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.
That we are embarking on a new carbon era is increasingly evident and should unnerve us all. Hydro-fracking -- the use of high-pressure water columns to shatter underground shale formations and liberate the oil and natural gas supplies trapped within them -- is being undertaken in ever more regions of the United States and in a growing number of foreign countries. In the meantime, the exploitation of carbon-dirty heavy oil and tar sands formations is accelerating in Canada, Venezuela, and elsewhere.
It's true that ever more wind farms and solar arrays are being built, but here's the kicker: investment in unconventional fossil-fuel extraction and distribution is now expected to outpace spending on renewables by a ratio of at least three-to-one in the decades ahead.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), an inter-governmental research organization based in Paris, cumulative worldwide investment in new fossil-fuel extraction and processing will total an estimated $22.87 trillion between 2012 and 2035, while investment in renewables, hydropower, and nuclear energy will amount to only $7.32 trillion. In these years, investment in oil alone, at an estimated $10.32 trillion, is expected to exceed spending on wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, hydro, nuclear, and every other form of renewable energy combined.
In addition, as the IEA explains, an ever-increasing share of that staggering investment in fossil fuels will be devoted to unconventional forms of oil and gas: Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, shale oil and gas, Arctic and deep-offshore energy deposits, and other hydrocarbons derived from previously inaccessible reserves of energy. The explanation for this is simple enough. The world's supply of conventional oil and gas -- fuels derived from easily accessible reservoirs and requiring a minimum of processing -- is rapidly disappearing. With global demand for fossil fuels expected to rise by 26% between now and 2035, more and more of the world's energy supply will have to be provided by unconventional fuels.
In such a world, one thing is guaranteed: global carbon emissions will soar far beyond our current worst-case assumptions, meaning intense heat waves will become commonplace and our few remaining wilderness areas will be eviscerated. Planet Earth will be a far -- possibly unimaginably -- harsher and more blistering place. In that light, it's worth exploring in greater depth just how we ended up in such a predicament, one carbon age at a time.
The First Carbon Era
The first carbon era began in the late 1800s, with the introduction of coal-powered steam engines and their widespread application to all manner of industrial enterprises. Initially used to power textile mills and industrial plants, coal was also employed in transportation (steam-powered ships and railroads), mining, and the large-scale production of iron. Indeed, what we now call the Industrial Revolution was largely comprised of the widening application of coal and steam power to productive activities. Eventually, coal would also be used to generate electricity, a field in which it remains dominant today.
This was the era in which vast armies of hard-pressed workers built continent-spanning railroads and mammoth textile mills as factory towns proliferated and cities grew. It was the era, above all, of the expansion of the British Empire. For a time, Great Britain was the biggest producer and consumer of coal, the world's leading manufacturer, its top industrial innovator, and its dominant power -- and all of these attributes were inextricably connected. By mastering the technology of coal, a small island off the coast of Europe was able to accumulate vast wealth, develop the world's most advanced weaponry, and control the global sea-lanes.
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