Beyond Economics

The End of Growth and Time for a New Era

Category Archives: Climate Change

The Not So Promised Land of Fracking


The movie Promised Land depicts the dilemma faced by rural farms and towns by the fracking boom. While the makers of the film do reveal their biases in terms of the potential environmental and economic exploitation of poor, rural America, they attempt to provide a balance of perspectives that include some surprising twists with the conclusion left up in the air. Although we don’t actually see fracking or the results of it in the film, here is what a fracked landscape looks like.


The oil, gas, and financial industries would have us believe that the shale gas and oil boom will provide the US with domestic, clean, affordable energy for a hundred years, creating millions of jobs and stimulating the economic growth that we so desperately need. The reality may be quite different.

Here is How Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) Works

Fracking -Diagram-2

The diagram above shows only one well for the purpose of simplicity. Frack sites are typically 1-3 miles apart and each pad at each site may contain 4-12 wells or more. The diagram below is another representation of the pattern of horizontal drills that are needed for tapping into gas trapped in shale, as contrasted with conventional gas drilling where a single well taps into a single large reservoir.

The remainder of this post will cover some of the larger economic and environmental  issues with more technical references provided at the end.

The Economics Fail:
Low Prices and High Depletion Rates

“We are all losing our shirts today… We’re making no money. It’s all in the red.” Despite its commercials, this is what ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson said in July, 2012 to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Low prices are great for consumers and the chemical industry but terrible for the natural gas industry and its shareholders. They did not get into the business of producing shale gas in order to sell it for $2-3/MMBtu (about 1000 cubic feet). The industry needs to get about $4-6 to break even and $6-8 to really profit from the complicated and expensive process of fracking. What happened is that the supply grew much faster than the demand and prices crashed. In addition, they are finding that the depletion rates fall off sharply after the first year so that they need to keep leasing more land and drilling furiously (increasing supply) in order to grow the forward hedging of production rates they must report to investors.

NG-Coal-PricesThe industry is between a rock and a hard place (no fracking pun intended). What is the industry doing to get the price up? 1) Waging a PR campaign to convince the country that shale gas is the answer to our energy and economic problems. 2) Shifting from shale gas to shale oil development (oil can get the world price because it is portable and exportable). 3)  Applying for permits for liquid natural gas (LNG) conversion facilities at our ports so that it can be exported (taking advantage of the world price that is $10-14. For shale gas fracking to work economically for the industry, it won’t be such a great deal for consumers (switching from oil to natural gas) and energy utilities (switching from coal to natural gas).

TradersThere is likely to be considerable volatility in energy markets over the coming decades, as supply and demand struggle for balance and prices lurch from one extreme to another. Currently low gas prices have already dealt a serious setback to fledgling solar and wind industries that were just getting close to economic viability. The coal industry has been seriously upset as well (probably a good thing). Price volatility is not good for anyone except futures traders.

Next, let’s break down the myths that the industry is promoting to build short and long-term demand (and get prices up) in their pitch to have shale gas be the answer to our energy dreams:

Myth #1: Natural Gas Production is Environmentally Safe

Frack-Fire-2The industry claims that fracking has been done safely for many decades. While fracking was first done around 1947, the combination of technologies and processes that have resulted in the current shale gas boom have only been in play since about 2007. In addition to the development of several key methods, there are some who say that the fracking boom really did not get under way until the passage of what has come to be known as the Halliburton (Cheney) Loophole to the Clean Water Act. It exempted energy producers from identifying the chemicals used in the fracking process out of proprietary concerns.

EncanaA presentation by Anthony Ingraffea, a former industry insider and currently a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University, explains why the fracking process is extremely complicated and how the chances of something going wrong become very likely when human error and industry pressure for profits come together in the plans to develop tens of thousands of wells per year in out of site rural areas all over the country.

TruckSiteThe industry claims that they are highly regulated by the states and that this is preferred because the states know best and we shouldn’t have “one size fits all” federal regulations. Just the opposite is true. This is a complicated national issue that crosses state lines and many states are woefully under-prepared  and under-staffed to regulate the industry. In addition, state regulators are much easier to influence and corrupt.

There are many other sites that focus on the environmental problems with fracking so I won’t spend any more time here and now turn to other issues.

Myth #2: Natural Gas is Cleaner than Coal (by 50%)

example-of-gas-flaringIt is said that natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels and that, if we use it to replace coal for electricity production and to replace oil for transportation and heating, this will help to reduce CO2 emissions in the fight against global warming climate change. While it may be true that the actual burning of natural gas produces 50% less carbon emissions than the energy equivalent burning of coal, we need to look at the overall life cycle production of producing unconventional shale gas by the process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Anthony Ingraffea, a former industry insider and currently a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University, has done a study (somewhat controversial) suggesting, as others have, that shale gas production might not be that much better, if not worse, than coal in terms of total greenhouse gas emissions. This stems from the energy intensity of producing shale gas along with the methane that is either flared off or leaked out along the way. Although much shorter lived than CO2, methane is estimated at 20-100 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas. One could argue that, even if natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, additional energy resource development should be in the direction of alternatives.

Myth #3: The Shale Gas and Oil Boom Will Create Millions of Jobs

Frack-Pumps-WorkersEven the president said something to this effect in his 2012 convention speech. Again, if you listen closely you will notice that the claim is that millions of jobs will be supported (vs. created). So I guess we get to count the waitress who serves at least one person who works for the industry and construction worker who repairs the damaged road from the fracking truck traffic. Interesting, that we could count that when the taxpayer is probably paying for the road repair and thus subsidizing the industry. From a macroeconomic perspective, oil and gas production is very capital intensive. Financial resources invested in alternative energy deployment might well create three or more  times the number of jobs and leave us with something much more sustainable in the process.


Myth #4: The Shale Gas and Oil Boom Will Lead to U.S. Energy Independence

U.S. energy independence would supposedly offer a number of benefits from both a security and economic standpoint from less reliance on sometimes hostile foreign sources of energy. There is also the implication that energy costs would be lower.

First, if you listen closely, it’s really “North American” not American energy independence, since our neighbors in Canada (with Tar Sands) and Mexico are being counted for oil. Second, since there is one world price for oil, it almost doesn’t matter where it comes from. While it is true that Middle Eastern sources have been hostile to us in the past, including the embargo of the 70s, they need to sell to us and the world as much as we need to buy from them. They need the continued revenues to keep their restive populations happy. They also learned in the 70s that their long-term interests were in keeping the rest of the world hooked on oil rather than making spiteful cut-offs that might lead us to find alternatives. OPEC and primarily Saudi Arabia have in fact been a stabilizing force of late in keeping the price of oil relatively stable at around $100/barrel for oil.

US_Oil_ProductionConsumption.69210701_stdAmerica does have great energy resources in terms of the total supply of oil (limited), coal (among the largest in the world), and natural gas (now potentially abundant with shale gas). When it comes to liquid fuels, however, we use about 19 mbpd (million barrels per day) of oil. Conventional production of oil is about 6-8 mbpd with shale (tight) oil that could be produced from fracking, possibly adding another 2-3 mbpd. This adds up to 10-11 mbpd which is about equal to what Saudi Arabia is producing, thus the recent claim that the U.S. may become the world’s largest oil producer. All of this is a long way off, has a number of caveats, and is still far from oil independence.

aerialFrackingAssuming we could ramp up production, leaving rural landscapes looking like this and leaving other environmental consequences aside, we could theoretically convert our transportation system and infrastructure to run on natural gas. Such an infrastructure transformation would be very expensive and one wonders who would pay for it.

There is one more important economic element to consider. The industry is moving to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) conversion facilities at our ports in order to export LNG. Exporting sounds like a good thing until you realize that it would mean lower supply and higher prices domestically. The reason for exporting is to take advantage of much higher world prices. Until natural gas can be converted to liquid form, it can’t be exported.

Incidentally, when you hear about the U.S. becoming an oil exporter, listen again. It is not crude oil (which we still import 40-50% of); it is actually refined oil products (other than gasoline) that the industry is exporting to take advantage of world prices and excess refinery capacity in some areas.

The Bottom Line

Let us enjoy inexpensive natural gas prices for now (which I am). Low prices will not work for the oil and gas industry. None of this will work for the environment. Nothing good will come from fracking in the long run. I’ll leave you with this rather sad image.




The Future of Economics and Society as We Know It

Richard Heinberg delivers a clear and powerful message on the urgent need for the world to begin the transition to a sustainable future. He takes a big picture perspective on the interconnectedness of economics, energy, the environment, and society.

We are, and will be, seeing a cavalcade of environmental and economic disasters, not obviously related to one another, that will stymie economic growth in more and more ways.

Each will be typically treated as a special case, a problem to be solved so that we can get “back to normal”.

In September 2008, the global financial system nearly collapsed. The reasons for this sudden, gripping crisis apparently had to do with housing bubbles, lack of proper regulation of the banking industry, and the over-use of bizarre financial products that almost nobody understood. However, the oil price spike had played a critical (if largely overlooked) role in initiating the economic meltdown.

The end of growth is a very big deal indeed. It means the end of an era, and of our current ways of organizing economies, politics, and daily life. Without growth, we will have to virtually reinvent human life on Earth.

Interview of Nate Higgins on

So I’m not necessarily calling for a stock-market crash in the next decade, but I am calling for within the decade we probably won’t have a stock market. That’s a scary thing to contemplate, but this entire system is based on more every year, and we’ve extended the system by a decade or more by little bells and whistles and allowing people to buy houses with no money down and the repeal of Glass-Steagall.

And since 2008, the crash in private and household credit has been made up by government stepping in and providing 11% of our GDP just from deficit spending. And that bullet has now been spent. So the whole thing starts to unravel once they’ve spent all the bullets they have. And I don’t know that it really matters, really; stocks go down 10% or 50% or 100%, we have to restructure the way that we think about society.

Competing for nominal, digital wealth is going to go away as the main cultural objective. 

This is a fascinating, in-depth discussion of our economic, environmental, and societal predicament. If you have the time, this really ties it all together. Until recently, Nate Higgins was lead editor of The Oil Drum, one of the most popular and highly-respected websites for the analysis and discussion and global energy supplies, and the future implications of the energy decline that we are facing. He holds a Master’s Degree in Finance from the University of Chicago and recently completed his PhD in Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. Previously, he was President of Sanctuary Asset Management and a Vice-President at the investment firm Solomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers.

Nate Higgins Web Site

Additional Resources on Peak Oil

Post Carbon Institute
Founded in 2003, Post Carbon Institute is leading the transition to a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable world.

The Oil Drum
The Oil Drum seeks to facilitate civil, evidence-based discussions about energy and its impacts on the future of humanity, as well as serve as a leading online knowledge-base for energy-related topics.

ANTHROPOCENE: A New Era of Human Civilization on Earth

From The Economist cover story of May 28, 2011:

“Humans have changed the way the world works.
Now they have to change the way they think about it, too.”

Human civilization evolved during a period of relatively stable climate over the last 10,000 years. With a rapidly developing and industrialized world, now at about 7 billion and headed for 9-10 billion, humans have become a significant driving force in changing the Earth. Here is an excerpt from the 5/28 cover story of The Economist magazine:

Humans have become a force of nature reshaping the planet on a geological scale—but at a far-faster-than-geological speed.

A single engineering project, the Syncrude mine in the Athabasca tar sands, involves moving 30 billion tonnes of earth—twice the amount of sediment that flows down all the rivers in the world in a year…

The carbon cycle (and the global warming debate) is part of this change. So too is the nitrogen cycle, which converts pure nitrogen from the air into useful chemicals, and which mankind has helped speed up by over 150%. They and a host of other previously natural processes have been interrupted, refashioned and, most of all, accelerated…

Scientists are increasingly using a new name for this new period. Rather than placing us still in the Holocene, a peculiarly stable era that began only around 10,000 years ago, the geologists say we are already living in the Anthropocene: the age of man.

The Economist article (Briefing) concludes that there is no turning back and perhaps we will be best off embracing the future.

The growing availability of solar or nuclear energy over the coming centuries could mark the greatest new energy resource since the second of those planetary oxidations, 600m years ago—a change in the same class as the greatest the Earth system has ever seen. Dr Lenton (who is also one of the creators of the planetary-boundaries concept) and Dr Watson suggest that energy might be used to change the hydrologic cycle with massive desalination equipment, or to speed up the carbon cycle by drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide, or to drive new recycling systems devoted to tin and copper and the many other metals as vital to industrial life as carbon and nitrogen are to living tissue.

Better to embrace the Anthropocene’s potential as a revolution in the way the Earth system works, they argue, than to try to retreat onto a low-impact path that runs the risk of global immiseration.

A Brief History of Human Understanding of the World

The World is Flat

The Earth is the Center of the Universe

The Earth is a Planet (in a Solar system in a Galaxy in the Universe)

The Earth’s Future is in Our Hands

Just as the average person (and even the ruling elites) initially resisted the earlier paradigm shifts, many of us, from the urban poor in the slums of Mumbai to the wealthiest of hedge fund managers on Wall Street, are too caught up in economic survival and advancement to see or care about the bigger picture. I am afraid that, until a much larger share of us come to know the world in this new way, human civilization will be unable able to really transition to a sustainable future…not sure what that will take. We don’t have the luxury or time as in earlier eras.

Unconventional Natural Gas: A Game Changer?

Perhaps. You may have heard about hydraulic fracturing (“fracing”, pronounced “fracking”) and horizontal drilling, a technique to release natural gas trapped in hardy shale-rock formations. These sources of natual gas around the world have been known about for some time but not thought to be economically viable. This article from The Economist has major implications for geopolitics, climate change, and energy independence based on both the quantity and location of these unconventional reserves.

NIMBY and environmental concerns may be a contraint. The Comments at the bottom are worth reading and provide both support and skepticism.

An Unconventional Glut
Newly economic, widely distributed sources are shifting the balance of power in the world’s gas markets
Mar 11th 2010 | HOUSTON | From The Economist print edition

The availability of abundant reserves [of unconventional natural gas] in North America contrasts with the narrowing of Western firms’ oil opportunities elsewhere in recent years. Politics was largely to blame, as surging commodity prices emboldened resource-rich countries such as Russia and Venezuela to restrict foreign access to their hydrocarbons. “The problem is, where do you go? It’s either in deep water or in countries that aren’t accessible.” This is forcing big oil companies to get gassier…The oil majors watched from the sidelines as more entrepreneurial drillers proved shale’s viability. Now they want to join in.

[One] idea that would have ramifications for the global oil sector is to gasify transport. T. Boone Pickens, a corporate raider turned energy speculator, has launched a campaign to promote this, and has support from the gas industry. All this is some way off. The coal industry will not surrender the power sector without a fight. The gasification of transport, if it happens, could also take a less direct form, with cars fuelled by electricity generated from gas.

A gasified American economy would have profound effects on both international politics and the battle against climate change. Displacement of oil by natural gas would strengthen a trend away from crude in rich countries, where the IEA believes demand has already peaked as a result of the recent spike in oil prices.

But two factors could reverse the picture again. The first surrounds the uncertainty about how fruitful shale exploration will be outside North America. Second, there are reasons for caution above ground, too. Despite natural gas’s greener credentials than oil’s or coal’s, shale drilling has critics among environmentalists, who worry that water sources will be poisoned and landscapes despoiled.

Bill Gates, Climate Change, & Conservation

In a recent article in The Huffington Post, Bill gates suggests that we should focus on innovation rather than conservation in order to bring about the CO2 reductions needed to stave off climate change. I think he does make some good points here.

Why We Need Innovation, Not Just Insulation (1/20/2010)

If the goal is to get the transportation and electrical sectors down to zero emissions you clearly need innovation that leads to entirely new approaches to generating power.  Should society spend a lot of time trying to insulate houses and telling people to turn off lights or should it spend time on accelerating innovation?… you can never insulate your way to anything close to zero no matter what advocates of resource efficiency say. You can never reduce consumerism to anything close to zero…In fact it is doubtful that any such efforts in the rich countries will even offset the increase coming from richer lifestyles in places like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, etc.

With that kind of clarity, people will understand the need to get to zero and begin to grasp the scope and scale of innovation that is needed…There just isn’t enough work going on today to get us to where we need to go.

What I am afraid of is that Gates’ point will be misinterpreted and misused. Americans, especially, are afraid that the implications of climate change mean a great sacrifice in our way of life. I think that this is why the denial campaign has been so successful of late. If climate change isn’t really happening or is a hoax, we won’t have to change afterall. However, when it soon becomes unavoidably obvious that the earth is warming and the climate is being disrupted, the denial campaign will change its tune and latch on to part of Gates’ logic, i.e. that conservation won’t actually help very much so let’s just wait for a technological fix or geoengineering to save us, no point in undue sacrifice.

This article from TreeHuggar makes a few other countervailing points.

Bill Gates’ Vision of Combating Climate Change is Mostly Myopic (1/21/2010)

I’m not sure any advocate of energy efficiency would say it can get you to zero emissions…What some of the most vocal of them do say though is that we could reduce electricity demand by 34% through efficiency improvements in the United States. That alone could replace 62% of coal fired electricity.

…there’s a huge difference between a standard of consumption based on human need and ecological sustainability and the dominant paradigm of consumerism-based, aggregate-growth-fetish culture spreading around the world.

The scale of the conjoined issues of climate change, peak fossil energy, population growth, biodiversity loss, and natural resource overconsumption are such that even those of us who deal with them on a day in day out basis have trouble grasping the big picture all at once…We’re talking massive paradigm shift, behavioral changes, economic changes, even changes in consciousness I’d argue, to deal with them.

…but there is no one solution…no silver bullet.