Fascinating and disturbing piece in the Atlantic Monthly magazine titled, “What if we never run out of oil?” The upshot being, our desperation for hydrocarbons is so great, that money and geography and previous physical barriers are being transcended in our quest to get more of the stuff and burn it.
Was curious to see that the piece started out with this bit, from Winston Churchill:
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. With characteristic vigor and verve, he set about modernizing the Royal Navy, jewel of the empire. The revamped fleet, he proclaimed, should be fueled with oil, rather than coal—a decision that continues to reverberate in the present. Burning a pound of fuel oil produces about twice as much energy as burning a pound of coal. Because of this greater energy density, oil could push ships faster and farther than coal could.
Churchill’s proposal led to emphatic dispute. The United Kingdom had lots of coal but next to no oil. At the time, the United States produced almost two-thirds of the world’s petroleum; Russia produced another fifth. Both were allies of Great Britain. Nonetheless, Whitehall was uneasy about the prospect of the Navy’s falling under the thumb of foreign entities, even if friendly. The solution, Churchill told Parliament in 1913, was for Britons to become “the owners, or at any rate, the controllers at the source of at least a proportion of the supply of natural oil which we require.” Spurred by the Admiralty, the U.K. soon bought 51 percent of what is now British Petroleum, which had rights to oil “at the source”: Iran (then known as Persia). The concessions’ terms were so unpopular in Iran that they helped spark a revolution. London worked to suppress it. Then, to prevent further disruptions, Britain enmeshed itself ever more deeply in the Middle East, working to install new shahs in Iran and carve Iraq out of the collapsing Ottoman Empire.
You wanna talk about why we’re in Iraq and other countries in the Mideast, again?
But the piece goes on to talk about methane hydrate, natural gas trapped in frozen water molecules at the bottom of the ocean (and on land, in places like Siberia). Basically: Ice that burns. It’s a huge, untapped energy resource; resource poor Japan is particularly interested in how it might mine the hydrates from the ocean floor and put them to use. It’s a slow, methodical process – but fracking basically evolved the same way, and whatever the environmental concerns, look at the energy boom this has created.
There’s definitely a positive side to this. Natural gas is significantly cleaner than coal, and is seen as a “bridge” fuel – a fuel that will bridge the gap between hydrocarbons and something else, something sustainable and green, as we seek to lower carbon emissions and mitigate the impact of climate change.
There’s also a possibility that methane hydrates will remain in the ocean, or buried beneath the permafrost; there’s a school of thought that says because we have to change our carbon-burning ways; and that could lead to a popping of the “carbon bubble“:
The so-called “carbon bubble” is the result of an over-valuation of oil, coal and gas reserves held by fossil fuel companies. According to a report published on Friday, at least two-thirds of these reserves will have to remain underground if the world is to meet existing internationally agreed targets to avoid the threshold for “dangerous” climate change. If the agreements hold, these reserves will be in effect unburnable and so worthless – leading to massive market losses. But the stock markets are betting on countries’ inaction on climate change.
I’d say that’s an excellent bet.
I think we all know there will be no “bridge.” That we, the United States, and basically every other country on earth, is staying on the hydrocarbon side of the gap.
Because the radical and sudden change necessary to tamp down on climate change is simply impossible. Not physically impossible, but politically impossible. Simply put – we’ll never do it. Because it involves sacrifice; sacrifice on the part of the corporations whose business model and profitability is based on the way things are right now; sacrifice on the part of citizens who, frankly, aren’t interested in using less energy, or can’t; and who would suffer the economic blows inflicted by change, however temporary or lasting they may be.
In other words, science can tell us – look, unless we do something pronto, all that weird weather? There’s going to be more of it, and it’s going to be even weirder, and probably more destructive, and that means you, pal. But we’re incapable of doing anything about it, as a good chunk of the country still doesn’t believe climate change exists, other say – well maybe, but what we really need is 20 more years of study.
Government types, perhaps knowing the truth, can’t unilaterally impose measures to reduce greenhouse emissions – tyranny! OUTRAGE!
And, as any conservative will tell you, even if the United States or the West in general were to bite these bullets – what about China? What about developing countries? They have to be on board too; but of course, wealthy nations telling poor nations they have to cool it with fossil fuel use, and thus economic growth, will be seen as unfair and discriminatory.
The clash occurs when renewables are ready for prime time—and natural gas is still hanging around like an old and dirty but reliable car, still cheap to produce and use, after shale fracking is replaced globally by undersea mining of methane hydrate. Revamping the electrical grid from conventionals like coal and oil to accommodate unconventionals like natural gas and solar power will be enormously difficult, economically and technically. Facilities must be constructed to store extra energy for dark, windless days; transmission lines will need to be built to move power from warm places like New Mexico to cold places like New England; grids will have to be reworked to allow small energy producers to share directly with neighbors rather than being forced to pump everything into large power centers. All of this will be a burden on businesses and consumers alike. But it must be done to avert climate change, because electricity generation is responsible for about a third of America’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Roughly similar figures hold true in other developed nations.
Most oil specialists agree that humankind is naturally progressing toward a no-carbon energy future. Our species has already moved from wood to coal to oil to gas, each fuel burning cleaner than its predecessor. Wind, solar, and other renewables are obvious next steps. The problem, scientists say, is that climate change is happening too quickly. Instead of evolving over decades, as happened with the building of the electrical grid, the changeover to renewables has to occur now, faster than any change before.
Not going to happen. Simple as that.
Can you imagine how taxes would have to go up to fund these infrastructure projects? How in the world could that be pushed through? You could have a tornado a day devastate some town in America and still we wouldn’t budge; and still there would be those telling us there’s no need to.
Bottom line, we can’t change, and so we won’t. Regardless of how dire the need for change, regardless of how many people ultimately put two and two together and say: This is bad. Because by then it’s too late anyway; it may already be.
And so what kind of world does that leave for our kids? Most of us have ceased to think that way, but I was surprised to see billionaire fund manager Jeremy Grantham say this:
[Grantham] said his company was on the verge of pulling out of all coal and unconventional fossil fuels, such as oil from tar sands. “The probability of them running into trouble is too high for me to take that risk as an investor.” He said: “If we mean to burn all the coal and any appreciable percentage of the tar sands, or other unconventional oil and gas then we’re cooked. [There are] terrible consequences that we will lay at the door of our grandchildren.”
Well, we’re gonna lay ‘em there. And we may have already done it.