Sunday, August 8, 2010

Over The Cliff

While American policy makers pass energy bills designed to pander to various lobbies and to allocate the largest subsidies to the "alternatives" to oil that are least likely to be suitable replacements and provide us with even basic amenities in the energy-short future, a number of geologists and energy analysts are eying the rapidly dropping rates of new gas discoveries, and the steeply falling drill rig count with growing alarm.

Natural gas is now considered to be the most likely substitute for oil, in spite of the fact that it, too, is a fossil fuel that is almost always found in proximity to oil, and is also subject to depletion. Gas prices are at deep lows and consumption has dropped in recent years, and policy makers and the public alike are pacified by the assurance that we have enough natural gas in North America to last 100 years at current rates of consumption. 

Energy writer Kurt Cobb at Resource Insights, among a number of other prominent prognosticators, believes that natural gas supplies are headed "over the cliff", that the drop could be rapid and precipitous, and its onset could take place in less than three years. In a recent article at SCitizen, he outlines the convergence of circumstances now in place that could cause seemingly plentiful North American natural gas supplies to plummet precipitously in the near future. These include not only the unexpectedly rapid rate of depletion in recently drilled wells, but the shutting in of existing drills due to extremely low current gas prices.

As I've pointed out in previous posts, a 100-year supply will become a twenty-year supply very quickly were consumption to increase by just 5% a year. That's something we need to be very concerned about, because at this juncture, our leaders, driven by the fossil fuel lobby and in deep denial concerning our ability to continue business as usual as that has been done sine WW2,  are hell-bent on converting our fleet of 200 million cars and trucks to natural gas. The conversion of our gigantic fleet of petro-burners to natural gas would cause consumption to ramp up very steeply over the next decade, and drive this extremely valuable fuel into steep depletion, with dire implications for our ability to meet other critical needs, such as for food and heat.

Not only is natural gas used to heat most of the homes in the U.S. and is the most efficient and economical way to do that so far, our population of 305 million (and growing) people are extremely dependent upon mechanized agriculture for food, and natural gas is absolutely essential for manufacturing the nitrogen based fertilizers that made the "green revolution" possible.. Obviously, rapidly declining gas production could mean widespread food shortages, or even famines, in this country that has never experienced such a thing, and would also make many other essentials, such as ample home heat, unaffordable for a sizable fraction of our population. That the result would be unbelievable suffering accompanied by a steep increase in disease and hunger and rapidly falling lifespans, ought to be obvious, but our leaders don't seem overly concerned with the implications for our non-rich population, which is about 95% of us.

Rapid depletion of existing wells could easily cause crippling shortages and steep increases in prices in the next few years even if we don't increase our consumption. Therefore, it would be sheer insanity to double the demand for this fuel by adding the load of our entire transportation system, if indeed we could even begin to convert our fleet of gasoline burners, or put into place the delivery system needed to make the fuel widely available.

The promotion of natural gas as the silver bullet that will save our energy-intensive way of life is just the next stage of denial. Our business and government leaders now recognize that peak oil is a fact, and we are understandably frantically casting about for a "solution" that will permit business as usual to continue, forgetting that all resources have a depletion curve. This is why our political leadership and business elite not only will not be of any help in dealing with the vicissitudes of life in a rapidly contracting economy and increasing scarcity of necessites, but will actually be major obstacles to successfully managing the massage shift in our economy and its physical underpinnings now underway.


Nudge said...

Laura, the sacred cow that we refuse to drag upon the altar of necessary choices is the so-called American way of life, or the great god BAU as some call it. Given that there is almost no facet of the productive economy that is not made possible by FF energy or enabled by it to reach high levels of production (relative to the pre-FF era), and given that the productive economic sectors that have little to do with FF (like the Amish or Mennonites) wield little to no power in the political arena, we probably cannot reasonably expect our leaders to do anything contrary to the aims of the largest business interests or the aims of the upper-2% ownership class.

Nevertheless, dire circumstance herself will drag the cow upon the altar, kicking all the way, for the sacrifice to necessity. Energy is useful but has certain intrinsic limitations around energy type; converting a gasoline-burner automobile to natural gas is not just a matter of “swapping out a few components” in the same way that you'd change the batteries in a remote.

Fortunately for us, one supposes, governments will co-operate nicely in the push to get more people out of their automobiles. Governments on all levels & scales are just now beginning to inventory all possible unexplored and unexploited means of garnering additional tax revenues. In the very near future, we may safely expect to see a road-use tax that takes the form of a mileage tax with the vehicle's weight (or number of axles) factored in, along with perhaps a doubling of our extremely modest gasoline taxes. The net effect of these measures, of course, will be to convince people to find ways to make do without their private automobiles ~ and that's a very good thing.

Lovely post :)

consultant said...

Laura & Nudge,

I agree with the points both of you make. But I'd like to add that the corrosive effects of gangsterism on our culture means that even if many of the powers-that-be want to convert our car fleet to natural gas, it won't happen.

Oh, some percentage of our cars might get converted, but the entire plan, rightly or wrongly will get side tracked in politics, criminal mischief and inertia. If there are no quick bucks to be made, few will be interested in taking on this project.

We are just not the country we use to be. For those of us of a certain age, it's a little hard to get use to (and you don't have to be "old" to feel that way).

For a long time I've wondered how big is too big for the American way of life and American style democracy to work? I think we are smack dab in the middle of answering that question right now.

It's not.

Maybe the way we're constitutionally structured, our true destiny was to remain a rather small nation, with business and govt. close to the people, instead of the big sprawling behemoth we've become. There are obvious benefits to being big and there were a lot of inequities when we were small.

I'm not a small govt. advocate. I'm a good govt. advocate. But I think to achieve the latter we're going to have to tweak our constitution to restore some balance of power in how we govern ourselves. Notably, break up monopolies (private and public) and codify the broad duties of public and private entities.

Nudge said...

Consultant, excellent comment. I've read it several times since you posted it. Not sure what to add except perhaps this:

You wrote: “I'm not a small govt. advocate. I'm a good govt. advocate. But I think to achieve the latter we're going to have to tweak our constitution to restore some balance of power in how we govern ourselves. Notably, break up monopolies (private and public) and codify the broad duties of public and private entities.”

One of the ways I prefer to define the troubles of the present era is this: it's as if we started with a system that was designed to be staffed by people with morals and a sense of honor and the ability to rise above their own personal interests and those of their family or clan, etc, and instead staffed it with the greediest, most immoral, most short-sighted folks you could ever find outside of a casino or escort service. The many hundreds or even thousands of important political/managerial roles in the federal government, for instance, are designed and specified for people still running on 18th-century mental software, so to speak. Many of these roles lack the sort of oversight or monitoring you would expect to need if the roles were instead filled by cretins running the 21st-century version of instant-gratification, me-first, f-the-rest-of-you hope-I-don't-get-caught type mental software.

One might reasonably ask, how do we arrange to have a more moral, more virtuous, more educated, less selfish citizenry from which to draw people to staff the many necessary positions-of-responsibility in government?

One might also ask, which powerful private interests are most opposed to good government as defined in Consultant's excellent comment above? (obvious answer: the 2% ownership class and/or the companies on the Forbes top 1000 list)