Energy 2011: Abundant, Not Scarce -- But Highly Politicized

Energy 2011: Abundant, Not Scarce -- But Highly Politicized

By Carl M. Cannon - June 13, 2011

In 1972, three MIT scientists peered into the future at the behest of a new international think tank called the Club of Rome, and produced an alarming report called "Limits to Growth"; it was published as a book, translated into 30 languages, and so heavily promoted it eventually sold 10 million copies.

"Limits to Growth" benefited from the kind of good timing that authors dream of: It came out just before the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the formation of the OPEC cartel. But what really made the wonkish book such an unlikely hit -- it was hyped on the front page of The New York Times -- was that it predicted, supposedly based on computer modeling, that the Earth's supplies of oil and natural gas (not to mention: zinc, gold, tin and copper) would be completely exhausted by 1992.

The Club of Rome is still around and the MIT researchers all enjoyed long, tenured careers in academia, but their predictions were riotously, spectacularly wrong. Although the price of gasoline at the pump is currently very high -- and global demand has never been higher -- the truth is that two decades after the oil wells were all supposed to run dry, the world is simply awash in fossil fuels.

The reasons are certainly not due to any decline in demand for energy, but rather an unforeseen surge in supply. This welcome development was brought about by the discoveries of vast new coal seams and oil fields, new methods of gas and oil extraction, and new technologies for exploiting renewable energy. As much as any other factor, a home-grown revolution in natural gas exploration and extraction has revitalized Texas' gas fields -- and shaken the foundational assumptions about the limits of non-renewable energy resources.

The natural gas renaissance, made possible by the dual innovations of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"), may have started in Texas, but it has altered assumptions globally as well. Looking at 14 regions of the world, the U.S. Energy Information Administration now estimates that at least six times the amount of recoverable natural gas is out there waiting to be extracted as was believed to be present only a decade ago.

And modern refining has made this commodity more valuable than ever. Natural gas is not only a product for heating homes and fueling gas stoves. It is used to generate electricity - and as automobile fuel. It also emits less carbon dioxide than coal.

"Are we living at the beginning of the Age of Fossil Fuels, not its final decades?" Michael Lind, co-founder of the New America Foundation, a liberal think tank, asked in a recent essay.

"The very thought goes against everything that politicians and the educated public have been taught to believe in the past generation," added Lind. "According to the conventional wisdom, the U.S. and other industrial nations must undertake a rapid and expensive transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy for three reasons: The imminent depletion of fossil fuels, national security and the danger of global warming. What if the conventional wisdom about the energy future of America and the world has been completely wrong?"

"Let's Figure This Thing Out"

The global energy story, circa 2011, has no single epicenter, but a reasonable place to start is the North Texas outpost of a mid-sized outfit called Mitchell Energy Corp. The year is 1982, and the phone is ringing while the site manager is interviewing a young job applicant with the Hollywood-worthy name of Jay Ewing. On the other end of the phone is the company founder, George P. Mitchell himself, and he's asking about his pet project. Again.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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