Fossil Fuel Energy Isn’t Going to Save Us

Recently,  Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote a widely circulated article celebrating the “amazing fact” that “America’s energy prospects have improved in ways that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago.”  Thanks to new technology (especially hydraulic fracturing—“fracking”) that allows drillers to extract shale oil and natural gas from previously inaccessible reserves, and also to “market forces” investing billions into exploiting these resources, the U.S. is becoming energy independent once again. Ignatius concludes  “It’s an almost ridiculously upbeat story.”

From one particular point of view—that of the corporate/government/media establishment—this is indeed an upbeat story, with no downside. However, there is another point of view, shared by many scientists, investigative journalists and observers who don’t have a vested interest in maintaining the current system; from this other perspective, the story of abundant energy is not “almost” ridiculous, but fully so.

Which perspective you believe depends on the basic assumptions you hold. “Establishment” thinking assumes that technological progress is unceasing and always beneficial, that resource development is a desirable end in itself, that the U.S. ought to remain a dominant world power at any cost, and that our high-consumption lifestyle is nonnegotiable. Furthermore, any problems associated with this techno-utopia, such as climate change, disruption of local communities or cultures, poisoning of groundwater by fracking chemicals, or global competition over finite resources, will be solved, without too much fuss, through more technology.

These assumptions appear to be simple facts because they are linked together in a coherent worldview. But they represent the self-serving ideology of the industrial system, and astute critics have shown that an alternative set of assumptions is also plausible: Nature is a vastly complex web of relationships that we can never fully master, and we often damage it by trying; new technology is not always beneficial and should always be evaluated according to its impact on health, ecosystems and communities; the human and ecological costs of climate disruption, resource depletion, and poisoning of air, land and water are ultimately colossal and not worth paying no matter how much profit or “progress” results; above all, there are physical and biological limits to the growth of consumption and these are nonnegotiable.

As an example of these divergent viewpoints, Ignatius casually dismisses the harmful environmental effects of new extraction methods, even though, as one recent study put it, “chemicals commonly used in the fracking process are ‘endocrine disrupters’ that can affect the human hormonal system and have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and infertility.” If your worldview tells you that economic growth and technological mastery trump the health and wellbeing of those unlucky enough to be in the way, such findings won’t matter very much.

In response to the optimism of the techno-utopians, there is a serious, sophisticated literature suggesting that the shale oil/gas boom is a classic economic bubble that will soon burst. We have already found and exploited the most easily available reserves; from now on it gets more complex and costly. These “extreme” sources run out more quickly. And the amount of energy needed to exploit these sources is greater, diminishing the return on investment. One analyst, Kurt Cobb of the blog Resource Insights, compares the supposed energy boom to “running up a down escalator since the declining production of existing wells cancels out much of the production from newly drilled wells.”

One of our goals at Sustainable Woodstock is to help citizens better understand energy issues that ultimately affect our lives and community. We encourage thoughtful and critical conversation about the difficult energy choices that need to be made.

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