slow reservoir depletion dynamics and are lulled by the sharp increases in output that these new reservoirs offer without really understanding just how rapidly they fall off as well.

Here’s an example, in the Barnett shale gas play, in one region where they drilled 9,000 wells, there was just this exponential increase in gas output. But then there was no more room for any more wells in that section, and within one single year the gas output from that region with all of those beautiful, technologically marvelous 9,000wells had fallen by 44%. One year!

So as long as America can continue to forever increase the number of wells that it’s completing and bringing online every year, it will be able to maintain rising production from the shale plays. Obviously that’s an impossibility. You run out of space eventually, you don’t have enough rigs or talent to drill incrementally more wells each year, or the capital just isn’t there for some reason. Sooner or later, there are only so many wells you can complete. At that point, we discover that the rapid increases in oil production almost immediately begin to drop. And this is a whole new dynamic. I think we need to build in a little caution for ourselves around this story that seems to be almost completely missing from most mainstream news reports.

So really, we’re on a very elaborate treadmill right now, where as long as we can continue to drill, drill, drill, drill, drill, drill, drill, then we’ll get an increasing output. I’m not convinced that that’s going to happen.

There are a number of factors that will cause that to slow. One is environmental concern. Another is, I don’t think they’re going to have the capital to do that forever. A third is that we’ve already drilled through all of the known sweet spots in these plays, and so we’re down to the more marginal portions of the main plays. The wells going into the less-than-sweet spots are going to require higher energy prices to break even than did the initial wells. And fundamentally, sooner or later, you just run out of places to put new wells.

The biggest problem I have with how the shale story is being sold is it is being used to justify a blind resumption of business-as-usual and I think we really need to be asking some deeper questions of ourselves because eventually even these plays will run out too. I say we should have a distinct and well thought out plan for how we want to use the potential work those resources represent to build ourselves the finest country energy can supply. What is the most serious problem facing humanity? Resource depletion, population growth, climate change?

Chris Martenson: I’d rate these threats in the horizons. My most immediate concern, personally, is that our world financial system could crumble with the slightest provocation right now, with pretty disruptive effects. It’s not yet out of the woods by any stretch.

On a longer horizon, humans are living well beyond our ecological and energy budgets, and we’re eating into our principal on both accounts. Either we adjust on our own terms, or it will happen eventually on some other terms.

These are actually linked threats. At the root of it all we have a monetary system that enforces perpetual growth without which it wobbles and constantly threatens to utterly collapse. So even as our financial system is wobbling right now, sooner or later we have to come up with a system that can operate perfectly well within limits. You talk about the world financial system crumbling. How would this look and how do you see this playing out?

Chris Martenson: So at heart what we have is a debt-based money system that requires exponential growth, just to not fall completely apart on a yearly basis. And that’s something that I can’t see working in a post-peak world.

We grow our use of mineral resources about 2% per year. Which means that every 30 years, roughly speaking, we’re going to be doubling the amount of those resources that we’re pulling out of the ground and putting into the world economy. Obviously you cannot constantly double your extraction of finite resources. This means we’re going to need a new money system at some point, and fortunately, they exist.

People really need to be concerned about this right now. And our current crop of leadership on both the monetary side and on the Fed and the fiscal side in Washington, D.C., have made it abundantly clear that they’re going to preserve the status quo as long as possible, and at any cost.

And so the risk contained in that observation is that we’re going to chug along until something forces us to change. And at this point I think that it will be a complete meltdown in the financial markets. And the possibility, then, of a dollar crisis that ends in either the complete destruction of the dollar as a useful form of money or something pretty close to that. I’m not saying that it will happen, but I am saying that the risks of that outcome are now increasing.

Fortunately, there are things that we can do to increase our personal and community resilience that are easy, fun, fulfilling, and great investments to boot. So, we still have a lot of control on this story. The crash course paint’s a pretty bleak picture for our future. Are you optimistic about any technologies that can help us out of our various predicaments?

Chris Martenson: We don’t need any new technologies, we have everything we need right here on the shelf now to begin living a very different life. It begins with, I believe, the most fundamentally important thing we can do, conservation, at this stage.

If you look at a nighttime satellite photo, you can see that there are probably a few lights we could turn off and save a bit of electricity. There’s technology on the shelf right now enabling homes, either residential or commercial buildings, to be built that use a fraction of the energy they currently use, just by tilting them south and putting windows on the right side and ventilating them. Very simple things like that that can be done. All we have to do is decide that we’re going to use them, and that’s missing still.

So, yes, I am very optimistic about technologies and processes and understandings that already exist. The mystery to me is why they are not being deployed. They make complete sense from economic, political, national security, ecological and social justice standpoints yet we don’t use them at scale. That’s not a technology problem, that’s a narrative problem. Another way of saying that is I am very optimistic about technology but decidedly less optimistic that we will use it intelligently and rationally. Should the US export natural gas?

Chris Martenson: Fossil fuels. They’re a one-time gift. You get to extract them and burn them exactly once. That is, whatever you choose to do with them is what gets done. They perform work for us. So we really should be focused on what sort of work we want those fossil fuels to do for us.

There are, right now, about a dozen proposals to liquefy and export US natural gas, and a study just came out this past week, commissioned by the EIA, saying that that’s a good idea. Wrong, it’s a terrible idea. Fully 25% or more of the energy contained within the natural gas is expended just in the process of liquefying it. That’s what you get to do with 25% of the units of work. You get to turn the gas into a liquid, and nothing else.

We should be using every possible unit of work that we extract from the ground contained within that natural gas to do something actually useful. If it were mine to say, we’d be using that energy to rebuild our nation’s crumbling infrastructure; we’d have a 30-year plan for exactly what we want our country to look like and how we were going to use our natural gas to get there. So when the natural gas runs out, and it will someday, we’ll at least have a resilient, well-built country that can run on alternative energy sources. What are the big future opportunities for investors?

Chris Martenson: The big trends are very clear. Food, fuel, water, those are the big, obvious trends that a burgeoning population are going to place increasing demands on. But the things that excite me the most are those technologies, those things that we can do that are going to save us the most energy.

Anything that has a visible, obvious improvement in energy use, or new and improved ways of really growing food of higher quality with less embodied energy, those are the sorts of places where I think the most extraordinary opportunities exist.

And they’ll make economic sense right now, because they make energy sense right now, and in the future.

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  1. denim

    It is a litmus test. Anyone who thinks nukes are competitive energy sources and that electricty needs to be stored in batteries is an ignoramus. One uses wind and solar as the cheapest sources because no continuous supply of fuel need be mined or pumped. Currently, electrical energy is converted into heat to later power steam turbines or a head of water is pummped upstream of a hydroelectric dam.

    1. They didn't leave me a choice

      Do note that he did not speak of conventional nuclear power plants. But I am happy that you noted the possibilities of using gravity wells and water creatively, good thing most modern homes have the space for a spare dam and the accompanying water basin to store all that pumped water.

    2. alex

      “One uses wind and solar as the cheapest sources because no continuous supply of fuel need be mined or pumped.”

      That’s the simplest engineering analysis I’ve ever seen. Why does everyone else make it so complicated, with the need to store energy or transmit power in order to use intermittent sources, not to mention amortizing capital investments, maintenance costs, etc.

      I hope GE is right. There are many other sources that say they likely are. But solar isn’t magically cheaper just because you don’t need a mine or a well. Also, while there are many arguments against nukes, thorium or otherwise, the cost of mining thorium isn’t one of them.

      1. denim

        “Nuclear spill worse than Three-Mile Island occurred in Church Rock NM in 1979”
        Both thorium 230 and radium 226 are alpha-emitters; extremely dangerous if ingested or inhaled. Therefore, any skin contact with contaminated surfaces poses a health risk. Thorium 230, for example, has a half-life of eighty thousand years and is believed by some to be as toxic as plutonium. Thorium, a silver-white metal, tends to deposit in the liver, bone marrow, and lymphatic tissue, where even minute quantities can cause cancer and leukemia. If inhaled as dust it can cause lung cancer. According to a study by Winterer, under some circumstances thorium can become “trapped” in the body, making it “a permanent source of radiation” there, and thus doing untold damage to the human organism.

        Cheap protection? Not so much.

        1. Chad

          The environmental and health hazards, along with the cost and difficulty of safe storage, of nuclear waste isn’t any worse than coal ash. Not that anyone here is likely to defend coal, but coal is what we’re using right now, so if we switched entirely to nuclear tomorrow, we’d be no worse off in the byproduct department, and significantly better off in the sustainability and pollution department.

          I vastly prefer solar and wind, but I’m not willing to discount nuclear. All I ever hear from its opponents is “but nuclear waste!” which is a problem we’re already dealing with with conventional energy sources.

  2. GDC707

    Well, I can file this story under “so what else is new?”

    Conservation should be huge. check
    Existing technologies should be employed. check
    Crash program for new technology and infrastructure coordination and development. check

    Political will and national intelligence required to initiate these obvious common sense ideas? UNCHECK.

    So the core problem remains what is always has been with no resolution this time around until it is probably too late. -Rolling over now. Good night

  3. Max424

    Chris Martenson: “…dynamics of depletion that exist in both the tight shale oil and shale gas plays are very different from conventional reservoir depletion dynamics.”


    You see it when you chart their respective depletion curves. With few exceptions, the rise and fall of conventional oil fields, when charted, produce data points quite similar to a standard bell curve.

    For example, here are the depletion curves of two of Norway’s biggest fields. Worked in the cold North Sea, the inhospitable Gullfaks and Osberg, respectively:

    Roll all of Norway’s –bearing less fruit– oil fields into one and chart the country’s total production, and you are looking at, essentially, a classic bell curve (albeit a sharp one with a strange, but planned for, double peak):

    That’s the way it works, for the conventionals. Ghawar, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Jewel, by far the largest oil field on the planet, peaked two decades ago. The venerable grandaddy –of them all– is roughly at the midpoint of the backside it’s bell curve. But the field is still producing mad amounts of oil, and remains, World Number One, because, a) it was so massive to begin with, and b) the slope on the evil side of the chart is fairly gradual…in other words, steady and inexorable, making it, almost predictable, and marginally controllable –in an exponential, ride the wild stallion sort of way.

    Ghawar, the oily microcosm, as it goes, so will go the slippery fate of The Kingdom, and Greater Arabia!

    And the fate of the waterless peninsula looks like this: Immutable but not too torturous decline for a decade (or perhaps two?), before recognition (THEN TOTAL PANIC!!!) sets in, as the former desert nomads –turned cosmopolitan man-gods– glide down a steep, but deceptively smooth and even grade, to the X axis and oblivion.

    That is not the way it works for the shales, however. Their individual depletion curves, when charted, look remarkably like shark fins. And when you add up the individuals of say, the mighty Bakken region, and examine the bigger Bakken picture, you see what you’d thought see. A shark fin.*

    *A bubble rudely interrupted, is what you see –much like the housing, come to think.

  4. Susan the other

    Conservation. Invest in long underware and heat tape. Good to talk about conservation tho’. Why nothing on a decentralized grid? Local control of energy from start to dissipation ( which I’m sure is much higher than 25% over long distances). I didn’t like the euphemism “net energy” being substituted for “profit” either. Just because I think the uncontrolled grab for profit riches got us into this mess in the first place. Also no mention of methane fields in the arctic bubbling up so voluntarily, causing massive global warming. Why no tents? And also no mention of recycling mineral components. I liked his allusion to permaculture and water conservation – altho’ I do not think we will be faced with drought as much as flooding – so it’s a good idea to build an infrastructure to contain all that water….What he said that made the most sense was that we need a new money system because the one we have is based on an unlimited use of energy and that no longer exists as a possibility. So to continue in our idiocy is guaranteed bankruptcy. Worse than we are currently experiencing. If that is possible.

  5. David Petraitis

    He really lost all credibility for me with:

    “Chris Martenson: We need a different narrative.”

    I can’t believe it. Progressives need to talk differently to get what will be a very messy revolution going???

    What a load a crock, where is (insert favorite revolutionary here) when we need her?

    Act differently, vote differently, organize, struggle, resist and oppose. That is what is needed.

  6. jfleni

    Thorium? The mad scientists have been talking about it for years, especially when something goes wrong with one of their favorite uranium (“Too cheap to meter there Bubba!”), extremely accident-prone reactors. The latest on-line fantasy is a sci-fi thorium system to power moon bases during the half-month period when there is no sunlight there. Conveniently ignored is the fact that such bases may never exist, or if they do, they will never help any of us here down below!

    They explain how waste is less of a problem, but who really knows? The fundamental scientific facts were figured out in about 1947, but no such devices were ever built to really check. Hope springs eternal, but BS twice as often

    1. g3

      Had to chuckle at your last sentence. LoL. Funny Martenson says tech is not the solution and then goes on to propose Thorium-based nuclear power. Anybody studied the potential side-effects of this tech? Will it turn out to be another techno-fantasy-turned-idiocy?

  7. Number_27

    It may have been oil price that initially drove he fracking craze. However, natural gas sells now for around $3, not $14 and fracking continues. Mr. Martenson’s explanation of the economics of fracking makes me wonder about the rest of what he says. Sure, conservation willl play a vital role in combating GHG emissions but gas as a way to wean off more damaging fossil fuels is a good thing. The real issue is: what are these drillers injecting into the ground water system? That is my primary concern with fracking.

    So 25% of NG is used in liquification. That turns $3 gas into $4 gas. Still very price competitive making NG a viable substitute for oil and coal around the globe.

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