The world’s energy outlook has changed greatly in just a few years. But what about the years ahead?
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From the click of a light switch filling a room with a fluorescent glow, to aromatic steam rising from an espresso machine, to an engine jolted into combustion with the turn of a key, to streetlights that illuminate an early morning commute, to keystrokes that etch words on a backlit screen…
Few elements of a modern routine would happen without on-demand energy—wired and piped into homes, infused into batteries, pooling in fuel tanks, burning in factories and furnaces.
The developed-nation lifestyle—enjoyed by perhaps 15 percent of nations and sought after by many of the remaining 85 percent—demands large-scale use of the planet’s energy resources, primarily oil, natural gas, and coal.
But just how an energy-hungry world population—with some segments now getting their first taste of affluence and modern conveniences—can continue to function is a huge question on the minds of many leaders of politics and industry.
For a number of years, seemingly dwindling supplies of energy resources—particularly oil—were a source of great uncertainty. Books with foreboding titles such as Peak Oil and the Second Great Depression (2010-2030) burgeoned and painted visions of developed nations regressing toward 18th-century conditions.
In the December 2008 issue of this magazine, an article titled “If the Oil Runs Out…” examined the “peak oil” theories that were widespread at the time, which warned that oil reserves would dry up within a few decades. It stated, “Oil is a nonrenewable, finite resource. From the moment that man began to harvest it from the earth, the supply of petroleum has been shrinking—and the rate of decrease is increasing every year.”
Some sources still envision the possibility of eventual shortages: “In nations like China and India…‘Demand is growing at a rapid pace as a result of the developing world growing richer and the growing middle class there,’ [Sally Benson, director of Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project] explained. ‘That’s a good thing in terms of human quality of life. But it also means that by perhaps 2050 we’ll need double the energy that we use today’” (National Geographic).
Let that sink in: double our current global energy use!
A tug-of-war has played out in a number of forums between fossil-fuel pessimists and optimists. Energy analyst Chris Nelder wrote in The Atlantic, “It’s absolutely true that we will never ‘run out’ of oil—there will always be oil resources that are too expensive to produce that will stay in the ground—but since 2004 we have seen the undisputable evidence that affordable oil is slipping away from us, and that the rising price of oil has contributed to the stalling of the global economy. If the world could tolerate $300 a barrel, there might be no reason for concern about future oil supply. But it cannot.”
To some degree, the health of the energy industry can be gauged by its consumption and production in the United States, still the world’s most oil-thirsty nation.
America has been the number one oil importer since the 1970s, determined to prevent gas pumps from running dry as they did during that decade’s OPEC embargo.
But U.S. oil consumption will soon be overtaken by China for several reasons. As expected, China’s demand continues to grow on pace with that of its massive population. Also unsurprisingly, America’s oil consumption has been declining: “Total oil consumption peaked at 20.7 million barrels per day in 2004. By 2010, the most recent year tracked in the CIA Factbook, consumption had fallen by nearly a tenth” (The Boston Globe). Higher fuel prices, a trend away from gas-guzzling SUVs, increased fuel efficiency across the board, and post-Great Recession shrinking incomes are all factors.
However, in a development few could foresee just decades ago, America’s imports have also been dropping quickly: “Last year, the United States imported only 40 percent of the oil it consumed, down from 60 percent in 2005” (ibid.).
What has made this possible?
Enter the modern oil and gas boom.
It started in Canada’s oil sands. Northern Alberta’s Athabasca, Cold Lake, and Peace River deposits together form the world’s largest single oil deposit. They hold up to 2.5 trillion barrels—enough to fuel Canada for centuries or the whole world for decades. When the process of extracting bitumen from the remote region’s stew of silica, water and clay became cost-effective, this province alone became an energy superpower. For some years now, Canada has provided more crude to the U.S. than Saudi Arabia.
Next was the advancement of fracking—hydraulic fracturing—to access what is called “tight oil,” which is bound up in shale deposits and tight silt stone that was once too difficult and expensive to reach. This has opened up enormous prospects in underground oil shale regions across the United States. Operations on the Bakken Shale Formation, underneath parts of North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan, have led the way. Many other such formations are found across North America and the world.
How much has this changed America’s outlook?
The Boston Globe stated: “…by next year, according to the US Energy Information Administration, the United States will need to import only 30 percent of its oil. That’s been driven by an almost overnight jump in domestic oil production, which had remained static at about 5 million barrels per day for years, but is at 7 million now and will be at 8.5 million by the end of 2014. If these trends continue, the United States will be able to supply all its own energy needs by 2030 and be able to export oil by 2035. In fact, according to the government’s latest projections, the country is on track to become the world’s largest oil producer in less than a decade.”
In an opinion piece titled “Oil’s Well, Let U.S. Export It,” writer Mackubin Thomas Owens argues for a lifting of the Ford-era ban on exporting oil, citing the new rosy outlook on supply: “…‘technically-recoverable’ U.S. oil reserves, according to a 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service, amount to 164.1 billion barrels in traditional geological deposits. The Energy Information Administration reports there is another 58 billion barrels in oil shale deposits. Thanks largely to the surge in shale production, U.S. oil production expanded in 2012 more than in any year in the history of the domestic oil industry, climbing even higher this year. This rise in U.S. production has helped keep world oil prices down since production has lagged in many other parts of the world.
“But we have barely begun to tap our vast domestic oil reserves. For example, except for a few exploratory wells, production in California’s giant Monterey shale—comprising two-thirds of U.S. total shale-oil reserves—hasn’t even begun. Of course, environmentalists are opposing exploitation of these reserves, despite the fact that California faces substantial financial and budgetary challenges” (Boston Herald).
On top of the oil are huge quantities of shale gas, which can be recovered from the same formations along with crude. The Marcellus-Utica shale, which lies beneath a large chunk of the northeast U.S., is especially promising in this regard.
But the United States is far from alone in its newfound resources. A June 2013 report from the International Energy Agency counted “345 billion barrels of world shale oil resources and 7,299 trillion cubic feet of world shale gas resources.” And even this is only a partial tally! The report “does not assess many prospective shale formations, such as those underlying the large oil fields located in the Middle East and the Caspian region.”
Russia has even more shale oil in the ground than America, and China may have about as much shale gas. However, only the U.S. and Canada are at this time processing them on a scale that produces economic benefit.
According to some, these shale oil and gas finds—widely called “revolutionary”—will still not be the biggest 21st-century energy story. Natural gas can also be found elsewhere, and in mind-boggling quantities.
“The so-called shale gas revolution has changed the face of the energy industry in the United States…But shale gas deposits as a proportion of global natural gas supplies may seem minor in comparison to methane hydrates.
“Methane hydrates form at a specific range of low temperatures and high pressures. They occur in the Arctic permafrost and along continental slopes, typically at water depths greater than 500 meters (1,640 feet).”
“Estimates for total methane hydrate gas in place are rough, but range anywhere from 3,000 trillion cubic meters to more than 140,000 trillion cubic meters…(In 2011, global natural gas consumption stood at approximately 3.4 trillion cubic meters.)”
“Methane hydrates are widely distributed throughout the globe, including locations that do not have substantial conventional natural gas reserves. Deposits have been discovered off the coasts of Japan, India, South Korea and Chile, in the Gulf of Mexico and off the southeastern coast of the United States” (Stratfor).
Japan is on the cutting edge of exploiting this ice-bound gas, motivated partly by the impact of decommissioned nuclear plants after the 2011 tsunami. “…commercial production is still unlikely for at least 10 to 15 years. Japan believes that commercial production will be possible by 2018, while the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that countries with the ‘political will’ to pursue methane hydrates could see production by around 2025” (ibid.).
Some are skeptical of methane hydrates’ future altogether. Mr. Nelder wrote, “Japan’s experiment so far has taken 10 years and $700 million to produce four million cubic feet of gas, which is worth about $16,000 at today’s U.S. gas prices, or about $50,000 at today’s prices for imported LNG in Japan. At this point, it is an enormously expensive experimental pilot project, and nothing more” (The Atlantic).
Of course, methane hydrates are still hydrocarbon fossil fuels, which come with considerable baggage. For decades, many have called for a move away from them and toward cleaner energy sources.
Regardless of the source of oil and natural gas, critics see a serious downside. The emissions from these sources are blamed for increasing global temperatures and a host of other problems.
A recent International Energy Agency report raised a dire warning that, without major adjustments, a much-discussed international plan to limit temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would be doomed to fail. “In May, it was reported that the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii hit 400 parts per million, a high in human history, and the IEA’s goal is to help ensure that the level does not exceed 450 ppm by 2020. But even if that goal is met, it said, there is still only a 50 percent chance of keeping to the 2°C limit” (National Geographic).
This has prompted both environmentally minded researchers and entrepreneurs as well as investors to develop a number of so-called green, or renewable, energy sources. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, these include:
Are any of these technologies viable energy solutions? How about all of them combined—would they suffice to power a growing population?
On paper, green energy sources seem wonderful. Surveys show that a majority of Americans are in favor of cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels. But each one has limitations that make it far from a panacea, and in large part explain its lack of widespread use.
Hydropower? This is a fairly mature technology, with many of the projects that are feasible and affordable to undertake already done. In addition, there is growing concern over its effects on waterway ecosystems.
Solar power? While increasing, it is well below 1 percent of total global energy output, largely due to production costs for PV equipment.
Ethanol? It produces fewer miles per gallon than gasoline, with the side effect of reducing supplies of food and feed corn. In addition, considerable amounts of natural gas are used in its production.
Hybrid/electric cars? While also gaining some popularity, these command only 1 percent to 2 percent of total market share in the U.S., according to Experian Automotive. And, despite the air of environmentally conscious superiority projected by some who drive them, the rare earth elements needed for their batteries are retrieved through damaging mining practices—albeit ones that Western drivers never see: “Vast waste ponds scar the landscape on the banks of the Yellow River, 190 kilometers from the city of Baotou in China. Visible from space, the Bayan-Obo iron mine in Inner Mongolia is the world’s largest source of rare earths, and the Chinese companies supplying them employ acid to dissolve them out of ore rock that often also contains radioactive elements like thorium, radium or even uranium. Intensive boiling with strong acids—repeated thousands of times because the elements are so chemically similar—finally separates out the neodymium, dysprosium or cerium” (Scientific American).
Wind energy? The economics do not add up: “The effervescence of the wind industry [in 2012]…was partly because the main federal tax credit for wind power was going to expire in December, and companies raced to qualify before the deadline. The Production Tax Credit (PTC) gave producers 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity generated during the first ten years of a turbine’s life. In January another year of the PTC, worth $12 billion, was wrung out of the deal by which the federal government avoided the fiscal cliff…without the PTC wind is uncompetitive with other forms of energy” (The Economist).
This last point illustrates a common Achilles’ heel. Green costs more! Realistically, without government incentives, many are unable or unwilling to pay higher prices for renewable energy.
Craig Pirrong, energy markets director for the University of Houston’s Global Energy Management Institute, summarized it this way: “‘All renewables are cursed with fundamental problems that make their future stand-alone (i.e., unsubsidized) viability as anything but a marginal energy source highly questionable’” (The Wall Street Journal).
For the foreseeable future, nothing can match fossil fuels in terms of cost to the consumer. And—unless there are major flaws with current estimates—the supply appears more abundant than previously imagined.
As far as rate of use, projections show energy consumption continuing to decline in richer countries and increase in developing nations. So it would seem there is smooth sailing ahead…or is there? Can these sunny forecasts be trusted?
Since prosperity and progress depend on energy availability and use, these are serious questions. And in a world so dependent on energy-intensive industry for necessities such as water, food and healthcare, the stakes riding on their answers could not be higher.
Human forecasters—relying on science, patterns from the past and probabilities—could not predict that the United States would be on its way to becoming the planet’s main exporter of oil. So, whether one is simply looking for investment opportunities or seeking to know what life will be like for his children or grandchildren, such forecasts—even from the most astute observers—have limits.
But there is an authoritative source on the future of mankind, which usually gathers dust on shelves of homes around the world. Does this sound like outlandish nonsense or superstition? Be careful not to draw conclusions too quickly!
The Bible’s New Testament records a statement about the end of the current order—human civilization as we know it. It comes from Jesus Christ, who is both the most well-known and least understood Teacher who ever lived. His disciples (students) asked Him for signs that the end was near. Among several that He listed were “wars and rumors of wars” (Matt. 24:6; Mark 13:7).
The energy optimists’ and environmentalists’ models fall apart when conflict breaks out between nations. War greatly diminishes concerns about protecting the environment, as self-preservation takes first priority.
One great cause for war has been battles over resources. A number of other passages make clear that regardless of how much energy nations such as the United States and Canada discover, access and generate, it will ultimately benefit other nations.
In both Old and New testaments, it is revealed that three power blocs will coalesce at the end of the age, located in the “north,” “south” and “east.” (See Daniel 11 and Revelation 16:12.) But “the West” is entirely absent from these prophecies.
The northern bloc, now well along in development but generally unnoticed, will be the most powerful economic engine the world has ever seen. Revelation describes its staggering wealth: “The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble, and cinnamon, and odors, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men” (18:12-13).
Finishing this list of the finest commodities from all corners of the globe are two that are not merely “goods”—but will be treated as such: “slaves” and “souls [lives] of men.” Yes, slavery and human trafficking, currently a sizeable but largely invisible problem, will be an integral part of this system. With abundant cheap labor, nearly anything is possible—including the extraction of oil and gas from deposits around the globe.
But thankfully this system’s dominance will be short-lived. And the terrible suffering that occurs under it will give way to the most prosperous period mankind has ever seen.