February 2013 report by retired geo-scientist J. David Hughes and published by the Post Carbon Institute which claims to debunk the possibility that unconventional fuels might turn the United States into an energy-independent petro-state.
The report forms the foundation for Heinberg’s new book, Snake Oil: How the Fracking Industry’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future
He talks about the implications of a fracking-fueled petro-boom from North Dakota to Pennsylvania that’s got U.S. energy executives crowing about abundant fossil-fuel-derived energy to last the next century or two.
It’s a claim that directly flouts the concept of peak oil—the point at which global petroleum production goes into terminal decline—and Heinberg’s assertion that growth (as we know it) is headed into irreversible decline.
“We’re really being sold a bill of goods,” Heinberg says, handing over a copy of the Hughes report, “Drill, Baby, Drill: Can Unconventional Fuels Usher in a New Era of Energy Abundance?” Using data provided by a Texas company called DI Desktop, which analyzed production data for 65,000 fracked wells from 31 shale plays, the report examines natural gas as a commodity. According to their findings, production rates at many of these sites are already in decline. Operators then must drill more and more to keep overall production steady, and with that comes increased energy needs, making the whole endeavor more expensive.
Aside from fracking, methane hydrates—the trapped natural gas molecules currently being scouted by Japanese research vessels and found in abundance on the sea floor—have been heralded as the next frontier. The speculative fossil-fuel goldmine forms the basis for Charles C. Mann’s May 2013 cover story for The Atlantic with the headline that declared, with the impact of a lightning storm in summer, “We Will Never Run Out of Oil.”
But then there’s the problem of net energy, Heinberg points out. “The vast majority of those resources we won’t burn for economic reasons,” Heinberg says, “because it just costs too much—not only investment capital, but it costs too much energy to get the stuff out of the ground to use it.” It’s a concept defined as EROEI—energy return on energy invested.
“As time has gone on and as I’ve studied the data, I’ve come to realize that it’s more of a process, not just falling off the cliff,” he explains.
Part of the process, for those not involved in the higher echelons of government and society where policy decisions are decided, is to live consciously.
Heinberg looks to be a man in his element, negotiating a careful balance between the heavy realization that life as we know it is headed for irrevocable change, and the simple joy of everyday living.
If humans look honestly at the crisis at hand, begin sharing, using less, being nice to each other, there’s no reason we can’t have a perfectly acceptable future, he tells me. But that means facing facts. To make a true transition, the technical piece would be relatively easy, he explains; it involves building lots of solar and wind, prioritizing electric rail and redesigning cites for walking and bicycling. Heinberg mentions his admiration of the Transition Town movement, which started in the United Kingdom and uses permaculture concepts to build resilience in communities to weather gracefully the coming economic and environmental upheavals.
Of most concern is whether the “fossil fuel” industry is successful in making people believe that there’s enough oil and gas to keep us going for another century, in the style in which we’ve become accustomed, he emphasizes. The oil boom in North Dakota (and elsewhere) is going to be short-lived, but it’s bought us some time—a few short years—to get to work on renewables.
“If we use that time—maybe it’s five or 10 years—to really invest in renewable energy and conservation, than so much the better,” he says. “But if we just take those five or 10 years and delay what we ultimately have to do anyway, at the end we’ll be in a much worse position than we already are.”