Millions of people are reading the latest issue of Time magazine believing that there is a ready-made domestic solution to the energy crisis that will guarantee abundant energy and jettison foreign oil sheiks to the dustbin of history. If it were only true. This week's cover story paints an appealing picture, telling us that the United States has enough natural gas underground to replace barrels of oil by the billions. It seems that all we have to do is tweak some trivial environmental concerns and our energy crisis will be over. Time is an excellent magazine, indeed one of the best, but unfortunately, its reporters and editors got it wrong this time.
We're desperately awaiting good news, but the bad news involving energy steadily worsens. It was a year ago this week that 29 miners perished in West Virginia's Upper Branch coal mine and we collectively asked how much sooty coal we want to keep burning. Soon after, the Gulf of Mexico was carpeted with oozing gunk for months, forcing us to question whether offshore drilling is viable following the worst oil spill in history. That tragedy had only begun to recede when the Middle East began to explode and we once again confronted the vulnerability of our tenuous energy supplies. Then, as if Japan's double-punch earthquake and tsunami wasn't horrific enough, meltdown of the crippled nuclear power plant began. These events in rapid succession reminded us that every source of traditional energy is its own Hobson's choice fraught with danger.
All of these events together made people - and energy markets - increasingly jittery. Most Americans don't make the connection until their pocketbooks are affected, such as when fuel prices surge, along with air fares, transportation costs and everything else. But Americans don't want to hear about the problem; rather, our can-do attitude and American ingenuity demand a solution.
Right when energy is on everybody's mind, the biggest-circulation news magazine rides to our rescue with a compelling cover story "This Rock Could Power the World: Why Shale Can Solve the Energy Crisis." It proclaims that natural gas offers us a whole century of relatively clean energy.
We all hope for an easy fix, but there is none. We want scientists to perform miracles so we don't have to give up the conveniences of modern life provided by oil.
Natural gas is undeniably an abundant power source, and yet natural gas resources will outlive oil reserves by only two decades or so. The biggest supplies of natural gas are in Russia and the Middle East, and it is extremely difficult and expensive to transport gas across oceans. Conventional reserves of North American natural gas are in frighteningly limited supply.
But it seems we have been saved recently: enter the gas shales. While most natural gas fields are dwindling along with crude oil, the massive volumes of gas trapped in shale formations beneath Texas, Appalachia and elsewhere are attracting widespread attention and investment. The government's Energy Information Administration lists our proven reserves of natural gas at 237.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (Russia's, by comparison, are more than six times as much).
Promoters want us to think this gas will be produced in great volume with limited environmental impact. Shale gas, however, is really tricky to extract. It can't be coaxed to the surface without fracturing the shale formation with explosives and the injection of a cocktail of toxic chemicals under extremely high pressure - a process known as "fracking." Ingenious as this engineering solution is, it yields only a small percentage of the gas in the shale formation (estimates vary wildly from 1-25%). Furthermore, it risks polluting groundwater with the toxic fracking chemicals, and the costs of extraction are much greater than for conventional fields.
The industry is largely unregulated, with little oversight. The environmental impact threatens to be devastating if shale gas production ramps up: radioactivity in drinking water so full of solvents that it can be ignited as it gushes out of our faucets. If fracking increases exponentially, so will the accompanying hazards.
We can't let our desperation for energy force us to take our eye off the environmental ball. If these gas shales are supposed last us a hundred years why are petroleum industry optimists, as the environmental impacts mount, in such a reckless hurry to extract them?
Natural gas only extends the lifespan of carbon-based fuels by a couple of decades, so it is hardly a panacea. If natural gas is our best shot, then we need to aim better because we will severely short-change our future. Rather than pinning all of our hopes on natural gas, it should be approached as a short-term supplement to oil amid the transition to lasting renewable energy sources.
Steve Hallett is the author, with John Wright, of Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future (March, Prometheus Books.)