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Bill McKibben: Can Obama Ever Stand Up to the Oil Industry?

5:04 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Oil and Honey cover

Bill McKibben’s latest book

Recently, “good” news about energy has been gushing out of North America, where a cheering crowd of pundits, energy experts, and government officials has been plugging the U.S. as the “Saudi Arabia” of the twenty-first century. You know, all that fracking and those luscious deposits of oil shale and gas shale just waiting to be pounded into shape to fill global gas tanks for an energy-rich future. And then, of course, just to the north there are those fabulous Canadian tar sands deposits whose extraction is reportedly turning parts of Alberta into an environmental desert. And that isn’t all.

From the melting Arctic, where the Russians and others are staking out energy claims, to the southernmost tip of South America, the dream of new energy wealth is being pursued with a fervor and avidity that is hard to take in. In distant Patagonia, an Argentinean government not previously known for its friendliness to foreign investment has just buddied up with Chevron to drill “around the clock in pursuit of a vast shale oil reservoir that might be the world’s next great oil field.” Huzzah and olé!

And can you even blame the Argentinean president for her choice? After all, who wants to be the country left out of the global rush for new energy wealth? Who wants to consider the common good of the planet, when your country’s finances may be at stake? (As with the Keystone XL pipeline protest movement here, so in Argentina, there actually are environmentalists and others who are thinking of the common good, but they’re up against the state, the police, and Chevron — no small thing.) All of this would, of course, be a wondrous story — a planet filled with energy reserves beyond anyone’s wildest dreams — were it not for the fact that such fossil fuel wealth, such good news, is also the nightmarish bad news of our lives, of perhaps the lifetime of humanity.

There is an obvious disconnect between what is widely known about climate change and the recent rush to extract “tough energy” from difficult environments; between the fires — and potential “mega-fire” — burning wildly across parts of overheated Australia and its newly elected government run by a conservative prime minister, essentially a climate denier, intent on getting rid of that country’s carbon tax. There is a disconnect between hailing the U.S. as the new Saudi Arabia and the recent report of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground — or else. There is a disconnect between what our president says about climate change and the basic energy policies of his administration. There is a disconnect between what the burning of fossil fuels will do to our environment and the urge of just about every country on this planet to exploit whatever energy reserves are potentially available to it, no matter how “dirty,” no matter how environmentally destructive to extract.

Somewhere in that disconnect, the remarkable Bill McKibben, whose new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, is at the top of my personal reading list, has burrowed in and helped to create a global climate change movement. In this country, it’s significantly focused on the Keystone XL pipeline slated, if built, to bring tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.  For the last several years at TomDispatch, McKibben has kept us abreast of the most recent developments in that movement. Here is his latest report from the tar sands front. Tom

X-Ray of a Flagging Presidency
Will Obama Block the Keystone Pipeline or Just Keep Bending?
By Bill McKibben

As the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has worn on — and it’s now well over two years old — it’s illuminated the Obama presidency like no other issue. It offers the president not just a choice of policies, but a choice of friends, worldviews, styles. It’s become an X-ray for a flagging presidency. The stakes are sky-high, and not just for Obama. I’m writing these words from Pittsburgh, amid 7,000 enthusiastic and committed young people gathering to fight global warming, and my guess is that his choice will do much to determine how they see politics in this country.

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Tomgram: Michael Klare, The Latest News in Fossil Fuel Addiction

6:49 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The news couldn’t be better — and it couldn’t be worse.  Or ask yourself this: What do these two headlines have in common: “U.S. expected to be largest producer of petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbons in 2013,” “Shift to a new climate likely by middle of the century, study finds”?

A great deal, it turns out. Evidently, as the U.S. Energy Information Agency reports, the U.S. will surpass Russia as the leading combined producer of oil and natural gas this year.  For the time being, Saudi Arabia remains the globe’s number one oil producer.  And yes, according to a new study in the journal Nature, sometime around the year 2047 (give or take the odd decade), the world will hit a “climate takeoff point.”  Think of it as the moment when, according to the researchers, “the old maximum average temperatures become the new minimum temperatures, extending beyond any climate we have experienced since 1860,” that is, when systematic records first began being kept.

So for the U.S., we may be talking record fossil fuel production, while for the globe we are going to be talking record heat, record storms — of which a preview could be seen in the monstrous cyclone “half the size of India” that just came out of the warming waters of the Bay of Bengal — and record weather disruptions as the new norm on planet Earth.  The connection, of course, is record emissions of carbon dioxide from the record burning of all those fossil fuels.  It couldn’t be a nastier combo, something potentially straight out of Dante’s inferno.  And, as always, TomDispatch has Michael Klare, author most recently of The Race for What’s Left, on the case. Tom

Fossil Fuel Euphoria
Hallelujah, Oil and Gas Forever!
By Michael T. Klare

For years, energy analysts had been anticipating an imminent decline in global oil supplies.  Suddenly, they’re singing a new song: Fossil fuels growing scarce?  Don’t even think about it!  The news couldn’t be better: fossil fuels will become ever more abundant.  And all that talk about climate change?  Don’t worry about it, they chant.  Go out and enjoy the benefits of cheap and plentiful energy forever.

This movement from gloom about our energy future to what can only be called fossil-fuel euphoria may prove to be the hallmark of our peculiar moment.  In a speech this September, for instance, Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission (that state’s energy regulatory agency), claimed that the Earth possesses a “relatively boundless supply” of oil and natural gas.  Not only that — and you can practically hear the chorus of cheering in Houston and other oil centers — but many of the most exploitable new deposits are located in the U.S. and Canada.  As a result — add a roll of drums and a blaring of trumpets — the expected boost in energy is predicted to provide the United States with a cornucopia of economic and political rewards, including industrial expansion at home and enhanced geopolitical clout abroad.  The country, exulted Karen Moreau of the New York State Petroleum Council, another industry cheerleader, is now in a position “to become a global superpower on energy.”

There are good reasons to be deeply skeptical of such claims, but that hardly matters when they are gaining traction in Washington and on Wall Street.  What we’re seeing is a sea change in elite thinking on the future availability and attractiveness of fossil fuels.  Senior government officials, including President Obama, have already become infected with this euphoria, as have top Wall Street investors — which means it will have a powerful and longlasting, though largely pernicious, effect on the country’s energy policy, industrial development, and foreign relations.

The speed and magnitude of this shift in thinking has been little short of astonishing.  Just a few years ago, we were girding for the imminent prospect of “peak oil,” the point at which daily worldwide output would reach its maximum and begin an irreversible decline.  This, experts assumed, would result in a global energy crisis, sky-high oil prices, and severe disruptions to the world economy.

Today, peak oil seems a distant will-o’-the-wisp.  Experts at the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) confidently project that global oil output will reach 115 million barrels per day by 2040 — a stunning 34% increase above the current level of 86 million barrels.  Natural gas production is expected to soar as well, leaping from 113 trillion cubic feet in 2010 to a projected 185 trillion in 2040.

These rosy assessments rest to a surprising extent on a single key assumption: that the United States, until recently a declining energy producer, will experience a sharp increase in output through the exploitation of shale oil and natural gas reserves through hydro-fracking and other technological innovations.  “In a matter of a few years, the trends have reversed,” Moreau declared last February.  “There is a new energy reality of vast domestic resources of oil and natural gas brought about by advancing technology… For the first time in generations, we are able to see that our energy supply is no longer limited, foreign, and finite; it is American and abundant.”

The boost in domestic oil and gas output, it is further claimed, will fuel an industrial renaissance in the United States — with new plants and factories being built to take advantage of abundant local low-cost energy supplies.  “The economic consequences of this supply-and-demand revolution are potentially extraordinary,” asserted Ed Morse, the head of global commodities research at Citigroup in New York.  America’s gross domestic product, he claimed, will grow by 2% to 3% over the next seven years as a result of the energy revolution alone, adding as much as $624 billion to the national economy.  Even greater gains can be made, Morse and others claim, if the U.S. becomes a significant exporter of fossil fuels, particularly in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Not only will these developments result in added jobs — as many as three million, claims energy analyst Daniel Yergin — but they will also enhance America’s economic status vis-à-vis its competitors.  “U.S. natural gas is abundant and prices are low — a third of their level in Europe and a quarter of that in Japan,” Yergin wrote recently.  “This is boosting energy-intensive manufacturing in the U.S., much to the dismay of competitors in both Europe and Asia.”

This fossil fuel euphoria has even surfaced in statements by President Obama.  For all his talk of climate change perils and the need to invest in renewables, he has also gloated over the jump in domestic energy production and promised to facilitate further increases.  “Last year, American oil production reached its highest level since 2003,” he affirmed in March 2011.  “And for the first time in more than a decade, oil we imported accounted for less than half of the liquid fuel we consumed.  So that was a good trend.  To keep reducing that reliance on imports, my administration is encouraging offshore oil exploration and production.”

Money Pouring into Fossil Fuels

This burst of euphoria about fossil fuels and America’s energy future is guaranteed to have a disastrous impact on the planet.  In the long term, it will make Earth a hotter, far more extreme place to live by vastly increasing carbon emissions and diverting investment funds from renewables and green energy to new fossil fuel projects.  For all the excitement these endeavors may be generating, it hardly takes a genius to see that they mean ever more carbon dioxide heading into the atmosphere and an ever less hospitable planet.

The preference for fossil fuel investments is easy to spot in the industry’s trade journals, as well as in recent statistical data and anecdotal reports of all sorts.  According to the reliable International Energy Agency (IEA), private and public investment in fossil fuel projects over the next quarter century will outpace investment in renewable energy by a ratio of three to one.  In other words, for every dollar spent on new wind farms, solar arrays, and tidal power research, three dollars will go into the development of new oil fields, shale gas operations, and coal mines.

From industry sources it’s clear that big-money investors are rushing to take advantage of the current boom in unconventional energy output in the U.S. — the climate be damned.  “The dollars needed [to develop such projects] have never been larger,” commented Maynard Holt, co-president of Houston-based investment bank Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Company.  “But the money is truly out there.  The global energy capital river is flowing our way.”

In the either/or equation that seems to be our energy future, the capital river is rushing into the exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels, while it’s slowing to a trickle in the world of the true unconventionals — the energy sources that don’t add carbon to the atmosphere. This, indeed, was the conclusion reached by the IEA, which in 2012 warned that the seemingly inexorable growth in greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide is likely to eliminate all prospect of averting the worst effects of climate change.

Petro Machismo

The new energy euphoria is also fueling a growing sense that the American superpower, whose influence has recently seemed to be on the wane, may soon acquire fresh geopolitical clout through its mastery of the latest energy technologies.  “America’s new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” crowed National Security Adviser Tom Donilon in an April address at Columbia University.  Increased domestic energy output, he explained, will help reduce U.S. vulnerability to global supply disruptions and price hikes.  “It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”

A new elite consensus is forming around the strategic advantages of expanded oil and gas production.  In particular, this outlook holds that the U.S. is benefiting from substantially reduced oil imports from the Middle East by eliminating a dependency that has led to several disastrous interventions in that region and exposed the country to periodic disruptions in oil deliveries, starting with the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74.  “The shift in oil sources means the global supply system will become more resilient, our energy supplies will become more secure, and the nation will have more flexibility in dealing with crises,” Yergin wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

This turnaround, he and other experts claim, is what allowed Washington to adopt a tougher stance with Tehran in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.  With the U.S. less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, so goes the argument, American leaders need not fear Iranian threats to disrupt the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf to international markets.  “The substantial increase in oil production in the United States,” Donilon declared in April, is what allowed Washington to impose tough sanctions on Iranian oil “while minimizing the burdens on the rest of the world.”

A stance of what could be called petro machismo is growing in Washington, underlying such initiatives as the president’s widely ballyhooed policy announcement of a “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia (still largely words backed by only the most modest of actions) and efforts to constrain Russia’s international influence.

Ever since Vladimir Putin assumed the presidency of that country, Moscow has sought to sway the behavior of its former Warsaw Pact allies and the former republics of the Soviet Union by exploiting its dominant energy role in the region.  It offered cheap natural gas to governments willing to follow its policy dictates, while threatening to cut off supplies to those that weren’t.  Now, some American strategists hope to reduce Russia’s clout by helping friendly nations like Poland and the Baltic states develop their own shale gas reserves and build LNG terminals.  These would allow them to import gas from “friendly” states, including the U.S. (once its LNG export capacities are expanded).  “If we can export some natural gas to Europe and to Japan and other Asian nations,” Karen Moreau suggested in February, “we strengthen our relationships and influence in those places — and perhaps reduce the influence of other producers such as Russia.”

The crucial issue is this: if American elites continue to believe that increased oil and gas production will provide the U.S. with a strategic advantage, Washington will be tempted to exercise a “stronger hand” when pursuing its “international security goals.”  The result will undoubtedly be heightened international friction and discord.

Is the Euphoria Justified?

There is no doubt that the present fossil fuel euphoria will lead in troubling directions, even if the rosy predictions of rising energy output are, in the long run, likely to prove both unreliable and unrealistic.  The petro machismo types make several interconnected claims:

* The world’s fossil fuel reserves are vast, especially when “unconventional” sources of fuel — Canadian tar sands, shale gas, and the like — are included.

* The utilization of advanced technologies, especially fracking, will permit the effective exploitation of a significant share of these untapped reserves (assuming that governments don’t restrict fracking and other controversial drilling activities).

* Fossil fuels will continue to supply an enormous share of global energy requirements for the foreseeable future, even given rising world temperatures, growing public opposition, and other challenges.

Each of these assertions is packed with unacknowledged questions and improbabilities that are impossible to explore thoroughly in an article of this length.  But here are some major areas of doubt.

To begin with, those virtually “boundless” untapped oil reserves have yet to be systematically explored, meaning that it’s impossible to know if they do, in fact, contain commercially significant reserves of oil and gas.  To offer an apt example, the U.S. Geological Survey, in one of the most widely cited estimates of untapped energy reserves, has reported that approximately 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30% percent of its natural gas lie above the Arctic Circle.  But this assessment is based on geological analyses of rock samples, not exploratory drilling.  Whether the area actually holds such large reserves will not be known until widespread drilling has occurred.  So far, initial Arctic drilling operations, like those off Greenland, have generally proved disappointing.

Similarly, the Energy Information Administration has reported that China possesses vast shale formations that could harbor substantial reserves of oil and gas.  According to a 2013 EIA survey, that country’s technically recoverable shale gas reserves are estimated at 1,275 trillion cubic feet, more than twice the figure for the United States.  Once again, however, the real extent of those reserves won’t be known without extensive drilling, which is only in its beginning stages.

To say, then, that global reserves are “boundless” is to disguise all the hypotheticals lurking within that description.  Reality may fall far short of industry claims.

The effectiveness of new technologies in exploiting such problematic reserves is also open to question.  True, fracking and other unconventional technologies have already substantially increased the production of hard-to-exploit fuels, including tar sands, shale gas, and deep-sea reserves.  Many experts predict that such gains are likely to be repeated in the future.  The EIA, for example, suggests that U.S. output of shale oil via fracking will jump by 221% over the next 15 years, and natural gas by 164%.  The big question, however, is whether these projected increases will actually come to fruition.  While early gains are likely, the odds are that future growth will come at a far slower pace.

As a start, the most lucrative U.S. shale formations in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and Texas have already experienced substantial exploration and many of the most attractive drilling sites (or “plays”) are now fully developed.  More fracking, no doubt, will release additional oil and gas, but the record shows that fossil-fuel output tends to decline once the earliest, most promising reservoirs are exploited.  In fact, notes energy analyst Art Berman, “several of the more mature shale gas plays are either in decline or appear to be approaching peak production.”

Doubts are also multiplying over the potential for exploiting shale reserves in other parts of the world.  Preliminary drilling suggests that many of the shale formations in Europe and China possess fewer hydrocarbons and will be harder to develop than those now being exploited in this country. In Poland, for example, efforts to extract domestic shale reserves have been stymied by disappointing drilling efforts and the subsequent departure of major foreign firms, including Exxon Mobil and Marathon Oil.

Finally, there is a crucial but difficult to assess factor in the future energy equation: the degree to which energy companies and energy states will run into resistance when exploiting ever more remote (and environmentally sensitive) resource zones.  No one yet knows how much energy industry efforts may be constrained by the growing opposition of local residents, scientists, environmentalists, and others who worry about the environmental degradation caused by unconventional energy extraction and the climate consequences of rising fossil fuel combustion.  Despite industry claims that fracking, tar sands production, and Arctic drilling can be performed without endangering local residents, harming the environment, or wrecking the planet, ever more people are coming to the opposite conclusion — and beginning to take steps to protect their perceived interests.

In New York State, for example, a fervent anti-fracking oppositional movement has prevented government officials from allowing such activities to begin in the rich Marcellus shale formation, one of the largest in the world.  Although Albany may, in time, allow limited fracking operations there, it is unlikely to permit large-scale drilling throughout the state.  Similarly, an impressive opposition in British Columbia to the proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline, especially by the native peoples of the region, has put that project on indefinite hold.  And growing popular opposition to fracking in Europe is making itself felt across the region.  The European Parliament, for example, recently imposed tough environmental constraints on the practice.

As heat waves and extreme storm activity increase, so will concern over climate change and opposition to wholesale fossil fuel extraction.  The IEA warned of this possibility in the 2012 edition of its World Energy Outlook.  Shale gas and other unconventional forms of natural gas are predicted to provide nearly half the net gain in world gas output over the next 25 years, the report noted.  “There are,” it added, “also concerns about the environmental impact of producing unconventional gas that, if not properly addressed, could halt the unconventional gas revolution in its tracks.”

Reaction to that IEA report last November was revealing.  Its release prompted a mini-wave of ecstatic commentary in the American media about its prediction that, thanks to the explosion in unconventional energy output, this country would soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer.  In fact, the fossil fuel craze can be said to have started with this claim.  None of the hundreds of articles and editorials written on the subject, however, bothered to discuss the caveats the report offered or its warnings of planetary catastrophe.

As is so often the case with mass delusions, those caught up in fossil fuel mania have not bothered to think through the grim realities involved.  While industry bigwigs may continue to remain on an energy high, the rest of us will not be so lucky.  The accelerated production and combustion of fossil fuels can have only one outcome: a severely imperiled planet.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and conflict studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left (Picador).  A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Michael T. Klare

Michael T. Klare, 2040 or Bust

7:42 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

If you’re an oil exec, the world is a rosy place — and I’m not talking about the pink haze of heat that’s been rising from the burning American West all summer.  I’m talking about energy consumption where the news just couldn’t be cheerier.  Despite declines in North America and Europe, according to a new study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), world consumption of petroleum products in 2012 rose to record heights, a staggering 88.9 million barrels a day.  Increases in Asia in particular were impressive, as a snazzy little animated graphic of soaring global oil use, 1980-2012, at the EIA’s website makes clear.

And speaking of upbeat news, there was another rosy record set in 2012 (at least, if you’re an oil exec who could care less about the fate of the planet): carbon dioxide emissions leaped into the atmosphere in record quantities, 31.6 billion tons of CO2, even as U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped, in part because utilities were switching from coal to natural gas.  Of course, significant amounts of the coal not used in this country get shipped off to places like China where it no longer counts as U.S. emissions when it heads skyward.

Anyway, put the two together and you can practically see the heat haze of an eternal summer rising on the eastern horizon.  In fact, these days even the worst news for the rest of us can be good news for the energy industry.  For example, the possibility of an American intervention in Syria, a spreading conflict in the region, and chaos in Middle Eastern oil markets has already helped raise the price of a barrel of crude oil above $115.  An American air assault on Syrian military facilities in Damascus could send that price over $120 and cause pain at the pump in the U.S. as well.  So you and I won’t be happy, but oil execs will be toasting their good fortune.

In the coming years, there’s likely to be no end to this sort of good news, as Michael Klare, TomDispatch energy expert and author of The Race for What’s Left, makes clear today.  If you thought fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions were at unbeatable levels, just wait until he introduces you to Earth 2040.  If, by then, you’re the CEO of a big energy company, you’ll truly be in the pink.  As for the rest of us, if you’ll excuse the expression, we’ll be in the red. Tom

Our Fossil-Fueled Future
World Energy in 2040
By Michael T. Klare

What sort of fabulous new energy systems will the world possess in 2040?  Which fuels will supply the bulk of our energy needs?  And how will that change the global energy equation, international politics, and the planet’s health?  If the experts at the U.S. Department of Energy are right, the startling “new” fuels of 2040 will be oil, coal, and natural gas — and we will find ourselves on a baking, painfully uncomfortable planet.

It’s true, of course, that any predictions about the fuel situation almost three decades from now aren’t likely to be reliable.  All sorts of unexpected upheavals and disasters in the years ahead make long-range predictions inherently difficult.  This has not, however, deterred the Department of Energy from producing a comprehensive portrait of the world’s future energy system.  Known as the International Energy Outlook (IEO), the assessment incorporates detailed projections of future energy production and consumption.  Although dense with statistical data and filled with technical jargon, the 2013 report provides a unique and disturbing picture of our planetary future.

Many of us would like to believe that, by 2040, the world will be far along the path toward a green industrial future with wind, solar, and renewable fuels providing the bulk of our energy supplies.  The IEO assumes otherwise.  It anticipates a world in which coal — the most carbon-intense of all major fuels — still supplies more of our energy than renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined.

The world it foresees is also one in which oil remains a preeminent source of energy, while hydro-fracking and other drilling techniques for extracting unconventional fossil fuels are far more widely employed than today.  Wind and solar energy will also play a bigger role in 2040, but — as the IEO sees it — will still represent only a small fraction of the global energy mix.

Admittedly, International Energy Outlook is a government product of this moment with all the limitations that implies.  It envisions the future by extrapolating from current developments.  It is not visionary.  Its authors can’t imagine energy breakthroughs that have yet to happen, or changes in world attitudes that may affect how energy is dealt with, or events like wars, environmental disasters, and global economic recessions or depressions that could alter the world’s energy situation.  Nonetheless, because it assesses current endeavors that are sure to have long-lasting repercussions, like the present massive worldwide investments in shale oil and shale gas extraction, it provides an extraordinary resource for imagining the energy crisis in our future.

Among its major findings are three fundamental developments:

* Global energy use will continue to rise rapidly, with total world consumption jumping from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) in 2010 to an estimated 820 quadrillion in 2040, a net increase of 56%.  (A BTU is the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.)

* An increasing share of world energy demand will be generated by developing countries, especially those in Asia.  Of the nearly 300 quadrillion BTUs in added energy needed to meet global requirements between now and 2040, some 250 quadrillion, or 85%, will be used to satisfy rising demand in the developing world.

* China, which only recently overtook the United States as the world’s leading energy consumer, will account for the largest share — 40% — of the growth in global consumption over the next 30 years.

These projections may not in themselves be surprising, but if accurate, the consequences for the global economy, world politics, and the health and well-being of the planetary environment will be staggering.  To meet constantly expanding world requirements, energy producers will be compelled to ramp up production of every kind of fossil fuel at a time of growing concern about the paramount role those fuels play in fostering runaway climate change.  Meanwhile, the shift in the center of gravity of energy consumption from the older industrial powers to the developing world will lead to intense competition for access to available supplies.

To fully appreciate the significance of the IEO’s findings, it is necessary to consider four critical trends: the surprising resilience of fossil fuels, the degree to which the world’s energy will be being provided by unconventional fossil fuels, the seemingly relentless global increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, and significant shifts in the geopolitics of energy.

The Continuing Predominance of Fossil Fuels

Anyone searching for evidence that we are transitioning to a system based on renewable sources of energy will be sorely disappointed by the projections in the 2013 International Energy Outlook.  Although the share of world energy provided by fossil fuels is expected to decline from 84% in 2010 to 78% in 2040, it will still tower over all other forms of energy.  In fact, in 2040 the projected share of global energy consumption provided by each of the fossil fuels (28% for oil, 27% for coal, and 23% for gas) will exceed that of renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined (21%).

Oil and coal continue to dominate the fossil-fuel category despite all the talk of a massive increase in natural gas supplies — the so-called shale gas revolution — made possible by hydro-fracking.  Oil’s continued supremacy can be attributed, in part, to the endless growth in demand for cars, vans, and trucks in China, India, and other rising states in Asia.  The prominence of coal, however, is on the face of it less expectable.  Given the degree to which utilities in the United States and Western Europe are shunning coal in favor of natural gas, the prominence the IEO gives it in 2040 is startling.  But for each reduction in coal use in older industrialized nations, we are seeing a huge increase in the developing world, where the demand for affordable electricity trumps concern about greenhouse gas emissions. 

The continuing dominance of fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix will not only ensure the continued dominance of the great fossil-fuel companies — both private and state-owned — in the energy economy, but also bolster their political clout when it comes to decisions about new energy investment and climate policy.  Above all, however, soaring fossil-fuel consumption will result in a substantial boost in greenhouse gas emissions, and all the disastrous effects that come with it.

The Rise of the “Unconventionals”

At present, most of our oil, coal, and natural gas still comes from “conventional” sources — deposits close to the surface, close to shore, and within easy reach of transportation and processing facilities.  But these reservoirs are being depleted at a rapid pace and by 2040 — or so the Department of Energy’s report tells us — will be unable to supply more than a fraction of our needs.  Increasingly, fossil fuel supplies will be of an “unconventional” character — materials hard to refine and/or acquired from deposits deep underground, far from shore, or in relatively inaccessible locations.  These include Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, shale gas, deep-offshore oil, and Arctic energy.

Until recently, unconventional oil and gas constituted only a tiny share of the world’s energy supply, but that is changing fast.  Shale gas, for example, provided a negligible share of the U.S. natural gas supply in 2000; by 2010, it had risen to 23%; in 2040, it is expected to exceed 50%.  Comparable increases are expected in Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, and U.S. shale oil (also called “tight oil”).

By definition, unconventional fuels are harder to produce, refine, and transport than conventional ones.  In most cases, this means that more energy is consumed in their extraction than in the exploitation of conventional fuels, with more carbon dioxide being emitted per unit of energy produced.  As is especially the case with fracking, the extraction of unconventional fuels normally requires significant infusions of water, raising the possibility of competition and conflict among major water consumers over access to supplies that, by 2040, will be severely threatened by climate change.

Relentless Growth in Carbon Emissions

By 2040, humanity will be burning far more fossil fuels than today: 673 quadrillion BTUs, compared to 440 quadrillion in 2010.   The continued dominance of fossil fuels, rising coal demand, and a growing reliance on unconventional sources of supply can only have one outcome, as the IEO makes clear: a huge jump in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon dioxide is the most prominent of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, and the combustion of fossil fuels is the primary source of that CO2; hence, the IEO’s projections on energy-related carbon emissions constitute an important measure of humankind’s ongoing role in heating the planet.

And here’s the bad news: as a result of the continued reliance on fossil fuels, global carbon emissions from energy are projected to increase by a stunning 46% between 2010 and 2040, jumping from 31.2 billion to 45.5 billion metric tons.  No more ominous sign could be found of the kind of runaway global warming likely to be experienced in the decades to come than this grim figure.

In the IEO projections, all fossil fuels and all of the major consuming regions contribute to this nightmarish future, but coal is the greatest culprit.  Of the extra 14.3 billion metric tons of CO2 to be added to global emissions over the next 30 years, 6.8 billion, or 48%, will be generated by the combustion of coal.  Because most of the increase in coal consumption is occurring in China and India, these two countries will have a major responsibility for accelerating the pace of global warming. China alone is expected to contribute half of the added CO2 in these decades; India, 11%.

New Geopolitical Tensions

Finally, the 2013 edition of International Energy Outlook is rife with hints of possible new geopolitical tensions generated by these developments.  Of particular interest to its authors are the international implications of humanity’s growing reliance on unconventional sources of energy.  While the know-how to extract conventional energy resources is by now widely available, the specialized technology needed to exploit shale gas, tar sands, and other such materials is far less so, giving a clear economic advantage in the IEO’s projected energy future to countries which possess these capabilities.

One consequence, already evident, is the dramatic turnaround in America’s energy status.  Just a few years ago, many analysts were bemoaning the growing reliance of the United States on energy imports from Africa and the Middle East, with an attendant vulnerability to overseas chaos and conflict.  Now, thanks to American leadership in the development of shale and other unconventional resources, the U.S. is becoming less dependent on imported energy and so finds itself in a stronger position to dominate the global energy marketplace.

In one of many celebratory passages on these developments, the IEO affirms that a key to “increasing natural gas production has been advances in the application of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies, which made it possible to develop the country’s vast shale gas resources and contributed to a near doubling of total U.S. technically recoverable natural gas resource estimates over the past decade.” 

At the same time, the report asserts that energy-producing countries that fail to gain mastery over these new technologies will be at a significant disadvantage in the energy marketplace of 2040. Russia is particularly vulnerable in this regard: heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues to finance government operations, it faces a significant decline in output from its conventional reserves and so must turn to unconventional supplies; its ability to acquire the needed technologies will, however, be hindered by its historically poor treatment of foreign companies.

China is also said to face significant challenges in the new energy environment.  Simply to meet the country’s growing need for energy is likely to prove an immense challenge for its leaders, given the magnitude of its requirements and the limits to China’s domestic supplies.  As the world’s fastest growing consumer of oil and gas, an increasing share of its energy supplies must be imported, posing the same sort of dependency problems that until recently plagued American leaders.  The country does possess substantial reserves of shale gas, but lacking the skills needed to exploit them, is unlikely to become a significant producer for years to come.

The IEO does not discuss the political implications of all this.  However, top U.S. leaders, from the president on down, have been asserting that America’s mastery of new energy technologies is contributing to the nation’s economic vitality, and so enhancing its overseas influence.  “America’s new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” said National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in an April speech at Columbia University.  “Increasing U.S. energy supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply disruptions and price shocks. It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”

The Department of Energy’s report avoids such explicit language, but no one reading it could doubt that its authors are thinking along similar lines.  Indeed, the whole report can be viewed as providing ammunition for the pundits and politicians who argue that the emerging global energy equation is unusually propitious for the United States (so long, of course, as everyone ignores the effects of climate change) — an assessment that can only energize advocates of a more assertive U.S. stance abroad.

The World of 2040

The 2013 International Energy Outlook offers us a revealing peek into the thinking of U.S. government experts — and their assessment of the world of 2040 should depress us all.  But make no mistake, none of this can be said to constitute a reliable picture of what the world will actually look like at that time.

Many of the projected trends are likely to be altered, possibly unrecognizably, thanks to unforeseen developments of every sort, especially in the climate realm.  Nonetheless, the massive investments now being made in conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations will ensure that these fuels play a significant role in the energy mix for a long time to come — and this, in turn, means that international efforts to slow the pace of planetary warming are likely to be frustrated.  Similarly, Washington’s determination to maintain U.S. dominance in the exploitation of unconventional fuel resources, combined with the desires of Chinese and Russian leaders to cut into the American lead in this field, is guaranteed to provoke friction and distrust in the decades to come.

If the trends identified in the Department of Energy report prove enduring, then the world of 2040 will be one of ever-rising temperatures and sea levels, ever more catastrophic storms, ever fiercer wildfires, ever more devastating droughts.  Can there, in fact, be a sadder conclusion when it comes to our future than the IEO’s insistence that, among all the resource shortages humanity may face in the decades to come, fossil fuels will be spared? Thanks to the exploitation of advanced technologies to extract “tough energy” globally, they will remain relatively abundant for decades to come.

So just how reliable is the IEO assessment?  Personally, I suspect that its scenarios will prove a good deal less than accurate for an obvious enough reason.  As the severity and destructiveness of climate change becomes increasingly evident in our lives, ever more people will be pressing governments around the world to undertake radical changes in global energy behavior and rein in the power of the giant energy companies.  This, in turn, will lead to a substantially greater emphasis on investment in the development of alternative energy systems plus significantly less reliance on fossil fuels than the IEO anticipates. 

Make no mistake about it, though: the major fossil fuel producers — the world’s giant oil, gas, and coal corporations — are hardly going to acquiesce to this shift without a fight.  Given their staggering profits and their determination to perpetuate the fossil-fuel era for as a long as possible, they will employ every means at their command to postpone the age of renewables.  Eventually, however, the destructive effects of climate change will prove so severe and inescapable that the pressure to embrace changes in energy behavior will undoubtedly overpower the energy industry’s resistance.

Unfortunately, none of us can actually see into the future and so no one can know when such a shift will take place.  But here’s a simple reality: it had better happen before 2040 or, as the saying goes, our goose is cooked.

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left, just published in paperback by Picador. A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here. 

[Note to readers: As most of this text is based on a single document, International Energy Outlook 2013, there are fewer hyperlinks to source material than is usual in my pieces.  The report itself can be viewed by clicking here.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Michael T. Klare

Bill McKibben: A Movement for a New Planet

6:55 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Earth from space

Is there hope for Planet Earth?

In his stunningly insightful book The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, Jonathan Schell suggested that there were two world-changing inventions for the twentieth century, nuclear weapons and nonviolence, and described the way their histories and powers were intertwined. After all, Gandhi’s unarmed revolution against British colonialism in India succeeded just as nuclear weapons makers were claiming that ultimate weapon as the ultimate power on the planet.  Today, Schell’s former New Yorker colleague and friend Bill McKibben implies that the later twentieth and early twenty-first century may be noteworthy for two intertwined phenomena: computers and digital technology, which have decentralized power in some ways, while concentrating it in others, and the next phase in the development of nonviolent, direct-action, people-powered movements, the recent leaderless rebellions.

The 1960s now seems like a transitional age in which the new anti-authoritarianism now in ascendancy first dawned. In those years, members of cults (from Synanon and the Manson Family to the Moonies and the Symbionese Liberation Army) and others followed their leaders into madness and mayhem, even as some movements started to experiment with new forms of self-governance and to learn how to campaign without charismatic leaders.  They began trying to transform liberation, equality, and democracy into internal processes as well as goals. The problem wasn’t just the cults, but the way political campaigns of every sort would get hijacked by the usual suspects, the people who assumed they were sent to Earth to explain it all and lead the rest of us (yeah, dudes, mostly).

As it turned out, for a rebellion against conventional authority, an unconventional version of authority wasn’t what was needed, but an alternative to authoritarianism altogether. Feminists and other radical democrats in many movements, notably the great antinuclear movements of the 1970s and 1980s, pioneered new anti-authoritarian techniques, still widely used and prominent in the Occupy movement, including consensus process, facilitators, and spokescouncils. These tools distributed power more equitably and rendered leaders of the old sort superfluous.

All through my activist life, I’ve seen police looking for leaders to negotiate with or suppress.  A body with a head can be decapitated, but headless organisms charge on as long as some of us remain. And many people — Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, David Graeber of the Occupy movement, Bill McKibben in the climate-change movement, possibly even Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement — have been mistaken for leaders when they were really something else: catalysts and voices for our movements. They weren’t and aren’t leaders because we aren’t followers. We don’t obey them, but sift through and adopt their ideas, frameworks, and strategies as we see fit, while contributing ourselves. No shepherds, no sheep — which is a triumph of political evolution and a measure of how far we are from the authoritarianism of the past.

In this essay, Bill McKibben is essentially announcing that he might at last be pulling back from a grueling, exhausting, continuous tour of the world as the most charismatic, witty, and effective catalyst for what has become a global climate movement with an ever-strengthening U.S. component. That’s good news.  Because he understood more deeply than any of us how urgent and catastrophic our situation on this overheating planet of ours really is, he has pushed himself beyond human limits to address it.  If this piece of his is a sidelong announcement that we can expect more writing and less showing up in every corner of the Earth, then it’s two kinds of good news — for sustainable Bill and more of his magnificent writing. (In fact, there’s a new book about to appear that sounds kind of great.)

The work needs doing, but the duty is all of ours, not just his, even if he has already roused crowds about the issue in hundreds of places on nearly every continent, including Antarctica. His books, in case you’ve missed them, do a remarkable job of laying out how dire the problem of climate change is, but also how alluring and within our grasp the solutions to it are; both Deep Economy and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet are oddly hopeful about what we could do.

The beautiful thing about them, spelled out clearly in his latest post for TomDispatch, is that they are deeply anti-authoritarian in that the solutions they imagine involve the dispersal of power — both the literal power that runs our homes and vehicles and farms and factories, and the power that is politics (which are both consolidated in corporations like Chevron, as he highlights below). He spotlights just where what’s left of our hope resides: in a decentralized, grassroots, youth-oriented global climate movement, including the extraordinary young people doing the lion’s share of the work at 350.org.

What all this means is that the power is also yours: you are potentially a catalyst for this moment. Welcome aboard what might just be Earth, Version 2013. Rebecca Solnit

Movements Without Leaders 
What to Make of Change on an Overheating Planet 
By Bill McKibben

The history we grow up with shapes our sense of reality — it’s hard to shake. If you were young during the fight against Nazism, war seems a different, more virtuous animal than if you came of age during Vietnam.  I was born in 1960, and so the first great political character of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr. I had a shadowy, child’s sense of him when he was still alive, and then a mythic one as his legend grew; after all, he had a national holiday. As a result, I think, I imagined that he set the template for how great movements worked. They had a leader, capital L.

As time went on, I learned enough about the civil rights movement to know it was much more than Dr. King.  There were other great figures, from Ella Baker and Medgar Evers to Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X, and there were tens of thousands more whom history doesn’t remember but who deserve great credit. And yet one’s early sense is hard to dislodge: the civil rights movement had his face on it; Gandhi carried the fight against empire; Susan B. Anthony, the battle for suffrage.

Which is why it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the movements of the moment — even highly successful ones like the fight for gay marriage or immigrant’s rights — don’t really have easily discernible leaders. I know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for decades to make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those within the struggle, but there aren’t particular people that the public at large identifies as the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and for the better.

It’s true, too, in the battle where I’ve spent most of my life: the fight to slow climate change and hence give the planet some margin for survival. We actually had a charismatic leader in Al Gore, but he was almost the exception that proved the rule. For one thing, a politician makes a problematic leader for a grassroots movement because boldness is hard when you still envision higher office; for another, even as he won the Nobel Prize for his remarkable work in spreading climate science, the other side used every trick and every dollar at their disposal to bring him down. He remains a vital figure in the rest of the world (partly because there he is perceived less as a politician than as a prophet), but at home his power to shape the fight has been diminished.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the movement is diminished.  In fact, it’s never been stronger. In the last few years, it has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas. It may not be winning the way gay marriage has won, but the movement itself continues to grow quickly, and it’s starting to claim some victories.

That’s not despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders, I think. It’s because of it.

A Movement for a New Planet

Read the rest of this entry →

Michael Klare, How to Fry a Planet

6:37 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Solar Panels

Will we focus on renewable energy in time to save the Earth?

Look at it any way you want, and if you’re not a booster of fossil fuels on this overheating planet of ours, it doesn’t look good.  Hardly a month passes, it seems, without news about the development of some previously unimaginable way to extract fossil fuels from some thoroughly unexpected place.  The latest bit of “good” news: the Japanese government’s announcement that natural gas has been successfully extracted from undersea methane hydrates.  (Yippee!)  Natural gas is gleefully touted as the “clean” fossil-fuel path to a green future, but evidence is mounting that the newest process for producing it also leaks unexpected amounts of methane, a devastating greenhouse gas.  The U.S. cheers and is cheered because the amount of carbon dioxide it is putting into the atmosphere is actually falling.  Then Duncan Clark at the British Guardian does the figures and discovers that “there has been no decline in the amount of carbon the U.S. is taking out of the ground. In fact, the trend is upwards. The latest year for which full data is available — 2011 — is the highest level on record.”  It’s just that some of it (coal, in particular) was exported abroad to be burned elsewhere.

In the meantime, the next set of articles come out of scientific circles suggesting that the results of all this are far from cheery.  An example: a recent paper in the prestigious journal Science indicates that “climate change is now set to occur at a pace ‘orders of magnitude more rapid’ than at any other time in the last 65 million years,” and we should prepare for a wave of species extinctions. In other words, the much-ballyhooed coming of North American energy “independence” is an upbeat way of saying that we will continue to heat the planet till hell boils over.  Of course, those who run the giant energy companies, the politicians in their pay, and their lobbyists and associated think tanks — the real global “terrarists” for their urge to make historic profits off the heating of the planet — will, of course, continue to cheer.  Though it is notoriously hard to claim climate change as the author of any specific weather event, in the ever-hotter continental U.S., the experience of what’s being called “extreme weather” — from drought to record wildfires, record heat waves to devastating tornadoes — is increasingly part of the warp and woof of everyday life.

In this context, the latest post by Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left, is singularly important, if also singularly unnerving.  Klare, who has long been ahead of the curve in his work on energy and resources, offers a clear-eyed look at the energy road chosen, and the view to the horizon is anything but pretty. Tom

The Third Carbon Age
Don’t for a Second Imagine We’re Heading for an Era of Renewable Energy
By Michael T. Klare

When it comes to energy and economics in the climate-change era, nothing is what it seems.  Most of us believe (or want to believe) that the second carbon era, the Age of Oil, will soon be superseded by the Age of Renewables, just as oil had long since superseded the Age of Coal.  President Obama offered exactly this vision in a much-praised June address on climate change.  True, fossil fuels will be needed a little bit longer, he indicated, but soon enough they will be overtaken by renewable forms of energy.

Many other experts share this view, assuring us that increased reliance on “clean” natural gas combined with expanded investments in wind and solar power will permit a smooth transition to a green energy future in which humanity will no longer be pouring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  All this sounds promising indeed.  There is only one fly in the ointment: it is not, in fact, the path we are presently headed down.  The energy industry is not investing in any significant way in renewables.  Instead, it is pouring its historic profits into new fossil-fuel projects, mainly involving the exploitation of what are called “unconventional” oil and gas reserves.

The result is indisputable: humanity is not entering a period that will be dominated by renewables.  Instead, it is pioneering the third great carbon era, the Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas.

Read the rest of this entry →

Michael Klare: A Thermonuclear Energy Bomb in Christmas Wrappings

7:56 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

IEA's World Energy Outlook 2012 paints a dire picture of our future

Let’s face it: climate change is getting scarier by the week.  In this all-American year, record wildfires, record temperatures in the continental U.S., an endless summer, a fierce drought that still won’t go away, and Frankenstorm Sandy all descended on us. Globally, billion-dollar weather events are increasingly dime-a-dozen affairs, with a record 14 of them in 2012 so far So is a linked phenomenon, the continuing rise in the volume of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, especially from burning fossil fuels, that get pumped into the atmosphere.  The latest figures from 2011 indicate that those gases once again made an appearance in record amounts with no indication that abatement is anywhere on the horizon.

With new studies and more data, it seems, come ever more frightening projections of just how much the temperature of this planet is going to rise by 2100. After all, as Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author of the invaluable The Race for What’s Left, points out, the International Energy Agency’s latest study suggests a possible temperature rise by century’s end of 3.6 degrees Celsius.  That should startle the imagination, involving as it would the transformation of this planet into something unrecognizably different from the one we all grew up on.  And keep in mind that it’s by no means the top estimate for temperature disaster.  A new World Bank report indicates that a rise of 4 degrees Celsius is possible by century’s end, a prospect that bank president Jim Yong Kim termed a “doomsday scenario.”

In the meantime, the most comprehensive study to date of how humans have affected the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere predicts that the planet’s temperature could rise by an unimaginable 6 degrees Celsius by 2100.  These days, it increasingly looks like we’ve entered the lottery from hell when it comes to Earth’s ultimate temperature — especially now that a recent report from the United Nations Environment Program suggests carbon in the atmosphere has increased by 20% since 2000 and that “there are few signs of global emissions falling.”

With this in mind, consider the latest “good news” reported (and widely hailed) in the world of fossil fuels, courtesy of Michael Klare.  Tom

World Energy Report 2012
The Good, the Bad, and the Really, Truly Ugly
By Michael T. Klare

Rarely does the release of a data-driven report on energy trends trigger front-page headlines around the world.  That, however, is exactly what happened on November 12th when the prestigious Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) released this year’s edition of its World Energy Outlook.  In the process, just about everyone missed its real news, which should have set off alarm bells across the planet.

Claiming that advances in drilling technology were producing an upsurge in North American energy output, World Energy Outlook predicted that the United States would overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the planet’s leading oil producer by 2020.  “North America is at the forefront of a sweeping transformation in oil and gas production that will affect all regions of the world,” declared IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven in a widely quoted statement.

In the U.S., the prediction of imminent supremacy in the oil-output sweepstakes was generally greeted with unabashed jubilation.  “This is a remarkable change,” said John Larson of IHS, a corporate research firm.  “It’s truly transformative.  It’s fundamentally changing the energy outlook for this country.”  Not only will this result in a diminished reliance on imported oil, he indicated, but also generate vast numbers of new jobs.  “This is about jobs.  You know, it’s about blue-collar jobs.  These are good jobs.”

The editors of the Wall Street Journal were no less ecstatic.  In an editorial with the eye-catching headline “Saudi America,” they lauded U.S. energy companies for bringing about a technological revolution, largely based on the utilization of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to extract oil and gas from shale rock.  That, they claimed, was what made a new mega-energy boom possible.  “This is a real energy revolution,” the Journal noted, “even if it’s far from the renewable energy dreamland of so many government subsidies and mandates.”

Other commentaries were similarly focused on the U.S. outpacing Saudi Arabia and Russia, even if some questioned whether the benefits would be as great as advertised or obtainable at an acceptable cost to the environment.

While agreeing that the expected spurt in U.S. production is mostly “good news,” Michael A. Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations warned that gas prices will not drop significantly because oil is a global commodity and those prices are largely set by international market forces.  “[T]he U.S. may be slightly more protected, but it doesn’t give you the energy independence some people claim,” he told the New York Times.

Some observers focused on whether increased output and job creation could possibly outweigh the harm that the exploitation of extreme energy resources like fracked oil or Canadian tar sands was sure to do to the environment. Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress, for example, warned of a growing threat to America’s water supply from poorly regulated fracking operations.  “In addition, oil companies want to open up areas off the northern coast of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean, where they are not prepared to address a major oil blowout or spill like we had in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Such a focus certainly offered a timely reminder of how important oil remains to the American economy (and political culture), but it stole attention away from other aspects of the World Energy Report that were, in some cases, downright scary.  Its portrait of our global energy future should have dampened enthusiasm everywhere, focusing as it did on an uncertain future energy supply, excessive reliance on fossil fuels, inadequate investment in renewables, and an increasingly hot, erratic, and dangerous climate.  Here are some of the most worrisome takeaways from the report.

Shrinking World Oil Supply

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Subhankar Banerjee: Shell Game in the Arctic

6:08 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A blue whale surfaces near a research vessel.

Research vessel tracking blue whales (Photo: Oregon State University / Flickr)

Think of it as a shell game of the worst sort, and we’re the ones being taken for a ride.  Thanks to the burning of the fossil fuels that oil giants like Royal Dutch Shell are increasingly eager to extract from some of the most difficult environments on the planet, the vast quantities of carbon dioxide being sent into the atmosphere, and the way the oceans to absorb CO2, offshore waters are in the process of acidifying.  By the end of this century, ocean acidity could be up by 200%, according to James Barry, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.  It turns out to be a disaster for — you guessed it — shellfish.

A recent study found that “more than half the near-shore waters governed by the California Current system [off the West Coast] are likely to become so acidic throughout the year that many shell-building organisms will be unable to maintain their armor.”  This is obviously bad news for marine creatures, “ranging from tiny plankton to headliners for bouillabaisse and bisque.”  And don’t think it’s just those oysters, clams, and lobsters, either.  Thanks to ocean acidification, coral reefs are, scientists agree, suffering a similar fate now.  They are already globally in significant decline: “In the Caribbean, for example, 75-85% of the coral cover has been lost in the last 35 years.”

On the other hand, one Shell is fortifying itself.  That’s Shell Oil, whose drill ships, as Subhankar Banerjee writes, are heading for America’s Arctic seas, with the blessing of the Obama administration, to begin oil exploration in a region whose ice and fierce weather are a formula for disaster.  Banerjee, a wondrously skilled photographer (whose 2003 exhibit on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History experienced a strange political fate in Bush-era Washington), has spent much time capturing an Arctic world that may soon enough be irreparably damaged.  He has also edited a new book, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (Seven Stories Press), that includes some of his remarkable photos and a no less remarkable line-up of voices from a fast-melting Arctic most of us know far too little about.  He’s the genuine thing.  Unfortunately, so much else is indeed a Shell game. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Banerjee discusses the importance of the Arctic, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Walking the Waters:
How to Bring the Major Oil Companies Ashore and Halt the Destruction of Our Oceans
By Subhankar Banerjee

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Michael Klare: Oil Wars on the Horizon

6:29 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

There has been much discussion recently about the Obama administration’s “pivot” from the Greater Middle East to Asia: the 250 Marines sent to Darwin, Australia, the littoral combat ships for Singapore, the support for Burmese “democracy,” war games in the Philippines (and a drone strike there as well), and so on. The U.S. is definitely going offshore in Asian waters, or put another way, after a decade-long hiatus-cum-debacle on the Eurasian continent, the Great Game v. China is back on.

Presidential Guard in South Sudan. Photo by Steve Evans.

Presidential Guard in South Sudan. Photo by Steve Evans.

While true, however, the importance of this policy change has been exaggerated. At the moment, as it happens, the greatest game isn’t in Asia at all; it’s in the Persian Gulf where, off the coast of Iran and in bases around the region, the U.S. is engaged in a staggering build-up of naval and air power. Most people would have little idea that this was even going on, since it rarely makes its way into the mainstream and even less often onto front pages or into the headlines. The Washington Times, for instance, has been alone in reporting that, for the U.S. military, “war planning for Iran is now the most pressing scenario.” It adds that the “U.S. Central Command believes it can destroy or significantly degrade Iran’s conventional armed forces in about three weeks using air and sea strikes.”

Most of the time, however, you have to be a genuine news jockey or read specialist sites to notice the scale of what’s going on, even though the build-up in the Gulf is little short of monumental and evidently not close to finished. It’s not just the two aircraft carrier task forces now there, but (as the invaluable Danger Room website has reported) the doubling of minesweepers stationed in Bahrain, as well as the addition of minesweeping helicopters and coastal patrol boats that are being retrofitted with Gattling guns and missiles. Throw in new advanced torpedoes for Gulf waters and mini-drone subs; add in newly outfitted units of F-22s and F-15s heading for bases in the Gulf to make up “the world’s most powerful air-to-air fighting team.” And don’t forget the major CIA drone surveillance program already in operation over Iran (and undoubtedly still being bolstered).

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Bill McKibben: How You Subsidize the Energy Giants to Wreck the Planet

6:33 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Just in case you’re running for national office, here are a few basic stats to orient you when you hit Washington (thanks to the invaluable Open Secrets website of the Center for Responsive Politics). In 2011, the oil and gas industries ponied up more than $148 million to lobby Congress and federal agencies of various sorts. The top four lobbying firms in the business were ConocoPhillips ($20.5 million), Royal Dutch Shell ($14.7 million), Exxon Mobil ($12.7 million), and Chevron ($9.5 million).

And note that those figures don’t include campaign contributions, although I can’t imagine why corporate money flowing to candidates or their PACs isn’t considered “lobbying.” When it comes to such donations, the industry has given a total of $238.7 million to candidates and parties since 1990, 75% of it to Republicans. In 2011-2012, Exxon ($992,573) and — I’m sure this won’t shock you — Koch Industries ($872,912) led the oil and gas list.

Or think of this another way: the Senate recently voted down a bill sponsored by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez to end congressional subsidies for the top oil companies. The senators who nixed the measure, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY, $264,700), received approximately $1.48 million in oil and gas campaign contributions in 2011-2012; those who voted for it, a mere $400,000. Not surprisingly, this fits a longer-term congressional voting pattern in which money talks. In fact, it shouts.

And of course, a similar pattern can be seen in the presidential sweepstakes (with a similar Republican to Democrat ratio). In the present election campaign, Mitt Romney has already received $598,000 from oil and gas types, President Obama $131,000. The Koch brothers have, in fact, given $250,000 to Mitt Romney’s super PAC, Restore Our Future, and that’s undoubtedly a small down payment on contributions to come. And as novelist Kurt Vonnegut might once have written, so it goes in Washington.

TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, suggests that the flood of money through, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor, Washington’s infamous “revolving door” is so overwhelming that we don’t even have an adequate language for discussing it, no less our 1% election or our republic of the richest. Tom

Payola for the Most Profitable Corporations in History
And Why Taxpayers Shouldn’t Stand for It Any More
By Bill McKibben

Along with “fivedollaragallongas,” the energy watchword for the next few months is: “subsidies.” Last week, for instance, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez proposed ending some of the billions of dollars in handouts enjoyed by the fossil-fuel industry with a “Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act.” It was, in truth, nothing to write home about — a curiously skimpy bill that only targeted oil companies, and just the five richest of them at that. Left out were coal and natural gas, and you won’t be surprised to learn that even then it didn’t pass. [cont] Read the rest of this entry →

Michael Klare: Welcome to the New Third World of Energy, the U.S.

6:40 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

(photo: tommy-ironic, flickr)

(photo: tommy-ironic, flickr)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb when it comes to energy disasters: if it’s the nuclear industry and something begins to go wrong — from Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 to Fukushima, Japan, after the 2011 tsunami — whatever news is first released, always relatively reassuring, will be a lie, pure and simple. And as the disaster unrolls, it’s not likely to get much better. The nuclear industry is incapable of telling the truth about the harm it does. So when the early stories appear about the next nuclear plant in trouble, whatever you hear or read, just assume that you don’t know the half, not even the quarter, of it.

When it comes to the oil and gas industry and disasters, a similar rule of thumb follows: however bad it first sounds, the odds are it’s going to sound a lot worse before it’s over. (See BP, Deepwater Horizon.) So when you first hear about an oil leak from a Chevron well off the coast of Brazil or from a natural gas well in the North Sea operated by the French oil giant Total and you get those expectable reassurances, they, too, are likely to be nothing but gas.

And here’s the sad thing, you’re going to get all too many chances to test out these simple rules when it comes to bad energy news. After all, as Michael Klare has been writing at this site for years, we’re entering the “tough energy” era. The big energy companies are going to be extracting hydrocarbons in ever more hazardous, difficult-to-reach places like the Arctic and they’re going to be using ever uglier methods to do so.

It’s a guarantee that, however bad the environmental damage we’ve seen so far, it’s only going to get worse as the energy industry despoils various regions to give us our fossil-fuel fix and their mega-profits. As Klare points out, one of those regions is slated to be not in distant Africa, the Persian Gulf, or the Caspian Sea, but right here in the U.S. Klare has been ahead of the energy curve ever since, in the late 1990s, he suggested that we would soon be on a planet embroiled in “resource wars.” His new book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, catches the nightmarish nature of the planet’s last energy boom in a way no one else has. And don’t be surprised if that nightmare lands squarely in your backyard. Tom Read the rest of this entry →