Community Resilience, Self-Reliance, Renewable Energy & Cooperation
This morning Slate.com posted a nice little article on its technology blog Future Tense entitled What The Frack, authored by Chris Nelder (apparently Slate doesn't work any harder on its headlines than I do on mine). The slightly more descriptive sub-head reads "Is There Really 100 Years' Worth of Natural Gas Beneath The United States?" The analysis Nelder engages in should be required reading for anyone inclined to uncritically accept the practically orgasmic rhetoric currently emanating from the fossil fuel industry and its enablers about the marvels of fracking and the unimaginably huge amounts of natural gas within our own borders that this new extraction technique is now going to allow us to access. If these claims are to be believed, we will soon be free from the grip of the hostile foreign governments who currently control much of the world's remaining oil supply as we usher in a "golden age" of gas, thus keeping the cheap-energy party going for generations.
The 100-years'-worth-of-natural-gas claim that a lot of us have heard bandied about in certain circles lately turns out to be based on an April 2011 report issued by something called the Potential Gas Committee. Nelder informs us that this is an organization comprised of petroleum engineers, geoscientiests and various industry insiders--in other words, not the sort of people who spring to mind when someone utters the phrase 'disinterested third-party observers' (although in fairness Nelder himself is a strong proponent of investment in renewable energy, as am I). The report includes a "future gas supply" estimate of 2,170 trillion cubic feet (tcf) which at our current national consumption rate of around 24 trillion cubic feet per year would last us about 90 to 95 years--a bit shy of the 100 year claim, but really who's counting?
Things get a bit squirrely, however, when you actually try to pin down where that 2,170 tcf number comes from. It's slightly convoluted so I'll quote Nelder directly here; if numbers and tech-talk bore you, skip down past the graph.
...[W]hat is that estimate based upon? Those details haven’t been made freely available to the public, but their summary breaks it down as follows here and in the graph below: 273 tcf are "proved reserves," meaning that it is believed to exist, and to be commercially producible at a 10 percent discount rate. That conforms with the data of the U.S. Energy Information Administration. An additional 536.6 tcf are classified as "probable" from existing fields, meaning that they have some expectation that the gas exists in known formations, but it has not been proven to exist and is not certain to be technically recoverable. An additional 687.7 tcf is "possible" from new fields, meaning that the gas might exist in new fields that have not yet been discovered. A further 518.3 tcf are "speculative," which means exactly that. A final 176 tcf are claimed for coalbed gas, which is gas trapped in coal formations. (Note: The PGC reports the total for probable, possible, and speculative coalbed gas as 158.6 tcf, but adding up their numbers for each category, we find the correct total is 157.7 tcf. We haven't been able to reach the PGC to discuss the discrepancy. Adding the 18.6 tcf of proved coalbed gas reserves reported by the EIA in 2009—the most recent data it offers—to the 157.7 gives a total of 176.3 tcf for all categories of coalbed gas.
The bottom line? "By the same logic, you can claim to be a multibillionaire, including all your 'probable, possible, and speculative resources.'" The industry can basically get away with making up whatever numbers it wishes because, well, you can't exactly prove it's not true, now can you? And of course all of this ignores the fact that however much natural gas lies within our borders, we'll never be able to get all of it, maybe not even the majority of it; recovery rates never get anywhere near 100 percent, and Nelder classifies an estimate of 50 percent recoverable as "optimistic." Nor does any of this even begin to address the cost and difficulty of overhauling our national infrastructure to accomodate this new fuel source. And of course also completely ignored are the facts that a) this 100-year claim is based on our 2010 rate of consumption, yet b) those promoting the 100-year claim want to massively increase that very same rate of consumption, thereby burning through whatever supplies are available at a much faster rate. Plus it should be mentioned that the controversy surrounding the environmental impacts of fracking is a whole 'nother can of worms.
I'm not brining all of this up to argue that the fossil fuel industry is made up of a bunch of short-sighted, dishonest swindlers who are just out to enrich themselves regardless of the consequences (although by their own actions they often do a pretty effective job of arguing this themselves). I bring it up so as to illustrate the sort of obstinat thinking that we in the Transition Movement are up against.
It's a basic truism that you can't expect to solve a problem by engaging in the same sort of thinking and behavior that caused it in the first place. Yet that is exactly what we are doing when we allow ourselves to be seduced into believing that we can simply replace one unsustainable, environmentally destructive fuel source with another and continue on our way. Sure, natural gas burns cleaner than, say, coal. And yes, its global peak of production is probably further away than that of oil (which is essentially upon us right now). But even if decades worth of useable, easily-obtained natural gas really do lie just beneath our feet, and even if we could somehow quickly and easily make the infrastructure changes necessary to run our economy on that natural gas, all this really accomplishes is a delay and perhaps a slight mitigation of the very real problems created by climate change and resource depletion.
We should have realized a long time ago that when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you need to do is to stop digging. Those of us making this argument are, however, at the distinct disadvantage of not being able to tell people what they want to hear. People who buy into the "100 years of natural gas" kinds of claims probably do so because it allows them to hang on to the comforting notion that the way in which we have been living has no negative consequences, and no meaningful changes are required to secure a stable, prosperous future. Sadly, I believe there are an awful lot of people who will choose this sort of magical thinking over uncomfortable truths as long as possible. But I also believe that in the days and years to come the general public is going to slowly, grudgingly start to come to terms with the undeniable.
In anticipation of this, what we need to offer is a real alternative, a third option besides despair or denial. And it needs to be based on reality rather than wishful thinking. Of necessity, this is going to have to start with helping our communities grasp the fact that the era of cheap, abundant carbon-based energy is coming to an end, and all of the techno-wizardry in the world isn't going to allow us to continue with our fundamentally unsustainable lifestyles indefinitely. The longer we as a society remain in willful ignorance of these simple facts, the harder the inevitable changes will be for all of us.
Harsh as this will seem to many, once a person has grasped the implications of all of this then he or she will be free to honestly start to look for answers. And while Transition doesn't claim to have all of those answers, it is our firm belief that the way forward will come through relocalization, community resilience, and a shift in the way our society understands its relationship to the world we inhabit as we move by necessity from the old model of infinite growth and globalization to the new model of socially conscious, sustainable communities. Many people will choose to believe the stories of "100 years of natural gas" until reality simply doesn't give them that option any longer. When that day comes, whether it is in twenty months or twenty years, it is my hope that we in the Transition Movement will be ready to bring them in to a conversation both frightening and exhilarating about where we go next.