Friday, January 10, 2014

Fossil Fuels Have Served Their Purpose

I had an older relative who was involved in building one of the first long distance natural gas pipelines. He finished the pipeline around 1930, long before I was born. Natural gas was much cleaner than coal and was considered an improvement in that era. The truth is that coal, oil and natural gas, in their time, created the modern age. It's a simple historical fact that oil made possible victory for the allies in World War I and World War II. Without oil, the automobile age would not be possible.

But we now know that fossil fuels are a major source of the carbon dioxide emissions that are responsible for causing global warming. The Arctic is melting. Temperatures are rising (particularly in the oceans). Megastorms are beginning to appear. And we know these things sooner than we might have because coal, oil and natural gas were instrumental in helping create a huge world population increase as well as massive industrialization throughout large areas of the Earth.

But there's a second story that has been getting little attention: the decline of cheap fossil fuels. The age of cheap light sweet crude is over. It's been over for almost ten years now. We now rely on heavy crude, Fracked oil and gas, and tar sands. Coal, over the last hundred years, has been just getting lower and lower in grade. Only natural gas is holding its own and that's only if the prices stay up, but many regard natural gas as experiencing a production bubble that cannot be sustained.

The reality is that the costs of fossil fuels are rising. And more and more energy needs to be invested to bring fossil fuels to market, thus defeating some of the important value of fossil fuels. Many of the companies who produce fossil fuels are currently in denial. That's a long story I'll leave to others to explain. Some of the dominant figures in coal and oil, for example, have political agendas that they try to tie to their businesses in ways inconsistent with who we are as a nation and not consistent with our needs.

The truth is that we've known for a long time that fossil fuels are in trouble. The crucial issue, above all others, is oil. One of the largest producers of oil in the world, the United States, reached maximum production a long time ago, back in 1970. We had a resurgence because of the North Slope but we never again reached maximum production. Because of fracking in places like Texas, North Dakota and elsewhere, oil and natural gas production are once again rising in the United States. We may even surpass the totals from 1970, but it's likely to be short-lived and we are doing it at considerable cost to our future.

There are two issues. First, global warming cannot be ignored. For anyone who has looked at the science, that ship has sailed. Second, we cannot wait until the last shipload or trainload of fossil fuels to begin the transition to fossil fuels. That second issue is now crucial given the eroding circumstances of fossil fuels.

Here's a story from Cleantech about a coal terminal — a story we are seeing more often in all areas of fossil fuels:

The Gateway Pacific Terminal, near Bellingham, Washington, is poised to become the West Coast’s biggest coal export project — but it will no longer have the backing of New York-based, international banking behemoth Goldman Sachs.
On Tuesday, Goldman Sachs sold its stock back to the companies proposing to build the terminal, which would transport 48 million tons of coal from Wyoming to Asia annually.
The banks are starting to see the writing on the wall. Alternative energy is clean and competitive. And because of a host of brilliant scientists and researchers, the prices for alternative energy will continue to improve.

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