Political transformation in the age of energy scarcity

January 20, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedA professor friend of mine recently asked his freshman writing class what makes civilization possible. The students puzzled for a minute and then someone said, "Cities." Of course, that’s really just the definition of civilization. "But what makes those cities possible?" the professor asked. No one could really come up with an answer.

Here were students drawn in many cases from rural areas, some of whom lived on farms; and yet, the most basic energy flow in modern civilization—in any civilization—from farm to city in the form of surplus food was completely opaque to them. My friend remarked to me that a century and half of cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels has attenuated our awareness of energy flows so much that we as a society have become essentially unconscious of energy.

That is a state of mind that could only be the product of energy abundance, of an exceptional period in human history when the surplus energy available to society was so great that the average person simply did not have to think about it. And, so as energy scarcity returns to civilization as the norm, we are being forced—often painfully—to become conscious once again of the energy flows in our daily life. As a whole, human societies are only just beginning to wake up to this new era—except, of course, where life has remained close to the land, and failure to understand and create the necessary energy flows (particularly food) has always been tantamount to a death sentence.

The era of abundance which is now coming to an end created a dependence on a technical-corporate-financial energy elite which took over the provisioning of energy for society as that enterprise became ever more complex—advancing light-years beyond the pick ax of the 19th century coal miner. So long as energy remained abundant, the legitimacy and autonomy of this energy elite went largely unchallenged. Even in countries where the government controls energy resource exploitation, a small elite remains in charge of the process, a process thought to be largely technical in nature.

But the return of energy scarcity in the last decade—in the form of record high oil prices, high and volatile coal prices, wildly volatile natural gas prices in the United States and high prices for liquefied natural gas internationally—all this now threatens to undermine the legitimacy and autonomy of the energy elite. People are beginning to wonder whether it is wise to leave such matters to the putative experts. Should the government take a more active role in directing energy policy? Should communities and households seek to provide their own energy in the form of renewables or even community-owned utilities? Should steps be taken to reduce energy use dramatically to cushion a possible future decline in the availability of energy?

So rattled by these stirrings is the oil and gas industry that it has launched a campaign to convince the public that these hydrocarbons will return to their former abundant state for the long term. This campaign goes by the moniker "energy independence" in the United States. Of course, energy independence for the United States is unlikely unless it is based on radical reductions in energy use and widespread deployment of alternative energy. Naturally, the oil and gas industry does not have this kind of energy independence in mind.

The industry campaign relies on the clever and deceptive move to redefine what oil is. “Oil” is now supposed to include natural gas plant liquids (which as you might guess come from natural gas wells and include propane, butane, ethane and pentane), biofuels which include ethanol and biodiesel, and refinery processing gain (which merely measures the well-known scientific fact that the volume of refined products from crude always exceeds the volume of crude oil input). Back in the land of reality worldwide production of crude oil proper, which is defined as crude oil including lease condensate, has been flat since 2005. But, that doesn’t work well with the abundance narrative. So the industry has persuaded government agencies and especially the media to accept this redefinition without them really understanding it.

The campaign also depends on ignoring inconvenient statistical trends. For example, U.S. coal production has been flat since 1998. But the more interesting news is that the total energy content from that coal has been dropping. We are now exploiting coal that is lower and lower in quality. And, the boom in U.S. natural gas production that was supposed to go on for a century has already stalled. Natural gas production in the United States has been flat for over a year.

While the basis for the claim of renewed abundance and energy independence is not borne out by the evidence (see here, here, here and here), the purpose of the campaign is two-fold: 1) To persuade policymakers and the public to open more public lands to fossil fuel exploration while relaxing environmental regulations and 2) to convince both groups that because energy abundance is returning soon, no changes in the current structure of energy production and distribution need to be made. In other words, the technical-corporate-financial energy elite that currently controls the bulk of the world’s energy supply should remain intact and in charge.

Constraints experienced in oil supplies in the 1970s gave a foretaste of how the public might become more engaged in shaping our energy future. Many alternative energy projects involving solar and wind became the responsibility of the household and the individual business owner. The return of cheap energy in the 1980s and 1990s, however, reinforced the power of the energy elite as public awareness of energy plummeted along with energy prices. Since then, wind and solar energy have been increasingly concentrated in the hands of utilities as the energy elite sought to put these forms of energy under its dominion.

But what if we are, in fact, moving into an era of energy scarcity? And, what if our previous energy abundance was, in fact, not merely a product of our inventive genius, but actually the chance concatenation of political, social, economic, technical and even ancient geologic events?

The pronouncements of the fossil fuel industry and its paid spokespersons on Wall Street and elsewhere are clothed in certainty. Their nicely designed graphs of fossil fuel use go up and up into the future. But what if instead we are not at all certain about future energy supplies? What if our previous abundance has been more a product of good fortune than technical competence? The discovery of fossil fuels was essentially a one-time event in the epoch of humans. And, we are on course to use the bulk of those fuels in just two centuries, fuels which took hundreds of millions of years to deposit in the Earth’s crust. Given the uncertainty, shouldn’t we all be engaged in thinking about and acting on our energy future?

The current technical-corporate-financial energy elite knows only how to manage abundance. Abundance smoothes over questions about equity in energy distribution. And, the very ideology this elite adheres to says that energy constraints can only be temporary. In the long run, economic incentives and technical progress will always elicit new sources of energy in ever greater quantities at affordable prices. In short, the framework from which this elite governs our current energy system does not even include the possibility of long-term constraints in energy supply. This is why this elite may even believe its own propaganda about renewed abundance since its worldview doesn’t allow for any other outcome.

No one knows the future, and so no one can know for certain what our future energy supplies will be. The real question is not how to attain certainty, but how to deal with the uncertainty that has always been a part of our energy future. This is a political question, and therefore one that the energy elite does not wish to see as an object of public discussion. It moves the management of energy supply and distribution away from being merely a technical question into one which invites and necessitates broad public participation. Uncertainty should not be an excuse for inaction; uncertainty is the very place where politics intervenes. Knowing with certainty what your actions will bring means you are merely demonstrating a law of physics. Where certainty reigns, there is no need for political give-and-take since the path is clear.

This is why the industry must insist that it is certain about an abundant fossil-fueled future. As an aside, this same industry insisted for two decades that the science behind climate change was uncertain and therefore that we should not take any action. The industry’s highly successful propaganda efforts have forestalled any effective action on curbing fossil fuel emissions. Now, the industry tells us that it is certain about an issue—fossil fuel supplies—that is plagued with far more uncertainty than the link between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change. Greenhouse gases can be measured by anyone, anywhere on the globe with the proper equipment. The worrisome acidification of the oceans (a result of increasing levels of dissolved carbon dioxide) can be verified by anyone near an ocean with the equivalent of a well-calibrated litmus test.

Stores of hydrocarbons, however, are increasingly found miles under the earth or the seabed. The methods for measuring the amount available to society for its use are imprecise at best. And, those measurements depend on nongeologic factors such as future prices and technology, both of which can only be guessed at. No underground resource can be exploited 100 percent. In fact, oil extraction to date has averaged around 35 to 40 percent of the original oil in place. Unconventional oil resources such as tar sands are likely to yield smaller percentages because of the difficulties involved in the extraction and refining of these resources. In addition, such unconventional energy resources are highly sensitive to price because they are so costly to exploit.

As it turns out, we are far more certain about the science behind climate change than we are about the methods used to calculate future world energy supplies. The degree of certainty about climate change calls out for immediate and drastic action because we understand how large the risks are. The degree of uncertainty over future energy supplies calls out for immediate and drastic action because that uncertainty poses large risks for society.

It’s not necessarily the degree of certainty or uncertainty which ought to drive our public policy on any issue, but rather the level of risk which our current state of knowledge suggests is present. In the case of climate change, the risks are known with more certainty each day that we observe massive melting on Greenland and the poles, intense drought and hurricanes, and dying forests made vulnerable to disease and infestation by a warming climate.

In the case of energy supplies, the risks become more apparent because of what we do NOT know. We do not know whether fusion energy will be mastered any time this century. We do not know whether the new unconventional supplies of oil and natural gas will be able to make up for declines in existing fields over time. We do not know whether society as it is currently structured can withstand the very high energy prices in the long term which appear to be necessary to sustain the development of unconventional energy resources.

As the uncertainties over energy grow and as abundance wanes, the technical-corporate-financial energy elite will be faced with a citizenry that has become increasingly aware of its predicament. Scarcity implies rationing. Either the rationing will be done by price—i.e., the rich get what they need and the rest get what they can afford—or it will be done by political mechanisms. The pain comes in either case, and the big question will be whether that pain can find political expression in our unfolding age of energy scarcity—expression that could mean renewed engagement by citizens in an area central to their happiness, their comfort and perhaps even their survival.

(This piece was informed by an excellent book entitled Carbon Democracy by Timothy Mitchell and by a line of thought which began with two pieces which I wrote many years ago: Can democracy survive without fossil fuels? and Risk and probability: MIA in the peak oil debate.)

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: Coal, energy scarcity, governance, Natural Gas, Oil, Politics