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Is There an End to Fossil Fuel Euphoria?

A few years ago, researchers feared peak oil. What happened?

| Tue Oct. 15, 2013 3:14 PM EDT

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 US 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 US 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 US 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.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and conflict studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What's Left (Picador). A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.

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