Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Message Decoded, Part 3: Descending the Peak

This week's reflection is part of an extended commentary on a short story I posted a few weeks back. Read on or catch up, if you're curious- it's your choice.

Last week’s exploration of what peak oil is and what it means leaves a lot more to be said. While I’d like to cover a wide variety of topics in my writing, I think it’s only fair to be open to those of you who take the time to read these writings about where I'm coming from. My studies of peak oil inform everything I write about, and figure strongly in my thinking about nature and our place in it.

Those of you who are learning about peak oil here for the first time, be warned: if you start thinking these thoughts seriously, they are going to change your life. My life certainly changed when I realized that it was caught up in currents vaster and wilder than any of us have the power to alter, and that I would have to look sharp and act on my own initiative if I wanted to steer a safe course through the rapids. These are hard thoughts at first, but we're all going to have to think them sooner or later, and the sooner we start thinking them together, the easier it will be. Hence this blog.

After initially turning my world upside down, peak oil has become the bedrock of assumptions on which I base my life. I’m no less anchored in my particular worldview now than the other folks I meet strolling through the park are in theirs; it’s just that I’m viewing a world tilting toward a rocky transition into a low-energy future. It’s humorous now to think back to a conversation I had on this subject a year and a half ago with a stranger I met strolling through the park. (That kind of thing just seems to happen to me). He was a concerned environmentalist type too, and was telling me all kinds of things about the electric train that used to run from our city down to Paris, Ontario, the oil pipeline that now runs through North Dumfries Township and under the Grand River south of Cambridge, and the fact that peak oil isn’t real because of fracking.

This last fact rocked me more than I would have expected. You’d think I would have been overjoyed to learn that my future won’t involve long, ragged societal decline punctuated by energy crises, but instead I walked home churning with a renewed sense of existential angst. It just goes to show how powerfully our assumptions and expectations are shaped by our particular worldview- or, to use the more popular jargon, by our particular idio-logy. In my own way I’m as logical an idiot as everyone else; I just happen to think I'm right.

Since that conversation in the park I've done some research into the phenomenon of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It's a technologically sophisticated method of extracting natural gas and 'tight oil' that begins by drilling downward about a mile, then sideways, to tap into horizontal layers of shale. The actual fracking procedure consists of injecting water, sand, and secret chemical cocktails into the horizontal well, then detonating charges to fracture the shale and release the tiny bubbles of gas or oil it contains. Certain concerns have been raised about the rationality of drilling into the water table and there blowing up chemical solutions whose formulae are protected by patent law, but let us pass these by for now, because the relevance of the technique to the bigger picture of peak oil is huge.

Richard Heinberg, one of the foremost researchers and commentators in this field, has published a wonderful little book on the fracking boom called Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future. I found it at my local library. The book explores the way that fracking developments in the last decade in North Dakota, East Texas, and Pennsylvania, among other places in the continental US, have been promoted as the end of peak oil and America's ticket to once again becoming a net energy exporter. Heinberg and his colleagues delve into the numbers and flatly refute the claims that the US suddenly has a 100-year supply of natural gas- in all probability we'll witness the implosion of the fracking boom in less than 10.

How that misinformation came about is definitely worth a post of its own, but for the purposes of fitting fracking into the larger story, it's worth pointing out that the boom doesn't contradict the predictions of peak oil. It confirms them. Shale gas and tight oil are not easy to extract; if they were, we would have started the age of petroleum by using them instead of conventional crude, which was pretty much oozing out of the ground in the 1860's. Fracking technology got its start in 1866, when throwing explosives into oil wells was patented, and advanced to commercial application stage in 1949, when two companies independently decided to fill wells with water to pack a better shock wave punch. Shale extraction just needed the right economic conditions (a fourfold increase in the price of oil since 2002) to make it take off. So the current uproar about technology saving the day simply isn't true... it's just another distraction.

What's made fracking a viable enterprise in the last ten years has more to do with the depletion of easier sources of oil, and even more to do with Wall Street's need to pile funds into new, heavily hyped investment vehicles in the wake of the 2008 housing crash. Fracking wells are indeed producing fuel, but the industry as a whole is not turning a profit. Capital investments in the natural gas side of the shale boom alone add up to an impressive $42 billion a year, but in 2012 (the most recent data available as of Snake Oil's publishing in 2013) that gas sold for only $33 billion. This isn't a sign of a superpower reclaiming energy independence. It's a sign of a desperate society burning its roof to heat its home.

The story of fracking helps to illustrate an important aspect of peak oil that's often misunderstood. The 'moment' of the peak isn't when we suddenly run out of oil; it's the moment when the bell curve of oil extraction turns the corner from continually increasing production, to flat production, and later to declining production of ever more difficult-to-extract resources. In other words, the peak comes when we've burned through about half the world's recoverable oil, and it's a period of time rather than a moment. The most widely cited estimate is that we entered that period in 2005, and have since been fumbling into the realization that the way of life we've adjusted to over the last century and a half can only be maintained a little while longer by increasingly costly and desperate measures.

Dramatic moments do happen, though, when nations decide to act on the shifting balance of power caused by depletion. In the fall of 1973 the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, seized its moment to trump US power by playing the oil card; in the spring of 2014 the Russian Federation saw its chance to trump EU power with a hand involving the vast quantities of natural gas that flow west through Ukraine. That trick is still on the table, and it's anyone's guess which way it will go. But it's a fairly safe guess that gas is going to play a huge role, and that Russia is getting good and ready to call the US' fracking bluff.

That's why I think the American shale boom is the most important thing in the world just now. Its end will likely mark the beginning of major changes in our world, though what those changes will be only a wizard adept can say. These are the vast and wild currents I mentioned earlier, and while it's useful to have a sense of what lies downstream from here, it isn't worth even a moment's worry. All we can do is help those in our canoe fasten their life jackets and choose our course through the rapids well.

As an apprentice wizard of earth, I've chosen my course, and in the coming weeks I plan on sharing some of the projects I'm undertaking to that end. If Laura Erb is able to complete her mission downriver two hundred years hence, with far fewer resources at her disposal than we have today, I'm not afraid to throw my weight into my paddling and hope for the best. Of course, it might help to throw some of the unnecessary cargo overboard- but rather than overextending a good metaphor, I'll leave that discussion for next week.


  1. One thing that kind of intrigues me is how little it actually bothers me to think of major changes to modern civilization. A life with a lot fewer material goods and more physical labour would be a massive adjustment, but it doesn't sound terrifying unliveable either.

    Quite a small number of the comforts of modern life would go a long way, for me. Give me a radio with access to good news and documentary programs, and a functional public library system, and I can handle a lot of material deprivation. Add a certain amount of health care and I've got the majority of what I really feel like I need, in terms of modern comforts. Most of the rest is a bonus.

  2. Your comments about fracking made me think about a visit to Ohio last year, to an area where fracking is big business. An area where people rely on drinking water from wells. A controversial business. I wonder whether before the "Peak Oil" crisis that you speak of happens, we will hit a "Peak Water" crisis. From disrupting/poisoning the water table in some places, and in other places, from overconsumption. Huge agricultural plantations and golf courses in the deserts of California have lowered their water tables, and climate change has shifted rainfall patterns, so there are huge water shortages. I read the same about Australia, and parts of Africa.

  3. Further to that...just as we go for more and more costly sources of oil, California is building desalination plants next to the ocean, which is a very labour intensive way to get fresh water... http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_25859513/nations-largest-ocean-desalination-plant-goes-up-near

  4. Hi Dylan,
    Again a great read. I caught myself nodding my head all the way through. I am with you .

  5. Basia, I couldn't agree more. Although I'd like to have a stable supply of locally sourced food thrown into the mix.

    I grew up going to summer camp once a year, and a large part of what camp taught me was how far an old-fashioned swimming hole and a few silly skit props can go toward making a very simple way of life fantastic rather than just liveable.

  6. Carol, that's an interesting article. The connection I see is that fracking and desalination, while technically feasible projects, are both facing challenges paying for themselves. And fracking requires cheap water, while desalination requires cheap energy...

    My guess is that an economic system that connects wildly different elements through a single medium, the dollar, will price out consumption of those elements at roughly the same pace. So rather than a sudden financial collapse, drought, and energy famine, we'll see golf course irrigation become uneconomical, then private lawn-watering, twenty-minute showers, water-intensive agriculture, shock by small shock, until we're forced by rising costs to live within our means. A harsh forecast but not necessarily a dire one.

  7. "Basia, I couldn't agree more. Although I'd like to have a stable supply of locally sourced food thrown into the mix."

    LOL, yes of course. I didn't mention food because I was specifically trying to think of what 'modern-high tech- civilization' things I most value and would most want to find a way to make possible.