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Energy: Hydrocarbons in North America

ENERGY: Hydrocarbons in North America by J. David Hughes

EXCERPT:
North America is at the top of the food chain when it comes to consuming energy: Its inhabitants have nearly four times the average global per capita energy consumption.

Although Mexicans consume less than the global average, Americans consume 4.5 times and Canadians nearly 6 times as much. In absolute numbers, we in North America consume one-quarter of the world’s primary energy production, even though we make up less than 7 percent of the world’s population.

North America’s massive energy diet is largely made up of hydrocarbons—a full 83 percent comes from oil, gas, and coal, and if we include nuclear energy, 91 percent comes from nonrenewable fuel sources. In 2008, North America consumed 27 percent of the world’s oil production, 25 percent of natural gas production, and 18 percent of coal production. Most of the rest of our energy consumption was derived from nuclear power and large hydropower, with renewable energy sources such as biomass, wind, photovoltaics, and geothermal aking up less than 2 percent of our total. Moreover, despite a several-fold growth in non-hydropower renewable energy sources, nonrenewable sources are still forecast to supply 88 percent of our primary energy consumption by 2030 (figure 17.1).

The sheer scale of our dependency on nonrenewable, energy-dense “fossilized sunshine” is often lost on those who believe that renewable energy sources can supplant hydrocarbons at anything like today’s level of energy consumption. Thus it is prudent to examine the prognosis for fossil fuels within North America, as they will make up the bulk of our energy consumption for many decades to come.

The North American fossil-fuel story is largely driven by consumption in the United States, the biggest user of energy in the world and, until China overtook it in 2006, the biggest carbon dioxide emitter. Also critical to this story is the vulnerability of the U.S. economy given its addiction to hydrocarbons. It is highly dependent on imported oil and may soon be dependent on imported natural gas. For these reasons, this chapter will focus primarily on the future availability and vulnerability of supplies of hydrocarbons to the United States, and will look in detail at oil, natural gas, and coal.

About The Post Carbon Reader

Post Carbon Reader coverHow do population, water, energy, food, and climate issues impact one another? What can we do to address one problem without making the others worse? The Post Carbon Reader features essays by some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the key issues shaping our new century, from renewable energy and urban agriculture to social justice and community resilience. This insightful collection takes a hard-nosed look at the interconnected threats of our global sustainability quandary and presents some of the most promising responses.

Contributors to The Post Carbon Reader are some of the world's leading sustainability thinkers, including Bill McKibben, Richard Heinberg, Stephanie Mills, David Orr, Wes Jackson, Erika Allen, Gloria Flora, and dozens more.

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