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Why the Renewable Energy Era is Doomed

Meet the new fuel, same as the old fuel

| Thu Aug. 8, 2013 12:21 PM EDT

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.

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