A Black Cloud Over US Energy Independence | 2nd Green Revolution

A Black Cloud Over US Energy Independence

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A recent article in the UK’s The Guardian outlines statements made by BP chief executive Bob Dudley regarding the company’s study on oil production projections. BP aligns with the common stances taken by oil companies in the defense of oil supplies, and this statement is no exception. The study suggests that no end is in sight for the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels, although the sources will shift as recently discovered stores of natural shale gas and shale oil become accessible via fracking.

While environmental impacts of the controversial shale gas recovery practice remain clouded, the increasing availability of domestic energy is expected to lend a large hand in our departure from energy imports. Alongside other domestically available “unconventional oil” sources like tar sands and biofuels, the US is expected to continue weaning itself off imported fuel, leaning on foreign imports for only 1% of fuel by 2030. BP, and others who are nervous about the impending “peak oil” threshold we’ve pictured looming in the near future, see this as good news. It’s understandable why anyone who questions how costly importing oil has been (including US war efforts) could feel this way.  But, just how good is this news?

Alongside the hopeful trends regarding energy independence come some other, less inspiring, figures. For one, only 6-7% of fuel sources in 2030 are expected to come from renewables. Pulling our dollars out of foreign oil and pouring them into other non-renewables stateside seems like another band-aid that will serve to inhibit renewable energy innovation and implementation. Wide federal support of biofuel production was a noble exception in the reign of non-renewables, but turned out to be a bust considering how resource intensive its production is in the first place. Secondly, US energy prices are expected to stay low as fuel remains widely availability. While this may also sound like good news, the maintenance of fallaciously low prices inhibit free market fixes to America’s over-consumption; externality-laden markets will continue failing to force consumers to realize the costs of all that energy use. Without incentive to lay off the fuel, major improvements in global energy conservation are bound to remain a utopian daydream. Thirdly, fears surrounding the economic development expected to lift developing countries out of poverty will undoubtedly be realized in a big way as they contribute increasingly large proportions of the rising global energy demand. China and India alone are expected to be responsible for over half the increase in demand by 2030, a rate anticipated to grow at 1-2% per year until then. Without global policy makers prioritizing sustainable development in growing countries, this trend appears dauntingly inevitable.

And importantly, another big black cloud grows bigger with all this happy news about mounting fuel consumption. It’s called climate change- heard of it BP? We all know where the burning of conventional fossil fuels has gotten us in terms of climatic stability. The slight decrease in conventional oil usage to be made up by alternative non-renewables (like shale oil) means an increasing reliance on fuel that’s even more carbon-intensive. Considering that peak emissions would need to occur by 2015 for “dangerous climate change” to be avoided, the forecasted 25% increase in CO2 emissions by 2030 points towards anything but emissions declines after 2015.

So it seems we have elected to deal with the repercussions of an altered climate by neglecting to ensure emissions declines. With many of the world’s leading climate scientists suggesting that future effects of climate change may have been grossly underestimated, it appears that phenomena including major drought in many of our current agricultural basins, obliteration of coral reefs, ablation of coniferous forests, multi-meter sea level rise, and other expected impacts are becoming less avoidable. A lack of feasibility on political and economic fronts is frequently cited as reason for the meager current motivation to aggressively assuage global emissions. Lists of methods for “dealing” with future climate change have been known to include suggestions of migration. If political and economic infrastructure can’t deal with a shift in energy use towards currently available renewable methods now, how will it deal with forced migrations, major shifts in food system functioning, or extreme drought?

Alvin Weinberg, a physicist from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, wondered the same thing about migration. His reference to “Nierenberg’s cavalier tones” recount comments made by William Nierenberg, lead author of the first major report on climate science issued in 1983 by the National Academy of Sciences[i], who cited migration as a feasible solution to an altered climate:

“The fact is, historical mass migrations have been accompanied by massive suffering, and typically people moved under duress and threat of violence.  So Nierenberg’s cavalier tones, and suggestion that these migrations were essentially benign, flew in the face of historical evidence… [As for migration,] does the Committee* really believe that the United States or Western Europe or Canada would accept the huge influx of refugees from poor countries that have suffered a drastic shift in rainfall pattern? I can’t for the life of me see how historic migrations, which generally have taken place when political boundaries were far more permeable than they are now, can tell us anything about migrations 75 to 100 years from now when large areas lose their capacity to support people.  Surely there will be trouble then”.[ii]


* The Committee referred to was an assembly of National Academy of Sciences members headed by Nierenberg to assess the urgency of climate change implications. Conclusions made by the committee are said to have launched the national climate change “debate”, as they challenged previously accepted scientific views regarding global warming. [i]

[i] http://history.ucsd.edu/_files/base-folder1/From%20Chicken%20Little%20to%20Dr.%20Pangloss.pdf
[ii] Oreskes, Naomi. Merchants of Doubt, http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/

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