Since at least the 1970s, we’ve been warned that the world is at, or close to reaching, “peak oil“. As you can probably guess, the term indicates reaching some sort of limit. According to Wikipedia, “Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.” This leads to, but should not be confused with, oil depletion, when the supply (including reserves) eventually runs out. Various factors have resulted in reductions of global oil consumption since the ’70s, so the predictions for reaching “peak oil” (and subsequent depletion) keep getting pushed out. But, the scare is still there.
When it comes to arguments for trading in fossil fuels for “renewable” energy sources (e.g., wind, solar, biomass), another that comes up is that of national security. And for good reason. The U.S. and many of its allies are dependent upon Middle Eastern governments & organizations for a good deal of their oil (and, by extension, gasoline and other petroleum products). Relationships with these suppliers are not exactly rock solid, and the financial and political ties that some have to terrorist groups and rogue nations make our deals with them morally dubious and economically dangerous — not to mention the likelihood of indirectly financing terrorist attacks upon ourselves.
The third argument, particularly made by the Left, has to do with the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change / global warming. Indoctrination on the evils of carbon and greenhouse gases (GHG) and the dangers of impending environmental crisis begin as early as elementary school. Extremists on the Left would be more than happy to see oil depletion sooner rather than later or the criminalization of the production and/or use of fossil fuels. For now, they have to settle for moderate regulations, drilling moratoria, and the push for legislation like Cap-n-Trade.
In his recent article in Salon (of all places), Michael Lind (Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation) asks the question “What if the conventional wisdom about the energy future of America and the world has been completely wrong?”
Lind highlights a technique in the energy industry known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”. In the past decade or so, advances have been made that now allow energy companies to get at “shale gas” — one type of “unconventional” natural gas — that previously could not be recovered. In fact, six times as much (maybe more) natural gas is now recoverable than was a decade ago. (Natural gas can be used as fuel for vehicles and to generate electricity.) Fracking also allows producers to squeeze more “tight oil”. When you add in oil sands, huge coal resources, and methods being developed to get energy from gas hydrates (which may equal that of all other fossil fuels combined), we likely won’t be running low on energy for many, many centuries to come.
Nations on every continent except Antarctica have natural gas reserves — some of them quite huge — that are now accessible, thanks to these technological advances. This makes everyone a lot less dependent on, and subject to intimidation from, a handful of producers/suppliers (e.g., OPEC or Russia’s Gazprom). Suddenly, the rush to “renewables” for either peak oil/depletion concerns or issues of national security is not nearly so urgent.
But, what about all those greenhouse gases that will continue to be spewed into the atmosphere? Isn’t that reason enough to leave that oil, natural gas, and coal alone and “go green”? Well, I could do several posts on the topic of Catastrophic Man-made Global Warming. But, here’s a little bit of what Lind has to say:
“The scenarios with the most catastrophic outcomes of global warming are low probability outcomes — a fact that explains why the world’s governments in practice treat reducing CO2 emissions as a low priority, despite paying lip service to it. But even if the worst outcomes were likely, the rational response would not be a conversion to wind and solar power but a massive build-out of nuclear power….
The disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima have dramatized the real but limited and localized dangers of nuclear energy. While their initial costs are high, nuclear power plants generate vast amounts of cheap electricity — and no greenhouse gases. If runaway global warming were a clear and present danger rather than a low probability, then the problems of nuclear waste disposal and occasional local disasters would be minor compared to the benefits to the climate of switching from coal [for electricity generation] to nuclear power.”
On the other hand, there’s still the matter of evil “Big Oil” (and “Big Coal” and “Big Nuclear”?) continuing to make profits. Can’t have that, can we?
P.S. Not surprisingly, one of Salon’s regular staff writers couldn’t let Lind’s article go unchallenged. You can read Andrew Leonard’s response by scrolling further down the page from Lind’s piece.