It wasn’t that long ago that peak oil was on everybody’s minds. The basic scenario: Global energy demand would soon outstrip the world’s oil supply. Some of the more feverish types believe this will lead to a civilizational breakdown and a post-apocalyptic Mad Max landscape.
Peak oil anxieties first penetrated mainstream media in the mid-2000s, with concerns about Mideast oil running out.
A 2004 National Geographic cover story pronounced:
Humanity’s way of life is on a collision course with geology—with the stark fact that the Earth holds a finite supply of oil. The flood of crude from fields around the world will ultimately top out, then dwindle. It could be 5 years from now or 30: No one knows for sure, and geologists and economists are embroiled in debate about just when the “oil peak” will be upon us. But few doubt that it is coming.
In the New York Times magazine, Peter Maass wrote in 2005:
Few people imagined a time when supply would dry up because of demand alone. But a steady surge in demand in recent years — led by China’s emergence as a voracious importer of oil — has changed that.
This demand-driven scarcity has prompted the emergence of a cottage industry of experts who predict an impending crisis that will dwarf anything seen before. Their point is not that we are running out of oil, per se; although as much as half of the world’s recoverable reserves are estimated to have been consumed, about a trillion barrels remain underground. Rather, they are concerned with what is called ”capacity” — the amount of oil that can be pumped to the surface on a daily basis. These experts — still a minority in the oil world — contend that because of the peculiarities of geology and the limits of modern technology, it will soon be impossible for the world’s reservoirs to surrender enough oil to meet daily demand.
That same year, John Vidal reported in the Guardian that oil production could peak within a year. The subhead of his piece: “Kiss your lifestyle goodbye.”
If you google Wind Turbine Syndrome, the first link will take you to a book by Nina Pierpont, an author with all sorts of impressive-looking medical credentials, who wastes no time in revealing “wind energy’s dirty little secret”:
Many people living within 2 km (1.25 miles) of these spinning giants get sick. So sick that they often abandon (as in, lock the door and leave) their homes. Nobody wants to buy their acoustically toxic homes. The “lucky ones” get quietly bought out by the wind developers—who steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that Wind Turbine Syndrome exists. (And yet the wind developers thoughtfully include a confidentiality clause in the sales agreement, forbidding their victim from discussing the matter further.)
Is this really true? Last year, the UK’s Daily Mail claimed that thousands of people living near wind turbines have come down with an array of maladies (because of the whirring blades), from tinnitus and insomnia to depression and high blood pressure. The Daily Mail based its report on people it interviewed and this 2011 study.
a classic “communicated” disease: it spreads by being talked about, and is therefore a strong candidate for being defined as a psychogenic condition.
In other words, as I wrote here, it is a
phenomenon akin to mass hysteria—an outbreak of apparent health problems that has a psychological rather than physical basis.
Stephen Colbert had some fun with this a few months ago: Read More
On Twitter, people tend to mention and link to things that correspond to their own pet issues. So Bill McKibben tweets a lot about the weather and news of droughts, wildfires, and other natural disasters. Since these tweets are coming from a leading climate change activist, the inference is clear.
Similarly, Robert Bryce, an energy writer, often tweets about bad news related to wind power, such as local opposition to wind turbines arising from noise complaints and claims of adverse health effects. Like McKibben’s obsessive attention to weather news (the tweets implicitly suggest a link to climate change), Bryce’s singular focus on the downsides of wind energy is melodramatic and intentional. He highlights only news that reflects negatively on wind energy, linking to all manner of anecdotal claims of harms to public health that may actually have no scientific merit. In that sense, he mirrors anti-fracking greens who seize on every study or news item (regardless of accuracy) that highlights–and often overstates–the negative impacts of fracking. Read More
Senator John Kerry’s confirmation as Secretary of State has generated positive vibes in the environmental community and given climate campaigners a little hope. (Incidentally, does anybody else find it odd that Kerry, despite “his long record as one of the Senate’s strongest advocates for climate action,” as the Guardian noted, is just now divesting from oil stocks? What took him so long?)
Anyway, Kerry will certainly be an important player in the Obama Administration’s renewed effort to tackle climate change. But greens need to keep their expectations in check, because global warming, to restate the obvious, is a global problem. Over at Time magazine, Bryan Walsh highlights a part of the climate equation that the United States has little power to influence: Read More
As you undoubtedly heard, climate change was mentioned prominently by President Obama in his second inaugural speech. Greens are applauding the strong words but based on his record (or lack thereof) on the climate issue (some believe he is unfairly maligned), and his lofty (unfulfilled) 2008 promises, many are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Meanwhile, what to make of the President’s surprising elevation of climate change into the public discourse? Let’s game out a few of the possibilities. Fair warning: What follows is a mixed metaphor palooza. Read More
Everybody knows the global politics of climate change are leading nowhere. If the futile UN-sponsored talks illustrates one thing, it is that no country is willing to make economic sacrifices to reduce its carbon emissions. Roger Pielke Jr. calls this the iron law of climate policy. It’s proving ironclad.
That essentially leaves us with one option: Getting off fossil fuels altogether. Right now, such a prospect is not looking good. We seem to be flush with oil and gas these days–and the foreseeable future. That puts us on a collision course with climate disaster. So what do we do?
There are two camps that claim to have the answer. One of them believes that nuclear power is the only viable substitute for coal, which remains cheap, plentiful and the primary greenhouse gas responsible for cooking the planet. The other camp believes that renewable energy puts us on a true path to a sustainable planet. Which of these camps offers the best way to kick our carbon addiction?
That’s the subject of a new piece I have up at Slate.
Every president since Richard Nixon has sought the holy grail of energy independence. The last eight presidents have all promised to get us there, as Jon Stewart pointed out in 2010. We all laughed along.
Well, guess what? It now looks like it might actually happen. But here’s the first bit of shocking news on this front, as reported in the NYT:
Holy Peak Oil! How did that happen?
That increased oil production, combined with new American policies to improve energy efficiency, means that the United States will become “all but self-sufficient” in meeting its energy needs in about two decades “” a “dramatic reversal of the trend” in most developed countries, a new report released by the agency says.
The report also predicted that global energy demand would grow between 35 and 46 percent from 2010 to 2035, depending on whether policies that have been proposed are put in place. Most of that growth will come from China, India and the Middle East, where the consuming class is growing rapidly. The consequences are “potentially far-reaching” for global energy markets and trade, the report said.
Yes, I can see the thought bubble forming over your head: The consequences for the world’s climate are also far reaching.
I agree. The Guardian has the depressing quotes from IEA economist Fatih Birol, including this:
I don’t see much reason to be hopeful that we will see reductions in carbon dioxide.
So now what? You gonna try and get China, India et al to put the brakes on their economic growth? Good luck with that. So what’s the plan that addresses climate change while allowing the aforementioned countries to continue to develop?
Every energy source comes with its own set of problems that give rise to a passionate opposition. In the United States today, we see it with shale gas and the anti-fracking movement. In Britain, Australia and other countries where wind farms have proliferated across rural landscapes, we see fierce anti-wind campaigns gaining strength.
Like gas fracking, there are numerous vexing issues (of a different nature) associated with wind turbines. But campaigners against fracking and wind power have something in common: They both exploit and distort science to advance their agendas. Of course, someone like James Delingpole, being the buffoonish demagogue he is, would be the last to recognize this. So it’s amusing that what he criticizes enviros for is exactly what he’s guilty of himself. The energy writer Robert Bryce is not a court jester like Delingpole, but he is guilty of selective citation in this recent one-sided column that suggests there are serious health effects from wind turbine noise.
Still, the assortment of maladies that have been attributed to wind farms is pretty fascinating. I explore the phenomena of “wind turbine syndrome” over at Discover. Is it real or just a lot of hot air? Have a read and let me know what you think at Discover or here.
It’s not in the headlines or on the evening news, but there’s a big story that some people are discussing. And it’s going to get bigger and matter way more than the heat waves and extreme weather that everyone in climate circles is buzzing about this summer.
To catch up on this story, you should read the series of posts in July by Walter Russell Mead, which he has titled, The Energy Revolution. From part one:
A world energy revolution is underway and it will be shaping the realities of the 21st century when the Crash of 2008 and the Great Stagnation that followed only interest historians. A new age of abundance for fossil fuels is upon us. And the center of gravity of the global energy picture is shifting from the Middle East to”¦ North America.
In part two, Mead writes that, “we are now entering a time when energy abundance will be an argument for continued American dynamism.” The bright future for America he foresees is based on this:
By some estimates, the United States has more oil than Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran combined, and Canada may have even more than the United States. A GAO report released last May (pdf link can be found here) estimates that up to the equivalent of 3 trillion barrels of shale oil may lie in just one of the major potential US energy production sites. If half of this oil is recoverable, US reserves in this one deposit are roughly equal to the known reserves of the rest of the world combined.
Mead’s posts (he is now up to part 3) follow a report published in June by Leonard Maugeri titled, “Oil: The Next Revolution.” Skeptics of Maugeri’s bullish analysis might point out that he is a former oil industry executive. He is currently a Research Fellow of the Geopolitics of Energy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. The Project, incidentally, is funded by BP.
Be that as it is, Maugeri’s analysis has convinced George Monbiot that the world is not about to run out of oil anytime soon. His recent Guardian column on the report is headlined: “We were wrong on peak oil. There’s enough to fry us all.”
A more guarded outlook of the projected “energy abundance” (including the implications for climate change) is offered by energy policy expert Michael Levi in the current issue of Foreign Policy. For example, Levi writes:
As a mere matter of scale, projections that the United States will reclaim the title of world’s largest oil producer are entirely plausible, though hardly guaranteed.
Last week, Levi was one of the assembled experts for a panel at the New America Foundation called, “Scrutinizing a Potential New Golden Age of Oil, and What it Could Mean for the Next President.”
At his Foreign Policy blog, journalist Steve LeVine (who convened the New America panel) writes:
A growing number of key energy analysts say that technological advances and high oil prices are leading to a revolution in global oil. Rather than petroleum scarcity, we are seeing into a flood of new oil supplies from some pretty surprising places, led by the United States and Canada, these analysts say.
LeVine’s post is titled, “The Era of Oil Abundance.”
You getting the picture?
Now this is not exactly news to those who have been following stories like this (in the NYT) and this (in the WSJ). And there’s the new gas age already well underway, of which The Economist takes stock of in its current issue. Combined, these developments have me recalling this Salon piece from Michael Lind last year, which begins:
Are we living at the beginning of the Age of Fossil Fuels, not its final decades? The very thought goes against everything that politicians and the educated public have been taught to believe in the past generation. According to the conventional wisdom, the U.S. and other industrial nations must undertake a rapid and expensive transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy for three reasons: The imminent depletion of fossil fuels, national security and the danger of global warming.
What if the conventional wisdom about the energy future of America and the world has been completely wrong?
If this proves to be the case, then will it really be–to borrow from James Hansen–game over for the climate? Faced with such a prospect, might we soon be forced to take geoengineering seriously? Oliver Morton of The Economist is at work developing this argument. I think he’s on to something here:
At a recent meeting Rob Socolow suggested that we should divide the world into people who do or don’t think the risks of climate change are an urgent matter and people who do or don’t think decarbonisation is difficult (pdf). A lot of the green movement is in the do/don’t quadrant ““ do take climate change seriously, don’t think getting rid of fossil fuels is all that difficult (“just needs political will,” dontcha know). People opposed to current or intensified action on climate (sceptics, lukewarmers, status-quo-ers, whatever) are in the don’t/do quadrant ““ don’t see climate change as a serious risk, do think decarbonisation is difficult, or at least costly.
Like Rob, I am in the do/do quadrant. I do think climate change poses serious risks, and I do think decarbonisation is difficult. That is why I think it is worth taking the possibility of geoengineering seriously enough to see how well it might be done.
If a new era of oil abundance is truly upon us, we may have no choice.
most famous for his role in being one of the first to sequence the human genome and for his role in creating the first cell with a synthetic genome in 2010.
The discussion is wide-ranging. At one point, Venter talks about his work on the synthetic life front, and how he’s now involved in trying to create a cell to “harness photosynthesis.” Here’s the idea:
We’re trying to coax our synthetic cells to do what’s happened to middle America, which is store far more fat than they actually were designed to do, so that we can harness it all as an energy source and use it to create gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel straight from carbon dioxide and sunlight. This would shift the carbon equation so we’re recycling CO2 instead of taking new carbon out of the ground and creating still more CO2. But it has to be done on a massive scale to have any real impact on the amount of CO2 we’re putting into the atmosphere, let alone recovering from the atmosphere.
Hence the headline for the Wired interview, “Craig Venter wants to solve the world’s energy crisis.”
What’s interesting to me is Venter’s mindset, which views science as the primary means to solve the world’s greatest challenges. No doubt this perspective is widely shared, but it is also at odds with those (including many scientists) who instead emphasize social change. For example, on the issue of global sustainability, technological solutions don’t seem to have much of a place in the tool box that’s featured in major scientific reports and at conferences. Rather, what we often hear is the need to reduce consumption, population, and economic growth.
I’m not suggesting that one approach should be chosen over the other, but it does seem that our conversations on energy and climate-related issues minimize (and often caution against) the use of technology to better humanity and the environment. On that note, I’ll conclude with the final exchange in the Wired interview.
Wired: I want to end with a big question: In 1990, Carl Sagan wrote that “we live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” That seems even more true today. Do you think we respect science enough as a society?
Venter: I think the new anti-intellectualism that’s showing up in politics today is a symptom of our not discussing these issues enough. We don’t discuss how our society is now 100 percent dependent on science for its future. We need new scientific breakthroughs””sometimes to overcome the scientific breakthroughs of the past. A hundred years ago oil sounded like a great discovery. You could burn it and run engines off it. I don’t think anybody anticipated that it would actually change the atmosphere of our planet. Because of that we have to come up with new approaches. We just passed the 7 billion population mark. In 12 years, we’re going to reach 8 billion. If we let things run their natural course, we’ll have massive pandemics, people starving. Without science I don’t see much hope for humanity.