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What the Boom Means for Climate Change

[ 17 ] December 14, 2012 |

Last week was comprehensive exam week at Patterson. This was one of the professional module questions:

Recent reports point to a rapid rise incarbon-based fuel production in the United States and in North America at large. Assuming these forecasts are accurate, what do they portend, if anything, for geopolitics (especially the policies and the interactions of the U.S., Russia, and China).  Will climate change and climate change policies be affected?

I work through my own thoughts on this question over at the Diplomat (in much shorter form than we expected from the students). Long story short, I think that the “boom,” if it materializes in anything like the manner expected, is pretty gruesome news for the prospects of climate change legislation and state action in the United States. Reasons are twofold; on the one hand, access to energy in North America helps break up the “energy independence” coalition that, in imperfect ways, united environmentalist and national security concerns about energy. On the other, it will help increase the strength of domestic energy interests (already quite powerful) that have little to gain from any kind of state action that limits carbon production or emission.

Hope I’m wrong. Thoughts?

  • njorl

    I think you’re probably right.

    On the optimistic side, natural gas is pushing out coal. It tends to be more efficient in terms of producing electricity with lower CO2 emissions than coal. The shale based oil is terrible compared to traditional oil, though.

    If we find ourselves with more natural gas than we can use, it might even push down the cost of electricity, making electric cars more economically viable with respect to gasoline/ diesel cars. This would make a transition to renewables a little easier.

    We might even see cheap energy combined with rising awareness of climate change produce a growing acceptance of carbon taxes.

  • I am quite confidence that you are right. And that it is a complete disaster in the making on any number of levels.

  • DrDick

    One of our Republican state senators is proposing to replace some of the current education funding from property taxes with oil and gas revenues (from royalties for leases on state lands). He explicitly says he wants to make Montanans aware that oil and gas production lowers their taxes. It would seem that big oil and gas are already flexing their muscles.

  • cpinva

    when did any of those countries get “climate change policies”?

    Will climate change and climate change policies be affected?

    a better question would be: “as a consequence of climate change becoming more obvious, due to the increase in recent years, of catastrophic weather events, will any of the aforementioned countries actually begin to develop policies, whose specific purpose is to address climate change coherently?

    my answer: “as long as republicans have the least bit of power in the united states, congress and the white house will do as little as possible, to either:

    a. even admit climate change exists, and is responsible for said catastrophic storms., or

    b. make any attempt to do anything about it, claiming said climate change (if it does exist) is a “natural, cyclical event”, which man cannot effect.

    to do otherwise might give the koch bros. a sad, and our government wouldn’t want to harsh their mellow, it would be a mean thing to do.”

  • Uncle Kvetch

    Personally, I’ve moved climate change over to the “intractable in my lifetime” category, along with Israel/Palestine, gun violence in the US, the mass incarceration state, and the military-industrial complex. There could be tectonic shifts on any and all of these, but I’m 48 and I see no grounds for optimism in the next 30-40 years.

    We’re pretty much fucked.

  • Leeds man

    Long term, I don’t think it matters a damn. At this point, we’re probably fucked even if we stopped using carbon fuels now.

    • I disagree.

      The difference between reducing our carbon use now and saying that the ship has already sailed could be the difference between 50% of the species on earth going extinct and 80% of species going extinct, possibly including humans.

      • Leeds man

        reducing our carbon use

        You mean reducing the rate at which we dump carbon into the air (this seems to be the best we can hope for)? Sure, we should do that and more, so we can buy some time for our descendants to adapt. But we will use all fossil fuel reserves, and the effects will probably be the same, long term.

        • Leeds man

          You mean reducing the rate

          I meant reducing the rate of increase. Fucking calculus.

      • Jon

        Fuck me, but this blog’s a cheery place today. Not that you’re wrong.

  • MattT

    In addition to policy effects mentioned, the natural gas boom has really decimated the solar industry. The technology has been steadily improving, and costs were going down, but they did not go down fast enough to keep up with the price drop in natural gas. Eventually interest will pick up again, but in the meantime tech development has slowed, infrastructure development has slowed, and people who really cared about solar are having to find other jobs.

  • mpowell

    I think there is something you are missing, though. The US is unlikely to do much about climate change, but they certainly weren’t going to do anything about it during a recession, which is part of what this is about. If the Republican party collapses over the course of the next few election cycles and even their state level gerrymandering is buried under a demographic tide and the economy is doing really well, you might have a political environment before 2020 where significant action is possible.

    Increasing usage rates of fossil fuels don’t matter much at all without real political action because we’ll eventually use them all and CO2 has a really long half-life in the atmosphere. So this only really matters to the extend that you think something political might be possible in the next 10 years or so. And from a political perspective, I don’t think cheaper energy is all bad.

  • Ron E.


    It doesn’t really change the fundamentals which are that new action to prevent climate change are basically impossible in the United Status especially if the Senate Democrats punt on eliminating the filibuster. So full speed ahead on geoengineering! It’s our only chance of mitigating global warming.

  • Zaftig Amazon

    Don’t bet on fracking to produce immense amounts of natural gas for the long term. Fracking has been around for a long time, and much of the continental United States, and probably most of southern and central Canada have been thoroughly explored. Those gas wells deplete quickly (five years or less); all those rosy projections of the U.S. rivaling Saudi Arabia within 10 years assume that these gas wells have similar depletion rates to oil fields (20 years or more). There is also the question of EROI, energy returned on investment. Given our infrastructure, the U.S. needs about $8 return/$1 invested to make fossil fuel development feasible (see for more information). At present EROI for oil in the U.S. is about $20/$1 invested (compared to $100/$1 invested in the 1930s). EROI for oil is continuing to drop. Natural gas and tar sands have an even lower EROI. At some point in the near future,we are going to cross that 8:1 threshold, and we will be forced into a painful rejiggering of our infrastructure to deal with scarce expensive energy supplies.

  • We are all going to boil to death in our own waste. Except for those who drown in their own boiling waste.

  • BikeCrasher

    If it’s any consolation, the shale oil “boom” will likely be short-lived. Decline rates for typical tight oil plays are very high, and maintaining or increasing production requires constant new drilling, which is expensive. When the big conventional oil producers start declining in a serious way, tight oil production probably won’t be able to make up for it.

  • Zaftig Amazon

    We have been stampeded into developing non-conventional energy sources, with no discussion of the costs, either financially or environmentally. Few people recognize how unique conventional oil is, in the amount of energy contained, and the relative ease of extraction. The fact that we are extracting shale gas and tar sands highlights how limited our present potential oil resources really are, and how desperate we are to shore up our current infrastructure, which requires cheap oil to continue.