Drill Baby Drill: Can Unconventional Fuels Usher in a New Era of Energy Abundance?

Summery and Commentary by Heather King

By J. David Hughes. Copyright © 2013 (February) by Post Carbon Institute. All rights reserved. Original paper available at: http://www.postcarbon.org/reports/DBD-report-FINAL.pdf

A geophysicist and former research manager with the Geological Survey of Canada, J. David Hughes presents here an exhaustive and extensively referenced treatise examining the production and consumption of fossil fuels as the primary engine of global economic activity. The report, produced by the California think tank, Post Carbon Institute, provides a historical and technical analysis of unconventional fuels and their real-world potential to replace conventional oil and gas in global – and particularly US – energy production, in both the short and long term. Hand in hand with detailed technical information, Hughes addresses the pro-fracking rhetoric used to promote the potential of unconventional fossil fuels – most commonly shale gas and tight oil (shale oil) – to relieve (particularly the US’s) dependence upon (imported and dwindling supplies of) conventional oil and gas. Based on data from energy industry and government reports, both globally and from various resource basins throughout the US, Hughes’ presentation systematically demonstrates how industry projections that newly accessible reserves of unconventional fuels could provide the US with “100 years of gas” (p. i) are inaccurate, and possibly even misguided (see excerpt: p. 50 – ‘Shale Gas – Key Takeaways’, below).

Hughes’ discourse leads purposefully through discussion of energy production in the context of global economies and politics.  He touches only briefly on environmental concerns.  His observations penetrate the vast and complex network of an ever-expanding global economy inextricably entwined with fossil-fuel powered energy production, while his forecasts and conclusions shed light on the implications of increasing fuel costs and diminishing future supplies. With the aid of plentiful tables and graphs, we are shown a highly detailed ‘big picture’ of the past, present, and projected future of fossil fuel demand, production, and consumption, in a trajectory of continuous and accellerating economic growth which, despite political and energy industry rhetoric to the contrary, Hughes argues cannot be sustained.

He acknowledges that there do exist in North America and elsewhere significantly large untapped reservoirs of unconventional fossil fuels, but that these large ‘tanks’ have small and inhibitively inaccessible ‘taps’. Hughes additionally points out that development of these reserves is increasingly expensive and damaging to the environment. Overall, he argues that to carry on along our current economic path in a manner of ‘business-as-usual’ and unrestrained growth is to turn a blind eye to the real issue at hand: our ever-expanding global economy will consume far more energy than can be produced in the future from any source. He concludes that what is really needed is an economic make-over: a new framework that will consume less energy, find new and innovative ways to use more efficiently the energy we must, and develop alternative energy sources that can work in concert with the remaining fossil fuel reserves that exist.

There’s a reality check here, reminding us what we all inescapably know: fossil fuels remain fossil fuels, whether conventional or not, and as such are a finite resource. The subtext of Hughes’ conclusion is that to foster continued dependence upon new reserves of unconventional fuels is to proceed full speed into a dead end. At the end of the day, even with all economic and environmental considerations aside, and no matter how much the oil and gas industry may have us believe otherwise, the available supply of unconventional fossil fuels, too, shall run dry — in about 25 years, based on Hughes’ forecasts of diminishing supply coupled with escalating demand. That’s a considerable difference from the 100-year projections put forward by what he has termed the ‘vested interests’ of the oil and gas industries. In response to the question posed in the report’s title, “Can unconventional fuels usher in a new era of energy abundance?” Hughes arrives at an unequivocal ‘No’. By his calculations, there is simply no long- term future in fossil fuels, of any kind.

What, then, we cry, shall we do? While he is brief on the subject, and in no way pretends to have an answer, Hughes in the end lends his voice to a growing chorus chanting that the solution to our present energy versus environment dichotomy lies not only in renewables, but also in a new paradigm of social thought: one that perceives in new and different ways how energy is produced and consumed.  He allows that unconventional fuels – those which have become accessible only in recent years at great economic and environmental expense, via newly developed and admittedly problematic extraction methods such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing – have a place in the near future as a short-term bridge: a tool to facilitate a global transition from energy dependence upon fossil fuels to a more sustainable economic platform based on energy supplied by renewable resources. Perhaps more poignantly, he observes that to achieve that transition, some carefully considered energy and environmental trade-offs will very likely have to be made.

Ultimately, we are reminded that our only possible sustainable future lies in energy derived from renewable sources.  Hughes doesn’t predict exactly what those sources will be, only emphasizes the imperative that we begin to rethink our patterns of energy use and supply; and that those of us in the high-energy-consuming developed nations might begin by assessing our excessive energy use and demand, and find ways to reduce the amount we consume.  Given the dual realities of shrinking fossil fuel supplies and increasing environmental degradation, it’s time for our industry leaders, politicians, and policy-makers to wake up and smell the well burning dry; and to turn their collective attention toward enabling the development of viable alternative energy resources.  Numerous technologies already exist.  An influx of capital investment, along with a bit of corporate and social will, would go a long way toward bringing them fairly quickly into mainstream energy production.  The final take-away message here may be that our efforts and investment as a global society could be more wisely and constructively directed toward developing an infrastructure that will enable our transition to a renewable resources future, than toward acquiring and burning ever more finite oil and gas.

Recommended Highlights:

p.3 – The Context of Energy Production and Consumption – KEY TAKEAWAYS

p.50 – Shale Gas – KEY TAKEAWAYS

p.78 – Tight Oil (Shale Oil) – KEY TAKEAWAYS

p.108 – Other Unconventional Oil – KEY TAKEAWAYS

p.109 – Tar Sands – KEY TAKEAWAYS

p.142 – Other Unconventional Gas – KEY TAKEAWAYS

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