Extreme Energy, Extreme Implications: Interview with Michael Klare

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

If oil and gas is a profoundly dynamic phenomenon, then so too must be environmental risk and conflicts over natural resources—and we are not getting the full picture from the mainstream media, according to Michael T. Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, TomDispatch blogger, and author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy (Metropolitan Books, 2008). As risk multiply, conventional sources evaporate and we are left with “extreme” energy, renewables may be the only way to avoid war and disaster.

Klare discusses:

• Why we are talking about a “resurgence” of American power
• Why the issue of US natural gas exports is a geopolitical dilemma
• Why Myanmar is important but not critical to the US Asia-Pacific “pivot”
• Why Myanmar IS critical to China
• Why India and Japan are key to the US’ evolving Asia policy
• Why the shale revolution is the number topic around the world
• Why unconventional oil and gas has the unfair advantage
• Why WE don’t need Keystone XL, but the tar sands industry is desperate
• Why the renewables are the only way forward

James Stafford: In a recent article, you opined that “Militarily, culturally, and even to some extent economically, the US remains surprisingly alone on planet Earth in imperial terms, even if little has worked out as planned in Washington.” Can you add to this from the perspective of the unconventional oil and gas boom in the US?

Michael Klare: The United States emerged from the end of the Cold War with the most powerful military force on Earth and, because of the decline of the USSR and its other rivals, was seen as the world’s dominant power. In recent years, however, the rise of China has led some analysts to question America’s overwhelming superiority, saying that China’s accumulation of economic and technological power will allow it to compete on equal terms with the US in the not-too-distant future.

This, combined with the economic toll generated by the economic crisis of 2008 – largely attributed to lax economic oversight in the US – has led some to speak of the eventual “decline” of American power. But now, with the rise in domestic oil and gas production, that talk is disappearing; instead, analysts are speaking of a “resurgence” of American power based on strong oil and gas output.

James Stafford: In terms of the pending decision on whether to expand US natural gas exports, the geopolitical argument for this appears to be trumping the economic arguments. Will the geopolitical argument–natural gas exports to challenge Russia and Iran–win out in Washington?

Michael Klare: This is hard to predict, as the geopolitical argument cuts both ways:
while increased exports bolster American power vis-a-vis Russia and Iran, a revival of domestic manufacturing based on cheap energy also bolsters American power in the global economic equation. I would predict some exports, but not so much as they endanger the expected surge in domestic manufacturing.

James Stafford: How important is Myanmar to Washington’s Asia “pivot”, and how should we interpret the sudden blossoming of relations here despite the systematic ethnic cleansing that is taking place? China has the foothold here, but can it maintain it?

Michael Klare: Myanmar is important to the Asia-Pacific pivot, especially in symbolic terms (as it was long in the Chinese orbit), but not especially critical. Far more important are US ties with Japan, the Philippines and, above all, India. You can expect a major US drive to bolster military ties with New Delhi – this will really capture the attention of the Chinese!

James Stafford: How important will Myanmar’s potential hydrocarbon reserves be against its position as a strategic gateway?

Michael Klare: Myanmar’s hydrocarbon reserves are not that important to either China or the US. But it is becoming very important as an alternative delivery route from the Indian Ocean to southwest China, diminishing their reliance on the vulnerable Strait of Malacca, which is largely dominated by the US Navy. China is keenly determined to reduce its reliance on sea lanes controlled by the US Navy.

James Stafford: Iraqi Kurdistan is shaping up to be one of the hottest exploration venues in the Middle East, and while it comes with a lot of political baggage, oil companies show no concern. What do you think the political risk potential is once the Kurds get a new pipeline up and running directly to Turkey by the end of this year or early next year, courtesy of Anglo-Turkish Genel Energy?

Michael Klare: I think it would be very dangerous to make predictions about this, given all the instability in the region. The Iraqis in Baghdad are obviously very unhappy about this, and have various means to make it difficult for companies that invest there. But these companies may feel that the risks can be overcome, or minimized. Given the unrest in Syria and Turkey, I just don’t know how all this will play out.

James Stafford: We’ve written a lot about the petro-politics surrounding the conflict in Syria, both in terms of the Iranian-Qatari race for good pipeline acreage as well as the recent discoveries in the Levant Basin. What role do you think hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon infrastructure are really playing in the end game for this conflict?

Michael Klare: Well, I always tend to look for the role of oil and gas in conflicts like this, and I’m sure that they’re present. But I suspect that this is less about oil and gas per se than about the ultimate division of power in the Middle East between long-contending actors – the Iranians, Kuwaitis, Turks, Iraqis, Russians, Americans, and so on. Of course, this has a lot to do with oil and gas in the long run, as the victor in this power struggle will be able to dominate the production and sale of hydrocarbons. But for now I see it as a power game first and foremost.

James Stafford: What is the number one energy topic that grabs your readers, and how does your coverage of it go beyond the depths (or shallows) of the mainstream media?

Michael Klare: Right now the number one topic is how the “Shale gas (and oil) revolution” will alter the power balance between the United States and its major rivals, especially Russia and China. I heard this in Russia, China, and Mexico during visits to universities and think-tanks to these countries last year – it was always the #1 question. They want to know if other countries can replicate the US success in this field, or will be forever dependent on American fracking technology. People also want to know how this “revolution” will affect the future of renewables. Will more gas production prove a “bridge” to renewables, or a “bridge to nowhere?”

James Stafford: In your view, how is the mainstream media being manipulated in the climate change debate? How is the public being cheated out of a rational, smart debate?

Michael Klare: I am concerned that the media is not adequately explaining the difference between conventional and unconventional oil and gas. Proponents of fracking, the Keystone XL pipeline, deep-offshore production, and so on all say that these are just other forms of “oil” and “clean-burning natural gas,” without explaining that vastly different production techniques are involved and that these techniques have significantly worse impacts on the environment.

James Stafford: Will we ever get to the real debate, or will interest groups continue to maintain control?

Michael Klare: We can have a fair debate in universities and think-tanks, but the American media are saturated with advertising paid for by the oil and gas industry that distorts the environmental consequences of relying on these fuels – and it’s very hard for ordinary people to challenge these accounts.

James Stafford: Recently you have expressed your disappointment over the climate change rallies, focusing on the Keystone XL pipeline. What’s gone wrong? Has the movement lost its momentum?

Michael Klare: Perhaps I’ve expressed some disappointment from time to time but I’ve been very impressed by the emergence of a new movement on college campuses–including my own–to get colleges and universities to eliminate their investments in big carbon corporations, as a way of persuading them to keep unproduced carbon in the ground.

James Stafford: Do we need the Keystone XL pipeline?

Michael Klare: We Americans do not need Keystone XL – there are plenty of other available sources of energy, and we can reduce our demand through conservation efforts. But the tar sands industry desperately needs KXL, as all other practical conduits for exporting increased tar sands production seem to be closed off (like the Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia) – meaning they’ll have lots of resources, but no export options. No wonder they’re desperate to get Obama to approve the pipeline!

James Stafford: What should we know about Keystone XL that the mainstream media doesn’t tell us, or doesn’t understand?

Michael Klare: The fact that KXL will not carry “oil” at all–despite their claims–but a heavily polluting mixture of bitumen, diluents, and toxic chemicals that must be processed through extraordinary means before it can be refined into anything resembling a usable fuel.

James Stafford: How do you address the renewable energy-vs-fossil fuels race?

Michael Klare: My argument is that the production of oil and gas is not a static phenomenon but is undergoing profound changes, involving greater risk to the environment and greater risk of conflict over disputed sources of supply (such as offshore and Arctic reserves). These risks are bound to multiply as all sources of “easy” oil disappear and we become increasingly reliant on hard-to-reach, hard-to-process “extreme” energy. Only through the accelerated development of renewables can we avoid an inevitable spiral of war and disaster.

James Stafford: Is there a point at which we will be able to say that the two can help each other?

Michael Klare: Some investments in biofuels may have this capacity, but otherwise I do not see how.

James Stafford: There has been a lot of transparency activity in the US and Europe this year aimed at punishing big oil and its bankers for manipulating energy prices, for which the end consumer eventually foots the bill. Energy price manipulation is a time-honored tradition and usually the giants get a slap on the wrist and a fine that wouldn’t even make them blink. Are times changing, though? Will things be different now?

Michael Klare: Well, we can always hope so. But with Chinese, Indian, and Russian state-owned companies playing an ever-increasing role in the extraction of fossil fuels, I’m not optimistic about this!

James Stafford: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Michael.

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  1. JGordon

    It’s great that people are finally starting to connect the economy to the (deteriorating) environment. But to live within a sustainable, renewable energy budget the population would have to stop growing and the average American would have to cut her energy consumption by about 90% or so.

    But I understand that that might seem too difficult and uncomfortable for most. So, for those people there is nature’s time-tested solution for whenever a species exceeds the support capacity of its environment: rapid population decimation. One way or another the future is going to be very sustainable. People who can’t handle that won’t need to stick around. That’s all.

  2. Thorstein

    If “a major US drive to bolster military ties with New Delhi will really capture the attention of the Chinese”, what will Pakistan think?

  3. Thor's Hammer

    Michael Klare is one of the few energy analysts who is actually aware of the broader aspects of the energy supply future. But, at least in this interview certain aspects of reality do not come to the forefront.


    This war is not fundamentally about freedom from an oppressive dictator, democracy, free markets and all the other rationalizations put out by the Ministries of Propaganda. It is a power struggle between Russia and the Western Alliance (US/EU) fomented by the West in a bid to break the Russian monopoly on Natural Gas supplies to Europe. Qatar is the source, and a pipeline through a Syria controlled by the west is the delivery mechanism.

    The Fracking “Revolution:
    In their binge drinking of the fracking Kool Aid, believers in the new century of American Energy Independence must of necessity ignore significant aspects of physical reality.

    1- Depletion rates: Both NG and oil wells production plummets like a rock after the first year of production, rapidly reaching stripper well output levels. As a result new wells have to be continually drilled to maintain output levels of a given field.

    2- Flow rates: Individual well flow rates are miniscule in comparison to a new well brought on line in conventional West Texas or Saudi fields. Hence baseline costs are many times higher.

    3- EROI: Energy return on energy invested is only a fraction of that from existing conventional wells.

    4- Resource characteristics: Tight oil and NG are not evenly disbursed throughout a shale formation. There is no giant lake of oil under the sand dunes pressurized and waiting for somebody to stick a straw into it. Modern methods of exploration enable companies to determine where the most likely drilling locations are. As a result the high probability sweet spots are drilled first, with the result that new drilling becomes less productive over time. In order to sustain a fixed level of production, not only must new drilling be continuous to keep up with depletion, but it must exponentially increase as lower probability sites are drilled.

    Sustained exponential growth of anything is mathematically impossible. Thus the decline of a fracked energy production system is not only inevitable, but will tend to be more rapid than that of a conventional well field once the peak is reached.

    The only rational conclusion is that fracking is but a temporary bump upon the inevitable fossil fuel resource depletion pattern.

    Renewable Energy:
    Those who prefer to drink the Green Kool Aid instead of the oily one must of necessity ignore an equal number of physical facts.

    Energy density: Energy from wind, solar, hydro and tides is extremely un-concentrated in comparison to the energy from fossil fuels. No amount of technology can alter that physical fact. With current and best case future technology we could power a desirable future human civilization upon the planet, but with a sustainable population level far closer to one or two billion rather than seven-plus billion people. If the die off to reach that level is a result of collapse into starvation or nuclear war, the ability of the species to reconstruct civilization upon a sustainable model is far from certain.

    Physical infrastructure: The physical infrastructure of the industrial world that enables 7 billion people to live a more or less satisfactory life style is built upon an incredibly cheap and concentrated legacy of fossil fuel energy. That energy source is finite, and demonstrably nearing its peak availability. Rebuilding the entire physical infrastructure of human occupation of the planet to operate on low density energy sources like wind and solar while sustaining continued population increases is simply impossible* in the time frame available–especially as low cost energy from fossil fuels increasingly becomes expensive energy that fouls the planetary nest.
    *I suggest that any doubters should simply book a flight that lands in Mexico City, and then revise their belief in the scale of the problem.

    High Density Energy:
    As a species humans have yet to demonstrate that they are smarter than lemmings, but as individuals they are capable of incredible brilliance. One of the products of that intellect is the understanding of the atomic nature of matter.

    The physical universe is constructed from energy— atoms, molecules, brain cell, bodies— all are simply organized energy. Our intellects have enabled us to understand how to tap nearly unlimited sources of energy, but we have chosen to use that knowledge to build bombs and nuclear reactors that are their close relatives rather than develop technologies that have no military use but could power the future.

    So we do stand at a crossroads. Will we continue like lemmings over the cliff of ecosystem collapse and runaway climate change, find a way to rebuild civilization at a planetary sustainable scale, or use our intellectual brilliance to build an artificial planetary existence based upon the energy in the atom and develop the species maturity to use that God Knowledge wisely? For my part, I notice all the lemmings around me running faster and faster—-.

    1. James Levy

      Your analysis is excellent, up to the last two paragraphs, which I find shaky. What the media refuses to say is that, aside from a short boom in natural gas which temporarily depressed prices, we may seeing increased oil and gas production, but not cheaper oil and gas due to the nature of the extraction and processing methods needed to get the additional oil and gas. We’re still trying to run a world designed around $20-30 dollar a barrel oil on $80-100 dollar a barrel oil. Economic contraction will ease pressure on the upward tick of oil prices, but at the cost of endemic high unemployment and falling standards of living for large swathes of the population. How long these people at the bottom can be kept quiescent/invisible is anyone’s guess. But the talk of a coming energy bonanza is just tripe.

    2. optimader

      Thor a good roundup from my brief scan.
      What many don’t necessarily grasp(certainly policy makers) is:
      1.) the implication of return on energy invested, which BTW applies in spades to wind/solar as well as conventional energy sources

      2.) the intermittency of wind and solar limit the contribution that can be designed into a grid. Many people are perplexed that wind power is limited to ~10-20% max contribution to satisfy power demand. There are ways to refine to this hard-intermittency issue. For example the concept of a “Supergrid” –interconnecting geographically diverse regions, but this assumes a huge infrastructure investment, DC power transmission etc ect. Itis worth keeping in mind a 5MW wind turbine will never be a 5MW grid contribution.

      3.) Solar obviously is limited to solar radiation, therefore any notion of reducing conventional baseload w/ solar demands an storage strategy. This is a huge scale and ROEI challenge.

      4.) The long and short of this for the hairshirt crowd is that conventional Coal fired polnt is ~87% available and that availability must accomodate ~80% power baseload over the technical/ infrastructure-investment horizon.

      5.) People have a tendency to not grasp the scale involved w/ 2.)

      6.) Don’t like Hydrocarbon combustion or the danger and unsolved long term waste issue of the Uranium fuel cycle Nuke plant? Time for a shameless plug for Thorium power.

      7.) Maybe later when I have some time later (or someone else) we can follow the efficiency breadcrumb trail of electric cars to the coal bin and lithium mine.

      1. American Slave

        Going over to renewables doesn’t mean we have to cut back on energy use or do it 100% but it would be nice, my brother covered his roof with solar panels (yes it was expensive) ant his old house in Las Vegas with a home equity loan right before the crash and even with a 8% interest rate it was far cheaper or at least cheaper I should say than the power bill with the a/c running all day at 68 degrees and his total monthly electric bill was around 100kw and $15 if I remember correctly compared to 1500 to 2000kw usage. And if your hell bent on producing renewable energy 100% of the time than there are technologies that allow easy energy storage like power tower solar plants http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_tower that can store energy for a week and there’s pumped storage hydro http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pumped-storage_hydroelectricity as well as pumped aquifer storage and compressed air storage http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compressed_air_energy_storage , but when it comes to wind and solar you have to go by the yearly output.

        All we need is some quantitave easing money and there are plenty of fine quality American engineers and construction workers who can design and build it no problem at all and will be glad to do it. And what will help pay for it will be the increased oil and gas exports single handedly going against opec on our own.

        1. optimader

          Refer to 5.) in my comments.

          The lowest hanging fruit that has no scale or technology barrier is efficiency. Al Gore was correct but excoriated in the media on the point (re: tire inflation).

          The society that achieves preeminence in the 21st century will be the one that is most efficient adding value w/ the least energy consumed. That Telegram hasn’t been read yet (understood?) at the NSA/Pentagon/Congress/POTUS

          I have a certain professional familiarity with all manner of energy storage schemes. None of it is simple or inexpensive implement at a significant scale.

          1. American Slave

            Energy storage is as easy as building a dam (which has been done already) and what could finance it is 0 interest quantative easing loans and with help from increased oil and gas exports.

          2. American Slave

            As far as the energy efficiency goes that can only go so far. We need to stop using fossil fuels not just less of it. I watched my brother buy new energy efficient a/c units for $8000 as well as other appliances and it did jack squat compared to the solar panels.

          3. American Slave

            My families experience with energy efficiency has been a dead-end route because the truth is that the a/c unit and other appliances are not running 24/7 but solar panels produce power all the time during the day even when its cloudy out but at a significantly reduced rate so we’ve found out that its better to spend money on renewable power first than go “energy efficient” if there’s left over money as one learns with energy efficiency your still using power but with solar or other renewables you can technically produce more than you use.

    3. American Slave

      As far as Syria goes all that war is about terrorists taking over that country of which the main faction is the al Nusra front just like in Libya it was the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. What kind of protesters have the weapons that they have that can destroy tanks, ordinary people don’t have that and now we find out that Saudi Arabia I giving them anti air missiles.

      RT usually has good reports about it.


      1. Thor's Hammer

        Wars always have factions of true believers and fanatics,people of good conscience and people driven by boundless greed. And underlying all conflict in the Middle East is the struggle for control of petroleum energy. To ignore that and characterize conflict as one solely between religious sects is to adopt willful blindness.

        1. American Slave

          Syria doesn’t have that much oil and gas but it is a benefit, yet in that case what about Venezuela which one would think they would be more focused on. The whole point is that those rebels are terrorist agents and the west is willing to side with dark forces to hope to get what they want.

          1. Thor's Hammer

            It helps if you read the post you are commenting on before moving your typing fingers—.

  4. Ottawan

    Lacking energy industry know-how, the rapid development of AB’s tar sands has been a mystery to me for some time. Given that construction of transport and/or refining infrastructure has seriously lagged development of extraction, what “plan” was behind this?

    There must have been kind of strategy going on even though circumstances/incompetence/corruption et al got/are getting in the way.

    1. optimader

      “..“plan” was behind this..”

      the plan is rapacious greed with utter confidence that the private sector will indemnify any failure if the loss sufficiently massive.

      If the Bitumen to Energy scheme was such a good model, it would be refined at the source in to higher value/lower volume products. Shipping it across North America makes no sense unless you were a gambler that knew no matter what hand gets dealt, you will be subsidized re: there is little or no chance to lose.

      1. MRW

        If the Bitumen to Energy scheme was such a good model, it would be refined at the source in to higher value/lower volume products. Shipping it across North America makes no sense unless you were a gambler that knew no matter what hand gets dealt, you will be subsidized re: there is little or no chance to lose.

        The people in the province, who own the resource according to provincial law, have wanted to refine so that the coffers of their Heritage Fund (think that’s still the name) would increase, but somehow they never get the votes for it.

        There is no subsidy; in fact, Alberta is subsidizing the low income provinces Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, PEI, New Brunswick, and Labrador with their oil royalties. Without them, the eastern provinces would be devastated financially. These subsidies have cut into Albertans’ royalties that they use to pay for education and health care, the latter being what the royalties pay for in the main. We (the US) do not subsidize them, even though we are the major players there. The American companies do, however, have to pay for the continuing reclamation projects that will continue for 10-15 years after a ‘mine’ or area has been scrubbed of oil in the sand. You only see pictures of the tailings ponds while they take years to seep back into the ground from whence they came; you never see the completed reclaimed land.

        1. MRW

          Just to clarify because I wasn’t clear: it’s the people of the province who own the resource, which is why they get the royalty. This have been the case since oil was discovered in Leduc in 1949. (All evidence of that is now gone, according to the reclamation laws put in place at that time; you can only drill for anything, from water to gold to coal to uranium to oil if you restore the land to the same or better condition. It’s a fine and jail time otherwise.) It is a subset of people who want to refine in the province and this breaks down along political lines. Also, although they do have refineries for local consumption, the majority of land outside of the cities in the southern part of the province are used for wheat and cattle and farmers don’t want to give that up.

          1. Optimader

            Im sorry i must have been unclear.the subsidy I was referring to will be a domestic US subsidy when an ill considered , both economically and trchnically, pipeline inevitably fails and pollutes The Commons.
            It is. toxic, hot, abrasive slurry with no successful history to speak of relative to pipeline transportation or compete economic justification that has been qualified that i am aware of. Beyond that, the project is an enviornmental horror story and it institutionalizes a high cost/barrel to just get out of its own way

    2. MRW

      Their strategy was to supply oil to Canadians since 1967, which is the length of time it’s been in existence; hardly rapid.

      After Trudeau imposed the “Made in Canada price” of $16/barrel for everyone west of the Ottawa/Cornwall line in 1980/81 to undercut Alberta’s royalty wealth and it’s provincial independence concerning the constitution Trudeau wanted as his legacy, all the American companies left because they weren’t making any money. (The cost of production was $24/barrel as reported in Newsweek in 1980.) By 1990, when oil was $10/barrel, American companies had figured out how to extract oil from the oil sands at $9.99/barrel and production increased. Alberta has supplied about 22% of all American oil since that time via pipeline. One barrel of syncrude, or ‘diluted bitumen’ (DilBit) equals three barrels of sweet oil, and contrary to what you are being told elsewhere, the Globe & Mail reported the results of a national lab investigation (in concert with the US National Academy of Sciences) last November in response to a Quebec accusation that Dilbit was corrosive. Dilbit has a corrosive factor of 3.7, where 4 is considered the low end and sweet oil is above that.

      What is unknown to 99.99% of Americans are the Alberta reclamation laws and their draconian criteria. And according to the daily air quality widget avaiable on Environment Canada’s website, the air quality at Fort McMurray is twice as good as the Windsor/Detroit area most days of the week.

      Your “circumstances/competence/corruption” assertion is unsubstantiated, and presumes that the 3 million people in Alberta, including the government, environmental groups like the Pembroke Institute, oil sands laborers and employers, and the reclamation folk are idiots, and defiling their province and environment because they don’t know any better.

      1. Steve Cumming

        The problem with this comment is that every single proposition it contains is the opposite of true.

        Let’s start with the correct name of the Pembina Institute, not an error that someone with deep local knowledge would conceivably make.

        The claim that one barrel of syncrude equals three of light sweet crude is preposterous on its face, unless you refer to the cost of production, which would be an odd reading of your text.

        Royalties have nothing to do with transfer payments to other Provinces…that is something the federal government does with tax revenue, which is almost entirely sales and income tax. Alberta’s precious precious royalties do not enter into it.

        The 1980 collapse of the oil and gas exploration biz in Alberta was due to a global recession combined with interest rates above 18%. Albertans need to get the heck over this event from 30 years ago, and stop blaming it all in Trudeau.

        I will stop here, except to remark that I can not tell what axe the commenter is grinding, but it seems likely that at some point he or a company he works for was required to clean up after themselves, for which he seems to harbour some terribly, terrible grievance.

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