Our Fossil-Fueled Future

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Washington planners predict an endless appetite for fossil fuels. Does that mean game over for the climate?

This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.

What sort of
fabulous new energy systems will the world possess in 2040? Which fuels will
supply the bulk of our energy needs? And how will that change the global energy
equation, international politics, and the planet’s health? If the experts at
the U.S. Department of Energy are right, the startling “new” fuels of 2040 will
be oil, coal, and natural gas — and we will find ourselves on a baking,
painfully uncomfortable planet.

It’s true, of
course, that any predictions about the fuel situation almost three decades from
now aren’t likely to be reliable. All sorts of unexpected upheavals and
disasters in the years ahead make long-range predictions inherently difficult.
This has not, however, deterred the Department of Energy from producing a
comprehensive portrait of the world’s future energy system. Known as the International Energy Outlook (IEO), the assessment
incorporates detailed projections of future energy production and consumption.
Although dense with statistical data and filled with technical jargon, the 2013
report provides a unique and disturbing picture of our planetary future.

Many of us
would like to believe that, by 2040, the world will be far along the path
toward a green industrial future with wind, solar, and renewable fuels
providing the bulk of our energy supplies. The IEO assumes otherwise. It
anticipates a world in which coal — the most carbon-intense of all major fuels
— still supplies more of our energy than renewables, nuclear, and hydropower

The world it
foresees is also one in which oil remains a preeminent source of energy, while hydro-fracking
and other drilling techniques for extracting unconventional fossil fuels are
far more widely employed than today. Wind and solar energy will also play a bigger
role in 2040, but — as the IEO sees it — will still represent only a small
fraction of the global energy mix.

Admittedly, International Energy Outlook is a
government product of this moment with all the limitations that implies. It
envisions the future by extrapolating from current developments. It is not
visionary. Its authors can’t imagine energy breakthroughs that have yet to
happen, or changes in world attitudes that may affect how energy is dealt with,
or events like wars, environmental disasters, and global economic recessions or
depressions that could alter the world’s energy situation. Nonetheless, because
it assesses current endeavors that are sure to have long-lasting repercussions,
like the present massive worldwide investments in shale oil and shale gas
extraction, it provides an extraordinary resource for imagining the energy
crisis in our future.

Among its major findings are three fundamental developments:

* Global energy
use will continue to rise rapidly, with total world consumption jumping from
524 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) in 2010 to an estimated 820
quadrillion in 2040, a net increase of 56%. (A BTU is the amount of energy
needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.)

* An increasing
share of world energy demand will be generated by developing countries,
especially those in Asia. Of the nearly 300
quadrillion BTUs in added energy needed to meet global requirements between now
and 2040, some 250 quadrillion, or 85%, will be used to satisfy rising demand in
the developing world.

* China, which only recently overtook the United States
as the world’s leading energy consumer, will account for the largest share —
40% — of the growth in global consumption over the next 30 years.

projections may not in themselves be surprising, but if accurate, the
consequences for the global economy, world politics, and the health and
well-being of the planetary environment will be staggering. To meet constantly
expanding world requirements, energy producers will be compelled to ramp up
production of every kind of fossil fuel at a time of growing concern about the
paramount role those fuels play in fostering runaway climate change. Meanwhile,
the shift in the center of gravity of energy consumption from the older industrial
powers to the developing world will lead to intense competition for access to
available supplies.

To fully
appreciate the significance of the IEO’s findings, it is necessary to consider
four critical trends: the surprising resilience of fossil fuels, the degree to
which the world’s energy will be being provided by unconventional fossil fuels,
the seemingly relentless global increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, and
significant shifts in the geopolitics of energy.

The Continuing Predominance of Fossil Fuels

searching for evidence that we are transitioning to a system based on renewable
sources of energy will be sorely disappointed by the projections in the 2013 International Energy Outlook. Although
the share of world energy provided by fossil fuels is expected to decline from
84% in 2010 to 78% in 2040, it will still tower over all other forms of energy.
In fact, in 2040 the projected share of global energy consumption provided by
each of the fossil fuels (28% for oil, 27% for coal, and 23% for gas) will
exceed that of renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined (21%).

Oil and coal continue to dominate the fossil-fuel category
despite all the talk of a massive increase in natural gas supplies — the
so-called shale gas revolution — made possible by hydro-fracking. Oil’s
continued supremacy can be attributed, in part, to the endless growth in demand
for cars, vans, and trucks in China,
India, and other rising
states in Asia. The prominence of coal,
however, is on the face of it less expectable. Given the degree to which
utilities in the United States
and Western Europe are shunning coal in favor
of natural gas, the prominence the IEO gives it in 2040 is startling. But for
each reduction in coal use in older industrialized nations, we are seeing a
huge increase in the developing world, where the demand for affordable
electricity trumps concern about greenhouse gas emissions.

The continuing
dominance of fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix will not only ensure the
continued dominance of the great fossil-fuel companies — both private and
state-owned — in the energy economy, but also bolster their political clout
when it comes to decisions about new energy investment and climate policy.
Above all, however, soaring fossil-fuel consumption will result in a
substantial boost in greenhouse gas emissions, and all the disastrous effects
that come with it.

The Rise of the “Unconventionals”

At present,
most of our oil, coal, and natural gas still comes from “conventional” sources
— deposits close to the surface, close to shore, and within easy reach of
transportation and processing facilities. But these reservoirs are being
depleted at a rapid pace and by 2040 — or so the Department of Energy’s report
tells us — will be unable to supply more than a fraction of our needs.
Increasingly, fossil fuel supplies will be of an “unconventional” character — materials hard to refine
and/or acquired from deposits deep underground, far from shore, or in
relatively inaccessible locations. These include Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan
extra-heavy crude, shale gas, deep-offshore oil, and Arctic energy.

Until recently,
unconventional oil and gas constituted only a tiny share of the world’s energy
supply, but that is changing fast. Shale gas, for example, provided a negligible share of the U.S. natural
gas supply in 2000; by 2010, it had risen to 23%; in 2040, it is expected to
exceed 50%. Comparable increases are expected in Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan
extra-heavy crude, and U.S.
shale oil (also called “tight oil”).

By definition,
unconventional fuels are harder to produce, refine, and transport than
conventional ones. In most cases, this means that more energy is consumed in
their extraction than in the exploitation of conventional fuels, with more
carbon dioxide being emitted per unit of energy produced. As is especially the
case with fracking, the extraction of unconventional fuels normally requires significant infusions of water, raising the possibility of
competition and conflict among major water consumers over access to supplies
that, by 2040, will be severely threatened by climate change.

Relentless Growth in Carbon Emissions

By 2040,
humanity will be burning far more fossil fuels than today: 673 quadrillion
BTUs, compared to 440 quadrillion in 2010. The continued dominance of fossil
fuels, rising coal demand, and a growing reliance on unconventional sources of
supply can only have one outcome, as the IEO makes clear: a huge jump in carbon
dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon dioxide
is the most prominent of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases being pumped into
the atmosphere, and the combustion of fossil fuels is the primary source of that
CO2; hence, the IEO’s projections on energy-related carbon emissions constitute
an important measure of humankind’s ongoing role in heating the planet.

And here’s the
bad news: as a result of the continued reliance on fossil fuels, global carbon
emissions from energy are projected to increase by a stunning 46% between 2010
and 2040, jumping from 31.2 billion to 45.5 billion metric tons. No more
ominous sign could be found of the kind of runaway global warming likely to be
experienced in the decades to come than this grim figure.

In the IEO
projections, all fossil fuels and all of the major consuming regions contribute
to this nightmarish future, but coal is the greatest culprit. Of the extra 14.3
billion metric tons of CO2 to be added to global emissions over the next 30
years, 6.8 billion, or 48%, will be generated by the combustion of coal.
Because most of the increase in coal consumption is occurring in China and India, these two countries will
have a major responsibility for accelerating the pace of global warming. China alone is expected to contribute half of the added CO2 in these
decades; India,

New Geopolitical Tensions

Finally, the
2013 edition of International Energy
is rife with hints of possible new geopolitical tensions
generated by these developments. Of particular interest to its authors are the
international implications of humanity’s growing reliance on unconventional
sources of energy. While the know-how to extract conventional energy resources
is by now widely available, the specialized technology needed to exploit shale
gas, tar sands, and other such materials is far less so, giving a clear
economic advantage
in the IEO’s projected energy future to countries which
possess these capabilities.

consequence, already evident, is the dramatic turnaround in America’s
energy status. Just a few years ago, many analysts were bemoaning the growing
reliance of the United States
on energy imports from Africa and the Middle East,
with an attendant vulnerability to overseas chaos and conflict. Now, thanks to American leadership in the development of shale and other
unconventional resources, the U.S.
is becoming less dependent on imported energy and so finds itself in a stronger
position to dominate the global energy marketplace.

In one of many
celebratory passages on these developments, the IEO affirms that a key to
“increasing natural gas production has been advances in the application of
horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies, which made it
possible to develop the country’s vast shale gas resources and contributed to a
near doubling of total U.S. technically recoverable natural gas resource
estimates over the past decade.”

At the same
time, the report asserts that energy-producing countries that fail to gain
mastery over these new technologies will be at a significant disadvantage in
the energy marketplace of 2040. Russia
is particularly vulnerable in this regard: heavily dependent on oil and gas
revenues to finance government operations, it faces a significant decline in
output from its conventional reserves and so must turn to unconventional
supplies; its ability to acquire the needed technologies will, however, be
hindered by its historically poor treatment of foreign companies.

is also said to face significant challenges in the new energy environment.
Simply to meet the country’s growing need for energy is likely to prove an
immense challenge for its leaders, given the magnitude of its requirements and
the limits to China’s
domestic supplies. As the world’s fastest growing consumer of oil and gas, an
increasing share of its energy supplies must be imported, posing the same sort
of dependency problems that until recently plagued American leaders. The
country does possess substantial reserves of shale gas, but lacking the skills
needed to exploit them, is unlikely to become a significant producer for years
to come.

The IEO does
not discuss the political implications of all this. However, top U.S. leaders,
from the president on down, have been asserting that America’s mastery of new
energy technologies is contributing to the nation’s economic vitality, and so
enhancing its overseas influence. “America’s
new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” said National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in an April
speech at Columbia
University. “Increasing U.S. energy
supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply
disruptions and price shocks. It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing
and implementing our international security goals.”

The Department
of Energy’s report avoids such explicit language, but no one reading it could
doubt that its authors are thinking along similar lines. Indeed, the whole
report can be viewed as providing ammunition for the pundits and politicians
who argue that the emerging global energy equation is unusually propitious for
the United States (so long, of course, as everyone ignores the effects of climate
change) — an assessment that can only energize advocates of a more assertive
U.S. stance abroad.

The World of 2040

The 2013 International Energy Outlook offers us
a revealing peek into the thinking of U.S. government experts — and
their assessment of the world of 2040 should depress us all. But make no
mistake, none of this can be said to constitute a reliable picture of what the
world will actually look like at that time.

Many of the
projected trends are likely to be altered, possibly unrecognizably, thanks to
unforeseen developments of every sort, especially in the climate realm.
Nonetheless, the massive investments now being made in conventional and
unconventional oil and gas operations will ensure that these fuels play a
significant role in the energy mix for a long time to come — and this, in
turn, means that international efforts to slow the pace of planetary warming
are likely to be frustrated. Similarly, Washington’s
determination to maintain U.S.
dominance in the exploitation of unconventional fuel resources, combined with
the desires of Chinese and Russian leaders to cut into the American lead in
this field, is guaranteed to provoke friction and distrust in the decades to

If the trends
identified in the Department of Energy report prove enduring, then the world of 2040 will be one of ever-rising temperatures and
sea levels, ever more catastrophic storms, ever fiercer wildfires, ever more
devastating droughts. Can there, in fact, be a sadder conclusion when it comes
to our future than the IEO’s insistence that, among all the resource shortages
humanity may face in the decades to come, fossil fuels will be spared? Thanks
to the exploitation of advanced technologies to extract “tough energy”
globally, they will remain relatively abundant for decades to come.

So just how
reliable is the IEO assessment? Personally, I suspect that its scenarios will
prove a good deal less than accurate for an obvious enough reason. As the
severity and destructiveness of climate change becomes increasingly evident in
our lives, ever more people will be pressing governments around the
world to undertake radical changes in global energy behavior and rein in the
power of the giant energy companies. This, in turn, will lead to a
substantially greater emphasis on investment in the development of alternative
energy systems plus significantly less reliance on fossil fuels than the IEO

Make no mistake
about it, though: the major fossil fuel producers — the world’s giant oil,
gas, and coal corporations — are hardly going to acquiesce to this shift
without a fight. Given their staggering profits and their determination to
perpetuate the fossil-fuel era for as a long as possible, they will employ
every means at their command to postpone the age of renewables. Eventually,
however, the destructive effects of climate change will prove so severe and
inescapable that the pressure to embrace changes in energy behavior will
undoubtedly overpower the energy industry’s resistance.

none of us can actually see into the future and so no one can know when such a
shift will take place. But here’s a simple reality: it had better happen before
2040 or, as the saying goes, our goose is cooked.

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at
Hampshire College, a
TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left,
just published in paperback by Picador. A documentary movie based on his book
and Oil can be previewed and ordered at
www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking

[Note to readers: As most of this
text is based on a single document, International Energy Outlook 2013, there
are fewer hyperlinks to source material than is usual in my pieces. The report
itself can be viewed by clicking here.]

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Copyright 2013
Michael T. Klare

Image by Mark Rain, licensed
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