I've been getting e-mails and communications via social media from C-Realm listeners who are… let us to say "concerned" that Charles C. Mann, respected researcher and author (as well as repeat C-Realm podcast guest), has sold his soul to the fossil fuel industry. CCM has an article entitled "What If We Never Run out of Oil?" in the May 2013 edition of the Atlantic monthly magazine. For the magazine cover the editors chose to remove the question mark and change a 'what if' question into the bald assertion that we will never run out of oil. While I agree that the article grants the techno-optimists too much credibility, I think that champions of the peak oil narrative are over-reacting and missing the point of CCM's presentation.
I will explain in detail why I think CCM's Atlantic article has merit, but first, let's run through the flaws. In the article, and in an ensuing discussion on an episode of To the Point where CCM and three of the experts he quoted in his Atlantic article participated in a roundtable discussion on the topics of energy and climate, all of the participants (except the program's host, Warren Olney) largely ignored the distinctions between oil, petroleum and 'natural gas (which sounds euphemistic to me and which I will refer to only as 'methane' going forward) and treated them as as a single resource called 'fossil fuels.' They also ignored the difference between liquid fuels which are used for transport and other types of energy resources which power the electrical grid.
C-Realm listener Bruce W. summarized what he saw as flawed reasoning and equivocations as follows:
One of the things that struck me about the Atlantic piece was what I took to be an odd definition of “petroleum” as “a grab-bag term for all non-solid hydrocarbon resources-oil of various types, natural gas, propane, oil precursors, and so on-that companies draw from beneath the Earth’s surface. The stuff that catches fire around stove burners is known by a more precise term, natural gas, referring to methane, a colorless, odorless gas that has the same chemical makeup no matter what the source-ordinary petroleum wells, shale beds, or methane hydrate."
Well, okay, not wrong exactly, I guess - but the title of the article is “What If We Never Run Out of Oil?” Industrial society, the infrastructure we built in the latter part of the 20th century, runs on oil - specifically light sweet crude that we got out of giant fields, all of which are in or edging toward decline or depletion. The crisis we are facing is a liquid fuel shortage, for which NGLs or whatever we might eventually possibly make out of methane hydrates do not adequately serve as a substitute (it's my understanding that NGLs deliver only about 66% of the energy of gasoline).
You can see the confusion on Mann's part when he writes, “ASPO was born after (Jean) Laherrère and Colin Campbell, another retired petroleum geologist, predicted in 1998 that ‘within the next decade, the supply of conventional oil will be unable to keep up with demand.’ Given the record-high petroleum reserves of the time, the claim was gutsy. Campbell and Laherrère insisted that talk of ever more oil was nonsense.” So what are we talking about - Peak Oil or Peak “Petroleum”?
The same confusion ran rampant through the discussion on “To The Point”. Plopping everything under the same general heading (of “energy” or “petroleum”) when what you actually want to talk about is “oil”, which undergirds our food production and distribution, our transportation, and a whole host of other systems, is either deliberately misleading (as Kunstler maintained) or just some fuzzy-headed writing. I tend to think it’s the latter...
In the Atlantic article and in the subsequent radio discussion, CCM discusses hydrocarbon fuel sources obtained through advances in hydraulic fracturing and a decade-long Japanese program aimed at harvesting methane clathrates as reason enough to justify asking what the climate implications would be if the peak oil people are wrong and we don't run out of accessible hydrocarbon energy anytime soon? What happens to the climate if we keep taking carbon that is sequestered underground or in seafloor ice and pumping it into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide? I think it is a question worth asking, and I think that some of the fuzzy thinking about the different forms of hydrocarbon energy that has allowed the discussion to be framed in terms of never running out of oil is what has allowed this conversation to slip past the gatekeepers of the mainstream conversation who normally do not countenance any talk of limits to growth or resource constraints. When the keepers of the public discourse grant such messages any air time, they make sure that talk of limits is always presented in the context of a techno-utopian refutation or as disaster porn.
I also think that aggressive doomsaying about oil supplies in years past prompted CCM to overcorrect in the opposite direction. He explains that he wrote a story on fossil fuel production 12 years ago in which he spoke to a few petroleum engineers who were excited at the prospects of something called hydraulic fracturing for accessing petroleum deposits that were not accessible via conventional means. At the time, unidentified sources assured CCM that such talk was just wishful thinking. As a result, CCM left fracking out of his story from 12 years ago. He regrets that decision, and with this most recent Atlantic article, he was not about to be fooled again into omitting a potentially important element in the fossil fuel story.
Twelve years ago, fracking was the potential game-changer. Now, the potential game-changer is the possibility of harvesting methane gas from seafloor ice. This methane-rich ice, which goes by many names including methane clathrates, may exceed all other sources of hydrocarbon energy combined. The Japanese, who lack any significant source of domestic energy and who have relied on imported energy and nuclear plants to power their modern techno-industrial infrastructure, have led the pack in exploring ways to access the energy locked up in methane clathrates.
For the Japanese, it would represent an enormous achievement which could free them somewhat from their dependence on potentially unreliable sources of foreign energy. They have conducted a decade-long research project and have just recently extracted the first commercial quantities of methane from ice on the bottom of the ocean using an enormous, custom-built research vessel. As Chris Miller pointed out in an article published in Grist, the Japanese have spent $700 million over 10 years to recover $50,000 worth of natural gas liquids. Taken in those terms, the project has not provided a very impressive return on the Japanese investment. Still, compared to what Americans and Japanese spend on cosmetics every year, $700 million over ten years is a pittance, and the potential returns could prove that investment to have been money well spent.
Other voices from the C-Realm have responded with indignation at CCM for having taken energy industry cheerleaders at their word. I posted to the Friends of the C-Realm Group on Facebook that I might be interviewing CCM about his article and asked if C-Realm listeners had any questions they would like for me to ask him. One listener responded with, "Why, Charles? Why?" That same listener continued with, "Or if you're feeling cheeky, ask if he's receiving any payments from the oil and gas industry."
|Oil production in the United States 1920 - 2012|
James Howard Kunstler argued that CCM's Atlantic piece wasn't quite "mendacious" (a fancy word for "dishonest") but that it was "tragically dumb." John Michael Greer, not responding specifically to CCM, has written that peak oil theory predicted that, as the price for oil and other forms of fossil fuel rose, production of resources that once could not be extracted profitably would become economically feasible. He has a graph that he has made repeated use of in his blog posts that shows a little uptick amid the greater downward trajectory in domestic US oil production in recent decades. Domestic energy production peaked decades ago in the United States and that little uptick at the far right of the graph from fracking hasn't returned us to the production level of 1970 or brought us anywhere close. To take this evidence as support for fairy tales of a return to abundance requires a powerful motivation on the part of the reader.
Nicole Foss, in a talk she gave here in New York City in January of 2013, described the low price of natural gas as a result of a misperception on the part of investors. She reasoned that the gas industry has profited from fracking not so much with actual gas production but by bundling drilling leases and selling them as investment products. She explained that in order to make those investment products attractive it is in their interest to crank up the hype machine about a supposedly new era of energy abundance. CCM reports in his Atlantic article that Jean Laherrère made that same case about abundant oil from fracking when CCM interviewed him in February.
As mentioned earlier, shortly after the publication of his Atlantic article, CCM appeared on a segment of the NPR program To the Point in a segment devoted to fossil fuels and climate change.
CCM was joined by three other guests, all of whom had contributed quotes to his Atlantic article. After CCM recapped his case for thinking that human civilization would never run out of fossil fuels (a category which includes methane from seafloor ice and not just oil as the cover of the Atlantic asserted) the host, Warren Olney, asked Michael Levi, author of Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future, "Whatever happened to the idea of Peak Oil?" Levi's answered, "The idea of peak oil wasn't on very good foundation in the first place, but it certainly got popular during the 2000s. That wasn't the first time that it was popular. We thought that we were running out of oil in the 19th century. We thought we were running out of oil around World War I. We thought we were running out of oil around World War II. And then we thought again in the 1970s that we were running out. And what happens every time is what Charles has said; we are able to extract more resources as prices go up and as the economic incentive to develop technology and explore new places increases."
Michael Levi, who is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), almost certainly knows that M. King Hubbert's peak oil theory is not the simple worry that "we are running out of oil." There are many subtleties to peak oil, but in general, peak oil theory predicts that production of conventional oil will eventually stop growing, reach a plateau, and then decline. To characterize it as the unfounded fear that "we are running out of oil" is the sort of strawman characterization that cheerleaders for the fossil fuel industry usually reserve for audiences who are either completely naive about peak oil or ideologically predisposed to reject it and won't ask too many questions of people who tell them what they want to hear. After that opening, I struggled to take anything Michael Levi had to say at all seriously, though I agree with him about it being foolish to hope that peak oil will save us from climate change when we can't bring ourselves to reduce carbon emissions voluntarily.
What occurred to me in that moment when Warren Olney asked Michael Levi about the notion of peak oil was, "When was there ever a serious conversation about peak oil on NPR?" This is a topic I have been following for about six years. The conversation takes place on Internet forums like The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin. It takes place on blogs like Jim Kunstler's Clusterfuck Nation and John Michael Greer's the Archdruid Report. It takes place in books by authors like Richard Heinberg, Dmitry Orlov, and Sharon Astyk. It takes place on podcasts like the C-Realm and Extraenvironmentalist. With exceptions so rare that they prove the rule, it does not take place on NPR.
Suffice it to say that CCM has heard the story of energy abundance from people like Levi, whose mainstream credibility derives from the fact that they tell it convincingly. But that's not the only reason that he has framed his piece as a refutation of peak oil theory. CCM thinks that he made a mistake 12 years ago when he took "several prominent energy pundits" seriously when they assured him that fracking would never scale up to provide energy at an economically viable scale. He omitted fracking from his story then, and he was not about to repeat that error of omission in the present. Clearly, the prophets of doom sold their case a little too effectively. CCM regrets having taken them seriously back then, and in an effort to avoid repeating that error, he may be overcompensating and committing a new kind of error now.
Even so, his central question, the one in the title of his article, is crucial. Atmospheric carbon is at 400 parts per million today. We need to get that down to 350 ppm to keep global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Economic growth proceeds in lock-step with energy use. Energy obtained by pulling hydrocarbons out of the ground or off of the seafloor and then burning them puts more carbon into the atmosphere. Our business and political leaders are hell-bent on fostering economic growth which means burning hydrocarbon fuels. People who are concerned about climate change and aware of peak oil have been hoping that supply constraints would put the brakes on our collective suicide machine for us since we can't seem to muster the gumption to do it of our own free will. You may not have swallowed the energy glut hype, but the question remains. What if supply constraints aren't going to do for us what we refuse to do for ourselves? What if we don't run out of fossil fuels to burn before we set off self-sustaining climate feedback loops? What are we going to do? That's an important question, and it bears a passing resemblance to a question which absolutely cannot be asked in polite company or in the mainstream conversation curated by the corporate media and by NPR.
In November of 2011, I gave a presentation at a conference in northern Michigan where I shared the stage with Albert Bates, Nicole Foss, Steve Keen, and Guy McPherson. In one breakout session, Guy McPherson proposed a worst-case scenario. He proposed that the discovery of a practically limitless, free, clean source of energy would be disastrous as it would allow the planet-consuming machine that is industrial culture to continue its omnicidal campaign against all life on earth. When we reconvened with the larger assembly, very few conference attendees grokked how the discovery of a clean and abundant source of energy with which to power our civilization could be bad news. I spoke with Guy McPherson again recently for C-Realm podcast episode 354: Rapid, Unpredictable & Non-linear Responses. I asked him to revisit that conference breakout session.
KMO: Would you summarize the thinking behind limitless, clean, free energy being terrible news?
Guy McPherson: Well yes. It's been essentially free energy in the form of crude oil that has allowed us to develop a system that allows us to destroy every aspect of the living planet upon which we depend for our survival. So, it's the development and implementation of an almost free energy source that allows us to commit planetary suicide. And people want more of that because it looks like we are on the verge of running out of the cheap oil? Or maybe we already have run out? The root of the problem here is cheap energy which allows us to fly all over the world, drive all of the world, and develop an electrical grid and have access to all kinds of other energy sources... Fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources, all of which have extremely adverse consequences that, for the most part, we just look away from. And so free energy forever is a prescription for absolute disaster. I can't imagine that that would turn out well. It certainly hasn't turned out well in the recent past when we have had, for all practical purposes, free energy at our ready disposal.
KMO: It would be a bit like winning the lottery, I think. Winning the lottery tends to be a disaster for most people that it happens to.
Guy McPherson: Yes, and we have won the lottery as a society. Or as Jane Goodall reports, there's an interesting little experiment she did. There was a bunch of apes that she was studying, and they were all getting along just fine as a community, and so she throws a bunch of bananas into the mix. And they start fighting and beating each other up and really acting in a way that we don't associate with wild animals so much as we do with human beings fighting over limited food. They went bananas, and it appears that when it comes to cheap energy that we went bananas too. I don't think that more of that is going to lead towards improvement in our behavior.
KMO: The solution to the life problems that have befallen somebody who has won the lottery and wasn't prepared for it is not to have them win the lottery a second time.
Guy McPherson: Right. Exactly.
CCM has challenged the peak oil narrative and provoked the champions of that narrative into a reflexive defense. There are reasons to believe that the current glut of methane from fracking will prove fleeting and that the current price reflects a deliberately-cultivated false belief about its seeming abundance. Energy companies certainly have an economic motive to use expert propaganda to cultivate public belief in newly abundant fossil fuel energy. By accepting that propaganda, and by taking for granted that peak oil theory languishes in defeat, CCM is free to ask, "What are the consequences of cheap and abundant methane?"
Methane burns cleaner than coal, but still puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and none of the experts that CCM interviewed for his Atlantic article argued otherwise or even implied that business as usual was viable in the light of anthropogenic climate change. Even Michael Levi, who in the roundtable discussion on To the Point, told Warren Olney that the case for peak oil had never been strong, warned that an abundance of relatively clean energy in the form of methane would likely inspire political laziness and complacency at a time when we need to push hard in the direction of renewable energy. The scenario that he hopes to avoid is one in which we use cheap and abundant methane as a 'bridge fuel' for moving from the coal-powered past to the coal-powered future.
In the Atlantic article, CCM told the story of the personal and professional rivalry between M. King Hubbert, the father of peak oil theory, and Vincent E. McKelvey, the head of the Unite States Geological Survey (USGS) from 1971 to 1977, who provided a Panglossian picture of US energy reserves. President Jimmy Carter, prophet of conservation, forced McKelvey to resign, but that was not the end of the contest between Hubbertians and McKelveyans. CCM presents the McKelveyans as the current champions. He quotes several McKelveyans for every Hubbertian in the Atlantic article, and the only voice representing the Hubbertian view on the To the Point segment was the program's host. Peak oil proponents may cry foul, but the point here is not a fair fight between the avatars of abundance and scarcity. CCM's presentation is much more a professional wrestling spectacle, where the winner of the match is preordained, than it is an actual competition.
If the Hubbert vs. McKelvey contest were presented as a fair fight, then we would not have the same vantage point from which to scrutinize the preordained winner's victory dance for indications that he will blithely continue in a mode which is nudging the cradle of terrestrial life in the direction of a Venusian hothouse hell. What's more, if Hubbert vs. McKelvey were not a fixed fight, the match would have taken place in a backyard or in an alley behind a biker bar rather than in a glitzy Las Vegas casino before a live audience of thousands, and we would never have enjoyed such a high-profile presentation. Peak oil's defenders are too indignant over the disrespectful treatment of their favored contender to appreciate what we can learn if our fighter takes a voluntary dive and leaves the cornucopians to demonstrate their willingness to suffocate in their own success.