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Environment

About That New Energy Revolution

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJuly 19, 2012 7:41 PM

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It's not in the headlines or on the evening news, but there's a big story that some people are discussing. And it's going to get bigger and matter way more than the heat waves and extreme weather that everyone in climate circles is buzzing about this summer. To catch up on this story, you should read the series of posts in July by Walter Russell Mead, which he has titled, The Energy Revolution. From part one:

A world energy revolution is underway and it will be shaping the realities of the 21st century when the Crash of 2008 and the Great Stagnation that followed only interest historians. A new age of abundance for fossil fuels is upon us. And the center of gravity of the global energy picture is shifting from the Middle East to"¦ North America.

In part two, Mead writes that, "we are now entering a time when energy abundance will be an argument for continued American dynamism." The bright future for America he foresees is based on this:

By some estimates, the United States has more oil than Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran combined, and Canada may have even more than the United States. A GAO report released last May (pdf link can be found here) estimates that up to the equivalent of 3 trillion barrels of shale oil may lie in just one of the major potential US energy production sites. If half of this oil is recoverable, US reserves in this one deposit are roughly equal to the

known reserves of the rest of the world combined

.

Mead's posts (he is now up to part 3) follow a report published in June by Leonard Maugeri titled, "Oil: The Next Revolution." Skeptics of Maugeri's bullish analysis might point out that he is a former oil industry executive. He is currently a Research Fellow of the Geopolitics of Energy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. The Project, incidentally, is funded by BP. Be that as it is, Maugeri's analysis has convinced George Monbiot that the world is not about to run out of oil anytime soon. His recent Guardian column on the report is headlined: "We were wrong on peak oil. There's enough to fry us all." A more guarded outlook of the projected "energy abundance" (including the implications for climate change) is offered by energy policy expert Michael Levi in the current issue of Foreign Policy. For example, Levi writes:

As a mere matter of scale, projections that the United States will reclaim the title of world's largest oil producer are entirely plausible, though hardly guaranteed.

Last week, Levi was one of the assembled experts for a panel at the New America Foundation called, "Scrutinizing a Potential New Golden Age of Oil, and What it Could Mean for the Next President." At his Foreign Policy blog, journalist Steve LeVine (who convened the New America panel) writes:

A growing number of key energy analysts say that technological advances and high oil prices are leading to a revolution in global oil. Rather than petroleum scarcity, we are seeing into a flood of new oil supplies from some pretty surprising places, led by the United States and Canada, these analysts say.

LeVine's post is titled, "The Era of Oil Abundance." You getting the picture? Now this is not exactly news to those who have been following stories like this (in the NYT) and this (in the WSJ). And there's the new gas age already well underway, of which The Economisttakes stock of in its current issue. Combined, these developments have me recalling this Salonpiece from Michael Lind last year, which begins:

Are we living at the beginning of the Age of Fossil Fuels, not its final decades? The very thought goes against everything that politicians and the educated public have been taught to believe in the past generation. According to the conventional wisdom, the U.S. and other industrial nations must undertake a rapid and expensive transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy for three reasons: The imminent depletion of fossil fuels, national security and the danger of global warming. What if the conventional wisdom about the energy future of America and the world has been completely wrong?

If this proves to be the case, then will it really be--to borrow from James Hansen--game over for the climate? Faced with such a prospect, might we soon be forced to take geoengineering seriously? Oliver Morton of The Economist is at work developing this argument. I think he's on to something here:

At a recent meeting Rob Socolow suggested that we should divide the world into people who do or don't think the risks of climate change are an urgent matter and people who do or don't think decarbonisation is difficult (pdf). A lot of the green movement is in the do/don't quadrant "“ do take climate change seriously, don't think getting rid of fossil fuels is all that difficult ("just needs political will," dontcha know). People opposed to current or intensified action on climate (sceptics, lukewarmers, status-quo-ers, whatever) are in the don't/do quadrant "“ don't see climate change as a serious risk, do think decarbonisation is difficult, or at least costly. Like Rob, I am in the do/do quadrant. I do think climate change poses serious risks, and I do think decarbonisation is difficult. That is why I think it is worth taking the possibility of geoengineering seriously enough to see how well it might be done.

If a new era of oil abundance is truly upon us, we may have no choice.

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