Excerptfrom Chapter 1: Introduction
Why “High Noon”?
For those who haven’t seen the film High Noon, Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a man unwilling to run away from a nasty set of problems--the worst of whom, Frankie Miller, is due to arrive in town on the noon train. Kane’s problems are also the problems of the people in his town, but they refuse to confront the facts, hide in the comfort of their homes, and won’t help him deal with reality. They hope that everything will be all right if they leave well enough alone. In the end, one person does help Will, namely, his wife. The cowardice of the townspeople is chilling, as is their willingness to leave to others what they should really do themselves. Unfortunately, being a cowboy film, albeit one of the best, homicide and violence are the methods chosen to settle matters.
In North America, particularly the United States and Canada, there are some energy problems coming to town that are every bit as menacing as Miller’s gang. So far, the United States has dealt with the oil problem by using corporate and military force--most dreadfully, with the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. As so often happens with violent solutions, however, things didn’t go quite according to plan, and by early 2004, though oil production has risen from immediate post-war levels, operations are still plagued by sabotage and technical problems. Canada’s response to U.S. oil supply difficulties was to pump its own easy oil flat out and sell more than half to the United States. But with the easy oil in decline, Canada and the United States believe that the Albertan tar sands will be their savior. That belief may not be well founded, but the reasons why go far beyond the cold Canadian tar sands and will soon touch the whole world.
The U.S. energy story is complex and not very edifying in places, but it is full of wild and unexpected twists. The strangest is that the worst immediate problem confronting the United States (and Canada) is not oil, but natural gas. It is a natural gas shortage that could seriously interrupt the U.S. economy, though there are several other impressive candidates, including a dollar crash and global oil peak. ("Peak" refers to a peak in extraction, followed by inexorable decline. Peak production can apply to the extraction of any naturally occurring fluid or gas deposit).
The information to support the case being made here is largely in the public domain, but few have noticed. In September 2003, the National Petroleum Council, a group of oil and gas industry advisers, released their eighteen-month-long study of the state of North American gas supply and demand. It should have been at the top of the best-seller list. As it was, just a handful of energy analysts reviewed it, and they are calling out loud and clear that the Titanic is about to hit the iceberg, but, if you will pardon the mixture of metaphors, mission control is not listening.
The coming shortage of natural gas in the United States and Canada, compounded by global oil peak and decline, will try the energy and economic systems of both countries to their limits. It will plunge first the United States, then Canada, into a carbon chasm, a hydrocarbon hole, from which they will be hard put to emerge unscathed.
A Great Triumph
The United States appeared to make it through the 1970s oil shocks not only unshaken, but immensely strengthened. Later, its great theoretical enemy, the Soviet Union, lay vanquished after the collapse of Communism. The United States had won, and the twenty-first century would now certainly be America’s for the taking. However, despite appearances, and triumphalist rhetoric to the contrary, the United States was in reality grievously wounded by the oil shocks. Even so, after 1980, and further oil price increases following the 1979 Iranian revolution, instead of instituting a program of even more vigorous energy constraints, the United States embarked on a tide of unparalleled waste and consumption, so that twenty five years later, it now imports more oil than at any time in its history. But at least it can import that oil easily. Natural gas cannot be imported on demand; it requires planning long in advance, especially if it comes over the ocean as liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Having ignored all the warnings and squandered two decades of planning time, the United States is left with gas from across the oceans as the only possible business-as-usual option. But it is too late.
Two well-respected energy experts, the world’s foremost private energy banker, Matt Simmons, and energy analyst Andrew Weissman, have been warning with great conviction and evidence that the system is heading for disaster. They have both said that North American gas supply numbers show that economic growth in America is under severe threat. Simmons went further to say that, compounded by the global peak in oil production, the world economy will be badly constrained, and once the full force of oil decline begins to set in, growth as we know it will be over. These men are certainly not anticapitalist radicals, indeed one of them has been an adviser to President George W. Bush. Although the petroleum industry has a history of creating scares to drive up the price of oil and gas, such tactics are unwise when the supply is constrained by geology.
For the United States, and by extension for Canada and Mexico, high noon has indeed arrived for natural gas. Why should the rest of the world care? The United States, at least, is not a popular nation in the world community at present. Its seemingly unstoppable violence is visited on friend and foe alike, as the British, Canadians, Hungarians, Afghanis, Iraqis, and countless others have witnessed. All this violence for what? Once there were ideological overlays, however specious, but now it is becoming clearthat American aggression is in great part about energy, once mainly oil, but increasingly natural gas as well. Even if the world doesn’t want to care much about all the human suffering caused by the global war for energy, individual nations should worry that they may be the next target if they have oil and gas, and if not, that they will be competing with the United States for the limited supply of fossil hydrocarbons, the stuff that makes the modern industrial world work.
For North America, now racing full bore into the carbon chasm (a huge gap between high energy demand and falling supply), the question boils down to whether or not to agree to build dozens of new liquefied natural gas importing terminals. This will force the United States to become ever more dependent on foreign and mainly hostile nations for an energy source that supplies a quarter of its needs. Canada and Mexico will be faced with similar dilemmas, though less open to hostility.
The rest of the world is not far behind. There is still a degree of choice left for some about whether to make the same mistake as North America (and Britain) and switch en masse to the last great hydrocarbon, natural gas. If this is the chosen path, it will lead inexorably, as global natural gas peaks and declines, to a future dominated by nuclear power and coal, which will even more surely condemn our planet to global warming and grim battles for the remaining oil and gas that could all too easily trigger global warfare.
Or else we could choose, at last, to try to live within our daily ration of energy supplied by the sun, however ludicrous this may sound. We could choose to end the cycle of violence that has characterized much of recorded human history and that has reached an astonishing crescendo of destruction in the last hundred years. These energy questions are some of the starkest and most historic ever placed before the human race. However we choose to answer the energy question, the problem of human overpopulation, so long a taboo subject for almost everyone, will resurface because of the coming shortages of natural gas and oil. This time we will not be able to smother the issue with fossil-fueled food.
The supply constraint of natural gas is so serious and coming so soon in North America that whichever way the LNG situation is resolved, Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans will be faced with using less natural gas. This is not a rerun of the 1973 energy shortages; it is much more serious and permanent. If by a miracle of heroism and fortitude, Americans decide not to go for acquiring massive new supplies of LNG, not to “globalize gas” as market proponents describe it, then other grave questions will have to be faced. In fact, they will have to be faced anyway, but this will be the last time, because after natural gas, there are no more easy energy bonanzas left in our planet’s crust, and now the first indisputable warnings about the limits to global natural gas reserves have appeared. In both 2001 and 2002, for the first time ever, more natural gas was used than found. Exactly twenty years ago, the same thing happened with oil: more was used than found. It wasn’t a blip, it was a permanent trend. The present century has seen very little oil discovered, and 2003 was the worst year for vital, large discoveries in many decades. Now the same thing is happening to natural gas. It is the dread hand of depletion writing on the wall; we can ignore it for sure, but it will not ignore us.
A Global Problem
There are many other questions raised by natural gas, this invisible fuel and feedstock. Some of them are quite bizarre, many are curious and surprising. But none of them are nice surprises. Although each country will face a different set of questions, there is nowhere on earth that will not be affected in some way by the issues raised here. Like it or not, personal and policy decisions will have to be made everywhere in regard to natural gas. Although it is late, now would be a good time to learn something about natural gas, to understand why we should all start caring about an energy source too long taken for granted.
Much of this book concerns the nature of natural gas, its disposition, its supply, and why we demand so much of it. But though the book is about natural gas, it is also not about natural gas. Rather, it is about energy and the future of humanity. It is about life itself, and some of the limits to the systems that support our industrial way of life. The final chapter will explore why economic growth, one of the strongest drivers of increased gas consumption, is forced upon us. I shall also discuss how the public--given that our institutions have mostly failed us--can meet the extraordinary challenge of using both less natural gas and less energy. Many people do accept that we live in a limited world, and want to learn to live in it without damaging it any further, but we shall have to rebuild those broken institutions and infrastructures first. Some, indeed, may have to be invented for the first time.
This will be a journey, at times complex but also intriguing and strange. It will be necessary to pick a way through a jungle of confusing terms and numbers, so that we can begin to understand what the global petroleum corporations, and many of their client governments, do not want to us to understand or ask any awkward questions about.
Above all, the fate of Gary Cooper in High Noon should be avoided. He couldn’t persuade the public to help him, and he had to resort to lone violence. In the end, in his view, he had no choice. All too often, if we leave a situation until too late, the best options may be closed.