Natural gas is easy to take for granted: not only is it invisible, but it is delivered to our homes in pipes we seldom see. We donít have to pull into a filling station every week or so in order to replenish our supply. Indeed, for many of us, our only direct experience of it is the blue flame on our stovetop--though we maintain an indirect connection via our monthly utility bill. We assume that gas will always be there for us--cheap, clean burning, and efficient.
Gas is also increasingly important for electricity generation and for many industrial purposes, including the synthesis of chemical fertilizers. Its many advantages have combined to make it our second most important energy source after oil.
Environmentalists have tended to prefer natural gas to the other fossil fuels because its molecules contain the fewest carbon atoms and thus produce the fewest pollutants (including CO2) when burned. Indeed, many countriesí strategy for meeting the Kyoto carbon mandates has involved switching from using coal to natural gas for power generation. Natural gas is also the cheapest feedstock for producing hydrogen--supposedly the basis for our next energy economy.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day natural gas, like the other fossil fuels, is nonrenewable and thus limited in quantity. As Julian Darley tells us in this extremely important and timely book, the overall picture of gasís future is worrisome. While industry and government officials have led consumers to believe that we can rely on cheap and abundant natural gas for many decades to come, the reality--especially in North America--is that the days of cheap gas are already over. North America has passed its historic peak of production, and the US, the worldís foremost user, will have to begin importing more gas from elsewhere. However, in just a couple of decades extraction rates for the world as a whole will start to decline.
Natural gas is a sunset commodity.
As such, it constitutes an important chapter in the sobering story of energy resource depletion--a story that is already playing out toward dangerous and possibly tragic conclusions in the case of oil. As consuming nations like the US become ever more dependent on imported energy resources, the economic and geopolitical consequences are likely to be dire. The past century has seen numerous oil wars (World War II, the most destructive conflict in history, was in large part fought over access to petroleum reserves). With increasing international trade in diminishing supplies of natural gas, we may begin to see gas wars as well.
My friend and colleague Julian Darley brings exactly the right sensibility to this topic: he has an ecological systems perspective shaped by many years spent studying population and resources. Moreover, he is a journalist who is passionately interested in identifying key issues, researching them thoroughly, talking extensively to the most knowledgeable sources, making credible and informed assessments, and getting the word out to as broad an audience as possible, even if that means bypassing the usual commercial media channels (hence his pioneering effort in establishing the www.globalpublicmedia.com web site).
When, in the summer of 2003, US energy secretary Spencer Abraham decided to convene a blue-ribbon panel to consider the developing North American gas crisis, Julian hopped on a plane to Washington and covered the hearings. When the residents of Vallejo, California defeated an industry plan to site an LNG terminal near their city, he went to Vallejo and talked to the key players. When petroleum investment banker Matthew Simmons began making alarming public statements about a looming gas crisis that is likely to snowball throughout the remainder of the decade, Darley interviewed Simmons repeatedly. It is probably safe to say that, as a result of all this effort, in the past two years Julian has become the most knowledgeable journalist in the world regarding natural gas.
Meanwhile the mainstream media continue to treat natural gas as a minor subject to be addressed somewhere in business pages if at all. Their reporting is typically inconsistent, fragmentary, and thin on context. Even when a front-page story appears (as when Federal Reserve chairman Greenspan declared, in June 2003, that natural gas shortages in coming years could undermine the US economy), readers of the major dailies were given little background information to help them understand the depth and seriousness of the problem.
Hence the need for this book.
Fossil fuels are the foundation for our modern industrial way of life. Their depletion represents a fundamental challenge to the continued existence of much that we take for granted--well-lit and orderly cities, plentiful consumer goods, cheap and abundant food, instant communications, and fast travel. As first North American and then world extraction of natural gas dwindles, our entire global system of production and distribution will be challenged in unprecedented ways.
Julian Darley conveys a dramatic overview of the situation as few others have done; what is more important, he has given long and careful thought to the vital question, How shall we deal with this problem?
As Julian makes clear, a response along the lines of simply searching for substitute energy sources will not be sufficient. We are too many people extracting too many resources too quickly from a finite planet. We must learn to use much less of virtually everything. Yes, we should find alternative energy sources--ones that are renewable and as environmentally benign as possible. But if we assume that we can do so and then continue on as we are now, we are in for a series of rude surprises. Today the declining resources are oil and natural gas; tomorrow they will be fresh water, copper, lead, phosphates, fish, and topsoil. Fossil fuel depletion is merely one of natureís first wake-up bells, letting us know that industrialism as we have been pursuing it is fundamentally unsustainable.
If we are to shake ourselves from slumber and begin to make the needed changes, we first need good information. Our political leaders are incapable of making the hard choices that are desperately needed until the people comprehend our dilemma and demand action. I believe that the people of the world--Americans included--will voluntarily undertake the considerable effort and sacrifice entailed in downsizing, re-localizing, and slowing our industrial way of life if they fully understand the consequences of not doing so. But they will only achieve that understanding if information such as is contained in this book is widely and quickly distributed.
What we do in the next few years in response to gas and oil depletion will largely determine how the remainder of this century unfolds. It would be a mere platitude to say that much is at stake. In fact, virtually everything is at stake--including the survival of our species and of most others. The path we are currently pursuing will entail spiraling global climate change, unending resource wars, and deepening economic chaos. The alternative will require cooperation and self-limitation on a scale never attempted by any human society.
Go ahead. Turn up the burner on your gas range. Meditate on those blue flames and all that they imply. If you have children or grandchildren, think about them and the conditions in which they may be forced to live as the planetís finite hydrocarbon energy resources are burned once and for all, and as competition for what remains intensifies. And think about what you can do to help steer your family, your community, your nation, and the world as a whole toward a survivable transition to a peaceful post-hydrocarbon future.
Santa Rosa, CA