Energy Prospects


Here is a summary of the prospects for each of the main energy sources on which we now rely:




For the first 100 years of the oil industry’s dazzling history, alarms about the imminent depletion of oil were commonplace (Wolf Fallacy). These alarms were false, but the alarmists were right about one thing: there is a limited amount of accessible oil in the ground and, if it continues to be used, the rate at which it can be extracted will eventually go into decline, from which it will not recover.

“Peak oil” is the view that “eventually” means about now—that is, the second decade of this century, and some of the people who first drew attention to the peak and its significance are introduced in the “Peak Oil” sidebar. The shock to the global market will be profound, because the decline in oil will proceed too fast for any other form of energy to take its place.

Where did the idea come from?

In the 1950s, a dependable way of predicting the peak and decline of oil production from a large province was devised by the geologist M. King Hubbert. Look back, he advised, at the rate of discovery of new oil reserves; this invariably reaches a peak and, after an interval of some decades, the peak of production will follow. By studying the pattern of discovery and production, you can work out how long the interval between peak discovery and peak production is likely to be. His theory was borne out by his prediction, 15 years ahead of the event, that America would reach its production peak in 1970.

From 1966, the year after which discoveries of oil went into sharp decline worldwide, it became possible to make sensible forecasts of oil’s global future. Detailed statistical foundations for estimating regional reserves began to be published by another geologist, Harry Wassall, through his company Petroconsultants (now IHS Energy). By the 1970s the evidence was available that, at current rates of growth in consumption, conventional oil would reach its peak around the turn of the century.

And in the 1990s, it was confirmed in detail when Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère brought together Wassall’s statistical detail and published the global picture. Their work was then taken up by Roger Bentley, Michael Smith and others, and forecasts for the turning point for the world’s production of conventional oil converged with substantial consensus on the early years of the new century.E111

At the start of the oil age (in the mid-19th century), there were about 2,000 billion barrels of potentially-recoverable conventional oil in the ground, and around half of this now remains. Oil has been found and produced by over 100 nations, most of which have now passed their production peak; the turning point for the UK was in 1999. The world depends on a small number of giant fields for most of its oil. Of the 70,000 fields in use, just 120 account for half of the oil produced, and almost all of them were discovered before 1965. Since then, there have been few major discoveries and, for every five barrels of oil now used, just one is discovered.E115



Both oil and gas consist of molecules of hydrogen and carbon. The gas molecule is the simplest form of hydrocarbon—four atoms of hydrogen and one of carbon; and in the case of oil, these basic molecules are strung together in chains of varying lengths. The carbon is a signature of the fact that hydrocarbons were once part of living cells belonging to animals and plants.

The life of a barrel of oil starts between 60 and 500 million years ago with the detritus of dead algae which fell to the bottom of stagnant seas and deep lakes, mostly in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. A small amount of this dross made it to the bottom, where it was mixed in with fine-grained sediments from clays and muddy limestone, which eventually formed the oil’s “source rock”. The organic matter was then broken down by microorganisms, releasing carbon dioxide and methane, and producing an insoluble compound called kerogen, some of which then became buried beneath the surface at a depth of between 1,500 and 3,500 metres—known as the “kitchen” or “oil window”—where it simmered gently for 200 million years or more at a temperature of between 65°C and 150°C.

In these conditions, the chemical structure of the kerogen gradually matured (the name of the process is catagenesis) into oil. The oil is slightly less dense than the kerogen so that, as it forms, it expands, breaking out of its source rock and mostly escaping up to the atmosphere where it oxidises and fades out of the story. However, a tiny proportion became trapped before it reached the surface, in some cases under a layer of salt or hard (anhydrite) rocks, in other cases under a rather more leaky seal of shales or clay. It is these traps—anticlines, domes, faults, salt zones, pinchouts, pinnacle reefs, uncomformities and subtle traps in all their variety—which caught oil at the last stage in its epic escape back to the sunshine, and so give us exploitable oilfields.E114

For a closer look, we need to distinguish between conventional and unconventional oil. Conventional oil comes in these forms:E116


Regular oil

This is oil which is relatively easy to get at, and it is the largest source. The wells are on land or offshore on continental shelves of relatively shallow water. In 2010, regular oil contributed 73–74 million barrels a day (mbd)—or about 85 percent of the total flow of all liquid fuels.E117


Deepwater oil

Some conventional oil lies in sub-ocean reservoirs at depths of between 500 and 5,000 metres. They are a geological anomaly, the product of algal deposits in sediments in the stagnant water of deep rifts, in the era when the Americas separated from the land mass of Europe, Africa and Asia. These rifts then descended into the depths of the Atlantic, and over a period of 100 million years or so acquired a protective layer of silt brought down by rivers. Some of the silt was then washed by the Coriolis currents driven by the rotation of the Earth, leaving clean sand which formed an oil-tight seal.E118

The task of producing oil from those deep sea deposits is heroic: the water is close to freezing, and the oil may need to be heated before it can be pumped to the surface; and the reservoirs are separated from each other, so that the intensely high pressure in a reservoir drops rapidly as the oil is pumped, leading to a heightened risk of fire and explosion. A blowout at a depth of 5,000 metres—and so accessible only to robots—is borderline impossible to contain using current technology. The main deposits of deep sea oil are in the Atlantic off the coast of Brazil, in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of Angola and Nigeria.

It is expensive to maintain the installations so, once they are in place, the operators extract the oil quickly and, when a deepwater project has reached its peak, the decline is rapid. Deepwater oil contributes some 7 mbd a day, and is expected to peak at around 11 mbd in 2015.E119


Polar oil

This is formed in the normal way but happens to be in the Arctic. The first problem is that it is hard to get at, being buried beneath polar ice, but it is becoming easier as sea ice retreats in the Arctic Ocean (Climate Change). Secondly, there is a greater likelihood of gas than oil, because any oil reservoirs are likely to have been crushed under the weight of ice, pushing them below the oil window (see “Life Story 1” sidebar above) and down to the level at which it cracks to gas.

Polar oil is expected to sustain a modest flow of up to 3 mbd for the first half of the century.E120

When is an oilfield exhausted?

The men at the oil-face do all they can to slow the decline. When a new regular oil field is started up, it gushes. Then the flow declines; then it has to be pumped; then it gets difficult. Some oil wells yield as much as 80 percent of their oil; with others, the limit is reached at around 10 percent; the overall average is around 40 percent. A constant research objective in the oil industry is to find ways of extracting a little bit more, and the methods vary. Detergents are sometimes pumped into the well to retrieve the oil as minute droplets (but the detergents tend to break down with the heat); fire is used to make the oil more liquid and to produce combustion gases to help it along (but this tends to produce sulphuric acid which eats the plumbing); liquefied gases such as butane and propane are used to dissolve the oil (but this requires a lot of expensive gas); and carbon dioxide is sometimes injected to dissolve into the oil to increase its bulk and drive it along. Sometimes, steam is used. If all else fails, it may be possible to use mining techniques, digging out galleries below the reservoir to catch any remaining oil. All of these can work, up to a point, and so it is sometimes suggested that “enhanced oil recovery” (EOR) can not only extend the life of an oil well after it has peaked, but postpone the global peak itself. But estimates for reserves of conventional oil already include the best that these improvisations can offer.E121


Natural gas liquids

Each of the three sources described above may also produce natural gas liquids (NGLs) along with the crude oil. NGLs come in various forms: some condense out from gas to liquid as soon as they reach the surface; others shift into a liquid phase under pressure. NGLs consist of relatively short-chain molecules such as ethane, propane and butane, and they should not be confused with synthetic liquid fuels for which natural gas is the raw material (discussed later, in the “Liquid Energy” sidebar below). NGLs are an important source of oil, with an expected flow of 12 mbd, remaining roughly constant until 2050.E122


Until recently, it was these conventional oils that supplied all that was needed.  But now we are having to turn to the “unconventional” sources:


Heavy oils

Heavy oils are deposits which, in the early part of their lives, went through the whole process of being formed into oil (see “Life Story 1” sidebar above), but then came closer to the surface. This allowed the lighter molecules to evaporate, leaving behind a heavy tar, or an even heavier bitumen. The tar sands of Alberta in Canada can be processed into liquid crude oil, but the process is lengthy. The tar has to be mined and treated with steam, hot water and caustic soda; it is then diluted with naphtha, centrifuged to produce hot bitumen, and subjected to a coking process to produce a synthetic oil. This all requires large quantities of energy (usually natural gas, though building nuclear power stations on the sites has been suggested) and water: a single project to produce 235,000 barrels of oil a day in Alberta is estimated to use 3.5 million m3 water per day, and a river has been diverted to supply it.E123

The heavy oils of Venezuela are slightly more fluid than the Canadian tars (not least because they are warmer); they consist of bitumen which must be extracted by injecting steam to drive it to a central well. The treatment then needed to produce oil is so punishing that a short cut has been invented: the bitumen is mixed with water and detergents to produce Orimulsion, a dirty fuel which can be burned only in power stations equipped to capture and dispose of the large quantities of sulphur it contains. Although the stock of oil sands and bitumen is very large, the flow of production is expected to be limited to between 3 and 5 mbd—some 4 percent of all production—for the foreseeable future.E124


Oil shales

Shales are impermeable sedimentary rocks built up into tightly-compacted layers. They exist in large quantities (whole landscapes are made of them), with deposits in America, Australia, Russia and China; just one basin in Colorado contains shales theoretically capable of yielding 600 billion barrels of oil. These rocks contain kerogen which did not descend to the ‘oil window’ in which it would have been cooked at the correct temperature (see “Life Story 1” sidebar above). There are ways of mimicking the conversion of kerogen into oil—speeding up the process from millions of years to a few hours—but the process has problems: the shale has to be mined, crushed and heated to 350°C; all this requires very large amounts of energy and water, and it produces waste, much of it toxic, which bulks up into a quantity greater than that of the shale that was mined in the first place. And, when it is heaped up in tips, it is unstable. On a small scale, the use of shale as a source of oil has not yet been shown to be economic; on a large scale, the options are even more doubtful: as the operation grows it is increasingly at risk of being buried under its own waste. Shales will not be a significant source of oil on a useful timescale.E125


Lean Reflection on Oil

In summary, several studies have pointed to the probability of the world’s oil production reaching its peak in the near future, followed by a sustained decline. The authors of the UK Energy Research Centre’s 2009 report, Global Oil Depletion, summarise,

Despite the apparent divergence between “peaking” and “non-peaking” forecasts, a degree of convergence is now becoming apparent . . . .

On balance, we suggest that there is a significant risk of a peak in conventional oil production before 2020. Given the potentially serious consequences of supply constraints and the lead times to develop alternatives, this risk should be given urgent consideration.E126

And four of the authors of the UK Energy Research Centre’s report repeat that warning in an independent journal article, adding . . .

At present, most OECD governments are failing to give serious consideration to this risk, despite its potentially far-reaching consequences.E127

Chris Skrebowski, a contributor to The Oil Crunch, the 2010 report by the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security, sees 2014–2015 as the time when the oil market will experience rapidly rising prices, with demand outrunning supply.E128

And Dr. Robert Falkner, in the same report, writes that we are not just talking about energy shortages here; there are . . .

. . . important knock-on effects throughout the UK economy. . . . Any disruption to this complex distribution network would have far-reaching economic consequences, as the fuel protests of 2000 vividly illustrate. Back then, supermarkets ran out of essential food products as supplies dried up and consumers resorted to panic-driven hoarding.

The lesson from this experience is clear. Sudden supply-side shocks generated by oil supply restriction or hikes in oil prices would not be isolated events.E129

The peak will not be a cut-off point for oil. It will be the start of a downward trend that will reduce supply year-by-year for the remainder of the century. But it is unlikely that the decline will be smooth, for the market will have switched from being a buyers’ market (with a large number of buyers, competing for low prices) to a sellers’ market (with a small number of sellers, each of which can drastically raise the price of oil by restricting its supply). At the same time there are likely to be rivalries among sellers, and disruptions as the buyers face the stress of energy scarcity and compete for shares of the diminishing supply. The probable outcome will be a series of outages of increasing depth and duration. The benign economic conditions, including a reliable transport system, in which there could have been an orderly transition to renewable energy, will have passed. The global network of food supplies, transportation and economic interdependence will start to fracture.E130

Unless, that is, another fuel comes to the rescue in time. What about gas?


In the case of gas, too, we need to distinguish between “conventional” and “unconventional”. Here the standard approach is to describe gas as “conventional” if it is simply extracted from a gas well, needing little or no further heavy-duty encouragement to force it out. “Unconventional” is gas obtained in other ways.


Conventional gas

Conventional gas in its most familiar form (from the point of view of the UK) is the stuff that has for forty years or so come out of wells beneath the seabed of the North Sea. In fact, that source reached its peak in 2000, and production is now falling rapidly. Instead of being an exporter, the UK is having to import gas from Norway and Russia. It is a convenient fuel, easy to recover, but its decline, when it comes, tends to be abrupt. Gas is hard to transport in quantity, except by pipeline; for shipping, it needs to be condensed at high pressure and low temperature, while the pipelines themselves are major projects requiring much money and time. That means that consumers’ chances of getting the gas they need vary greatly around the world. One response—in the United States, for example—has been to construct giant terminals for offloading gas from liquefied gas carriers.E132



The life story of gas is the same as that of oil, except that it is cooked at greater depths and higher temperatures. Most gas comes from leaves and other plant remains which fell or were washed into lakes and seas. There they formed the raw material for a different form of kerogen (vitrinite, as distinct from the sapropel which produces oil). Gas, like oil, can also begin as algae, but the result is the same because, when the source rock in which oil is being formed is forced down to greater and hotter depths—into the gas window—the complex molecules of oil crack into the much simpler molecules of methane which comprise natural gas.

Most deposits of oil and gas will live out their days undisturbed. There are tea-cup sized deposits beneath the surface, but they would require more energy to extract them than they could ever yield. Some, however, are in large deposits, the footprints of ancient, stagnant seas, now valued as the fuel which made it possible to sustain a confident high-technology civilisation.E131

So, prospects for gas have been looking highly uncertain, and have been discussed less in terms of a global peak than of supply agreements between consumers and producers around the world, the presence or absence of pipelines, and the ability to pay. Hanging over all this has been the fact that, when a gas province gets towards the end of its life, the fall-off in production tends to be abrupt. Until recently, it seemed that, following the oil shock, a gas shock would not be far behind. That could still be true, but with developments in unconventional gas things have started to look a lot more complicated.


Shale gas

Shales (the impermeable sedimentary rocks that we met above in the discussion of oil) contain gas when they are buried deep beneath the surface: the pressure and depth converts the oil they once contained into gas. The gas, however, is trapped so tightly in the rock that extracting it was thought to be impossible until the discovery of ways of fracturing (“fracking”) the rock by injecting water into it with explosive force, producing a minor earthquake to open up the layers. What follows is an initial rush of gas from the fractures, followed by a much slower flow from the pore spaces and from the organic materials embedded in the rock.

Shale is the most common of the sedimentary rocks, and almost all of the shales found in deep strata contain at least some gas. In theory, therefore, the discovery of how to extract it opens up a large resource. The world consumes about 3 trillion cubic metres of natural gas each year, and the International Energy Agency estimates that some 180 trillion cubic metres of shale gas is recoverable. Taken together with the other sources of conventional and unconventional gas, this could keep the world supplied with gas at the present rate of consumption for approximately a century.E133

And that is good news twice over—for, as well as being abundant, gas also burns cleanly with regard to climate change, producing half the emissions of carbon per unit of energy, in comparison with coal. It is claimed that shale gas is the fuel that will displace oil and coal, that the United States is “swimming” in it, that the fall in gas prices and the mothballing of terminals for imported gas was due to its arrival, and that it will play a major role in saving the world.E134

But there are snags. The first one is pollution. The fracturing disturbs geological structures and opens up cracks over distances long enough to connect the shale deposits with aquifers, or to reach the surface. The drinking water in (amongst other places) Dimock, Pennsylvania, has become so rich in methane that a flame can be lit under the kitchen tap when it is opened. Domestic water wells have been exploding. In Cleveland, Ohio, an entire house has blown up. Residents have reported ill health—dizziness, blacking out, rashes, swelling of the legs and elevated blood pressure. Pets and farm animals have been losing their hair. In Colorado, contamination of drinking water has been specifically traced to fractures opening up between gas layers deep underground and aquifers close to the surface.E135

The water used for the fracturing process is spiked with chemicals whose identities have not yet been published, because the industry has been exempted from providing this information. The shale rock itself typically contains heavy metals such as cadmium, molybdenum and uranium which are dislodged by the water and migrate to wherever it happens to flow. Methane, having a small molecular structure, migrates quickly, and it is likely to be followed by the other, slower-moving, contaminants. This is a technology whose teething problems suggest a future—as yet unconfirmed—of large-scale chemical contamination of the soil and water, making water on the scale of whole watersheds unfit for drinking. Our understanding of all this will improve as the industry learns from experience and as research results come in, but the tension between the unconditional need for fuel and the unconditional need for water could become acute.E136

The second snag is that the undoubted presence of gas does not necessarily mean that it can be extracted in the quantities needed to close the coming gap in the supply of fuel. It is a technology that lends itself to false inference and false hopes, in that the gas races out immediately after the rock has been opened up, but this promising phase then falls away quickly. In the Barnett Shale in Texas, for instance, operators originally expected gas wells to have a life of about 30–40 years. In fact, early results suggest an average life of around 7.5 years, and most of the gas that a well will ever produce comes in the first year of its life.E137

That does not necessarily make a well less useful: an extremely strong flow in the first few months can be seen as a bonus, rather than as a handicap. But rapid die-off could have something to tell us about the scale of the resource as a whole. The strong flow of gas from a well in its first year is an indication that it will turn out to be productive, but, when seeking funding for the enterprise, the incentive to make optimistic estimates of future reserves in the light of current, if short-lived, results is powerful.E138

And this same incentive applies to a company’s decision on whether or not to drill. The act of sinking a well can be taken as evidence that money will be made from it, whether the company actually expects to do so or not. And big money-costs invariably mean big energy costs, more generally known as low energy return on energy invested (EROEI)—EROEI is the decisive measure which tells us whether a fuel resource is worth developing, regardless of the finances. This is a young industry, and neither advocates nor sceptics can be sure of their case. But when the high monetary and energy costs of getting shale gas out of the ground are combined with the possibility of smaller-than-expected results and with the prospect of large liabilities arising from the contamination of land, air and water, it is possible that the shale gas boom will yet turn out to be a bubble.E139

Shale gas will make a contribution to gas supplies around the world. It is already starting to do so. As to how big that contribution will be, it is still uncertain. But it is not too early to work out some early perspective on the matter. This is done at the end of the present discussion on gas, and at the end of this entry on fossil fuels.


Coalbed methane

This is the methane—the “firedamp”—that makes coal mining so dangerous, and was the bane of miners’ lives from the earliest days. In principle, its extraction is simple: insert a pipe into the mine and allow the methane to flow up the pipe under its own pressure. In the first decade of exploiting this source there were expectations that it would provide very large flows of gas, and its contribution of some 7.5 percent of annual gas production in the United States was useful, but its growth has now stalled.E140

The main problem for the industry is what to do with the water it gets out of the mine along with the gas. The coalbed is typically permeated with water, and this has to be extracted and disposed of. It is saline and rich in sodium along with other contaminants such as chlorides, ethyl benzene and metals, so it cannot be used as irrigation water nor dumped into rivers. The problem remains unsolved. And there are other problems: removing the water from the coalbeds can lower the water table by between 200 and 800 feet; there can be spontaneous combustion leading to underground fires, smoke and pollution from the burning of waste coal; and there are the spectacular and deafening explosions (and sometimes fireballs) produced by “cavitations”, when the operator suddenly releases a gas build-up in a mine to create the underground cavity needed for the operation.E141

All forms of mining for gas have their environmental hazards, but these problems for coalbed methane, combined with a relatively slow rate of release of the gas, have reduced interest in the technology for now.


Biogenic gas

All methane comes from organic materials, but in most cases the materials in question lived a long time (millions of years) ago. In the case of biogenic gas, the gas is of much more recent origin, ranging from hundreds of thousands of years to a few weeks.E142

Theoretically, methane could be captured as it escapes from warming permafrost (see Climate Change > Methane). This would involve covering hundreds of thousands of square miles of Canada and Siberia with plastic sheets. It has a disturbing logic about it—and if it were black plastic sheeting, it would absorb heat from the sun and accelerate the melting, so you would get even more methane.

A more realistic source is the methane released by rotting vegetation, sewage and slurry from cattle (milking parlours and indoor rearing). This can often provide the energy needed for the operation itself (the farm, the sewage works and some local domestic heating), with some left over. But its role as a solution to the coming energy scarcities will be minor.E143


Methane hydrates

Under conditions of high pressure and low temperature, methane and water combine to form stable crystalline structures which are found in large quantities in relatively shallow seas such as the Arctic Ocean, in outcrops in the deep oceans, at the surface of high-altitude inland plateaus, and in some deep sedimentary rocks. So far they have been left almost unexploited, and there are good arguments for leaving them that way. The global warming potential of methane in the atmosphere is many times that of carbon dioxide—25-fold over 100 years; 72-fold over the first 20 years. The process of mining these methane hydrates and capturing the gas would unavoidably release large quantities of methane into the atmosphere. And methane becomes a massive presence when we consider its potential as an amplifying feedback, responding to every rise in temperature with further releases from the permafrost and the Arctic seabed. Methane hydrates are a sleeping giant which we would be well advised not to poke a stick at.E144

And yet, concern about the prospects for oil and gas supplies has provided an incentive for wild surmise about methane hydrates as a source of natural gas. One study by the US National Academy of Sciences has emphatically ruled out the idea that the risks of developing the potential of methane hydrates outweigh the rewards:

Research on methane hydrate to date has not revealed technical challenges that the committee believes are insurmountable in the goal to achieve commercial production of methane from methane hydrate in an economically and environmentally feasible manner.E145

And energy analysts in China recognise the case for making use of its methane hydrates (aka “combustible ice”). Note the “clean”:

China’s western Qinghai Province, containing major deposits of the country’s “combustible ice”, will see increased explorations for this emerging clean energy. . . . The plateau province plans to allow large energy companies along with researchers to tap this new source of energy while minimizing environmental threats.E146

One widely cited estimate places the global methane hydrate resource (measured in terms of the carbon content) in the range of 500–2,500 billion tonnes—a wide range, but not so wide as to be useless, since it is unlikely that the industrial political economy would survive to explore beyond the smaller one. To put that estimate into perspective, there are currently around 800 billion tonnes of carbon in the atmosphere.E147


Lean reflection on gas

One of the received principles guiding decision-making on natural gas is the observation that gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than either oil or coal in terms of the carbon dioxide released per unit of energy produced. Methane releases about 180 g/kWh, compared with coal’s 351 g/kWh. This is why it is described as “clean” fuel, and why plans to develop the potential of gas to the limit—despite the extreme problems presented by shale gas and methane hydrates—can be presented as a way of reducing environmental impact, rather than as part of a process of diligently destroying the stability of the climate.E148

What this assessment of natural gas overlooks, however, is that its impact on the climate comes from two different sources. One of them—the obvious one—consists of the release of carbon dioxide when fuel is burned, and the claimed comparative advantage of gas in this context is justified. The other one, however, consists of the effect of (unburned) methane, whose warming potential over a century (as just noted) is 25 times that of the same mass of carbon dioxide. This means that methane that escapes at any point in the supply chain between drilling and final consumption will have an important direct impact on the climate, even if only released in small quantities.E149

How small? A study by the independent analyst Chris Vernon points out that if just 3 percent of the methane escapes into the atmosphere at any point before combustion, then the global warming impact of natural gas (per unit of energy produced) will be the same as that of coal.E150

We do not know how much methane leaks along the supply chain from wellhead to final consumption. Vernon suggests that it might be around 1.5 percent in the UK, and that it could be more than this when gas is transported over long distances and across national boundaries, as in Eastern Europe. And if operations before the wellhead are included—that is, the whole cycle from rock face to consumption is considered—then it seems probable that leaks will be well in excess of 3 percent of the total volume of gas produced. We already know that shale gas mining can release enough methane to turn kitchen taps into flamethrowers. And when the oil was flowing from the blown-out Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, methane escaped uncontrollably into the water at a rate some 500 times faster than that of the oil. It is probable that, if methane hydrates are disturbed by mining, then the release of methane into the atmosphere will be hard to prevent.E151

Some readers may conclude that the argument in favour of natural gas as the ideal fuel is more nuanced than it is sometimes taken to be.



We shall come to the statistics, but let us first pause for a moment of awe at the story so far:


Coal’s past

Coal is the product of the ancient Carboniferous forests which covered much of the planet 300 million years ago. In long, leisurely periods—like deep sighs, each lasting tens of millions of years—the land was submerged under seas and river deltas, recovering again and again to re-grow as forest, giving us layers of alternating coal and sedimentary rock, stretching from the surface to the unmineable depths, too hot to handle.E152

It is hard to think about coal without hearing, if only in the imagination, the distant echoes of the outrageous and untamed jungle which it once was. It is relatively tame now, a well-trained industry in most places, but this good behaviour took a long time to come. Coal was used in the Bronze Age and in Roman Britain; in the medieval period it was a routine export from Tyneside to London; and from 1550–1700 it grew into an industry with an output of about 3 million tonnes a year, requiring systematic mining with underground working, and facing the endemic problems of geological faults, roof falls, flooding and fire.E153

Coal mining meant daily trouble, detail and surprise; men, women, boys and girls worked by hand, with shovels, ponies, baskets, string, wood, candles and blind courage. Later, steam engines helped with lifting the coal and pumping the water, but the mining itself did not really have an industrial revolution of its own. Hand-cutting, hand-hauling, pony power, wooden pit-props, fire, flooding, lung disease and labour-intensity remained; the detail of having to adapt, with ingenuity, to weird faults and formations in the geology continued in the UK until well into the second half of the twentieth century, and in many coal mines around the world all these are with us still.E154

It was dangerous. In the early years of the nineteenth century, the fatalities in the collieries of Tyne and Wear touched 300 a year. There were deaths from flooding: even the Newcomen steam engine, which relied on atmospheric pressure to do the lifting, could do little for the deep mines, and it could do nothing in emergencies. At the Heaton colliery near Newcastle in 1815, over a century after the engine had been invented, it still took nine months to pump out the water that blocked the way to seventy-five men and boys who had been trapped by water coming from a neighbouring disused mine. By the time they were reached, they had eaten their horses, candles and the bark from the fir props, and the would-be rescuers noted that one man had not long been dead.E155

And there were deaths from fire, caused mainly by methane, the infamous and explosive “firedamp” released by the exposed coal and sparked by the candles. Safer forms of illumination were tried, including phosphorous and putrescent fish, but the pale glimmers of light they provided were next to useless so—until the invention of the safety lamp in 1815—it had to be unprotected candles. When the miners became aware that firedamp was building up (which in some mines happened three times a day), they withdrew from the face and sent a fireman ahead to explode it. He would cover himself in damp rags and crawl forward, in distant imitation of the jungle-fauna of a previous era, holding a candle at the end of a very long stick, and hoping, when the moment came, to be able to lie flat enough to avoid being blown to bits. The alternative method was to dig a man-sized pit close to the place where the methane was concentrated; the fireman would climb into it, get his mates to cover the hole with a board and piles of wood, and then draw towards him a candle attached to a string . . .E156

Technology eventually came to the rescue, reducing the fatalities—in the United Kingdom at least—to five per million tonnes of coal in 1900, and then down to the present rate of 0.5. But the phenomenal complication of the industry remains. Indeed, it is not one industry at all, it is many: its business consists of construction, surveying, tunnelling, ventilation, mechanical-, chemical- and electrical-engineering, transport, waste disposal, decommissioning, landscaping . . . And the complexity continues with the users of coal, who must cope with the pollution of water, air and land, disposing of slag and fly ash, and handling coal’s bulk. Coal is greedy for men: in the UK in 1913, well over a million men worked in its service in coal mining itself, and over half a million more worked in the various power industries—producing gas, coke and electricity—and in the industries that serviced them: making the equipment, driving the coal trains, distributing the coal. The capture of energy from coal is not a technology; it is an establishment. It consists of layer on layer of infrastructure, capital, damage limitation and special skills; and it depends on a heroism and mastery of its own. In the United Kingdom, it took centuries to build, and just a few years to substantially demolish. Will it now be rebuilt?E157


Coal’s future

If we were able to choose which fuels to use, ranked in order of the energy that can be extracted from them (by weight), coal would be low on the list. The best fuel from that point of view is natural gas, which contains around 50 megajoules of energy per kilogram (Mj/kg), with crude oil falling well short of that at 40. The highest grade of coal (anthracite) yields 30; bituminous coal 20–30, sub-bituminous 10–25. Wood comes in at around 10.E158

Compared, therefore, with oil and gas (and even compared with wood, which also has the advantage that it absorbed its carbon content from the atmosphere rather more recently, and that the trick can be repeated), coal produces more carbon dioxide for each unit of energy delivered. And it has other disadvantages. Coal requires large mining and transport infrastructures. It leaves a lot of ash. Its boilers need constant management and frequent maintenance. Coal is large-scale trouble.

And yet, worldwide, the consumption of coal is growing fast. This is mainly because of a massive increase in the demand for electricity in the newly-developed countries, notably China and India, both of which have increased their consumption of coal fivefold since 1980. In the OECD countries, coal consumption has generally levelled off or declined as they have switched into alternatives—especially gas—but globally, from 1980–2010, total energy consumption has doubled, and coal’s 25 percent contribution to that has held.E159

Now, one of the points of agreement over the last twenty years of climate and energy discussion has been that the planet still possesses very large stocks of mineable coal—that is, coal that can be physically extracted from the ground and used in its many applications on the surface. 200 years’ supply of coal from proven reserves has been the more-or-less undisputed estimate.E160

In 2004, that began to change, when the World Energy Council had a closer look at the estimates that they had made in 1980. The revisions were substantial. Botswana’s ‘proved recoverable reserves’ were revised down by almost 99%, from 3.5 billion tons to 40 million (0.04 billion) tons; the United Kingdom’s proved recoverable reserves shrank 95%, from 45 billion tons to 220 million tons; Germany’s came down by more than 99%, from 23 billion tons to 183 million tons. Some other countries, such as India, did report increases over the same period, but in most cases, they were dramatically down.E161

In 2007, these revisions were summarised and evaluated by a German think tank called the Energy Watch Group. Above all, they found great variation in the quality and accuracy of data but, based on the best we have, they reached some interesting conclusions.

In the United States—the world’s second largest producer—production (mining) of anthracite peaked in 1950; production of bituminous coal peaked in 1990; and, importantly, the total energy from coal reached its peak in 1998. Coal of all kinds in the United States has become harder to obtain; since 2000, productivity per miner has declined by about 10 percent (and this is measured in tons/miner, but the energy content of each ton is also dropping).E162

Other countries are also well past ‘peak coal’. Germany’s hard coal (anthracite and bituminous) peaked in 1958; Canada has large reserves of subbituminous coal and lignite, but its total production nonetheless peaked in 1998.E163

In the world’s largest producer, China, the best estimate is that mineable coal production can be expected to peak around 2015, before falling away to around half by 2040. But even this needs to be revised to take into account the annual loss of reserves due to underground fires burning out of control, equivalent to 5–10 percent of production; it should also make allowance for likely downward revision in China’s estimated reserves as more realistic evaluations are made of how much of the resource can actually be recovered.E164

As the coal industry turns to ever poorer grades—down from anthracite (which is now almost entirely depleted) to bituminous, sub-bituminous and lignite—even maximising the production of mineable coal leads to a predicted worldwide peak in energy produced in around 2025.E165

Other studies have reached similar conclusions. A report by the Uppsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group concludes that the world’s production of coal will increase by about 30 percent to a turning point in the mid-2020s, followed by some 25 years in which it holds constant, but at the cost of turning to lower grades. A report by the Institute for Energy, The Future of Coal concludes that mounting production costs will lift the price of coal relative to oil and gas, and that coal may no longer be “abundant, widely available, cheap, affordable and reliable”. And an analysis by David Rutledge and Jean Laherrère, using a more mathematical and abstract approach than the close-range local detail of the EWG and Uppsala reports, comes in as an outlier with the coal peak postponed to the 2040s.E166

The end of coal? Well, it may not be, because here is some news just in . . .


Underground coal gasification

It is beginning to dawn on the coal industry that, to generate electricity from coal, it may not be necessary to mine it—it can be done in situ, underground. In fact, this was first suggested by the engineer William Siemens in 1868, but there was plenty of easily mineable coal around then, so no one took any notice. It is based on the principles which have been used for almost two centuries to convert the solid and awkward bulk of coal into the much more convenient form of gas. Apply heat and (often) high pressure to a mixture of coal, steam and oxygen. The carbon will partially oxidise, producing carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Contaminants such as hydrogen sulphide, mercury and ammonia can then be removed (along with solid waste in the form of particulates, ash and slag). What you get is “town gas” or “illumination gas”—the mixture of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide which lit the nineteenth century’s streets and pubs, and—until the 1960s—fuelled the UK’s domestic cookers, gas ovens, and boilers.E167

Underground coal gasification (UCG) applies that principle underground. Oxygen is injected into the mine, a fire is started, and the carbon monoxide, hydrogen and (in some conditions) methane that is produced are piped to the surface. It is still early days, but the incentive to develop UCG is now intense. The technology exists, gas has been produced in a pilot project in Queensland for a decade or so, and the signs are that it is ready to go.E168


The technology which derives liquid fuel from coal seems at first to be just what we need as we face a future of oil depletion. Its feasibility was demonstrated by wartime Germany, and South Africa’s Sasol company started coal-to-liquids (CTL) under the Apartheid embargo and still produces 150,000 barrels of liquid fuels a day. A new plant has also been started up in China.E170

There are two ways of doing it. The first converts the coal into gas and then employs the Fischer-Tropsch process: reacting it over a catalyst to extend the hydrocarbon molecules to the length needed for a liquid. Alternatively, the Bergius process subjects the coal to high temperature and pressure to produce liquid directly.E171

Yet the energy analysts Mikael Höök and Kjell Aleklett see the large losses of energy in the conversion from coal to liquids—meaning the technology has a voracious demand for coal—as a severe limitation. In principle it makes more sense to generate electricity from the coal. Coal which is used to generate electricity will drive an electric car three times as far as the same quantity of coal used to produce fuel for a petrol-driven car.E172


This process starts with gas, and so its use of the Fischer-Tropsch process is much more efficient than coal-to-liquids. It is the fastest-growing development in the oil industry. A reminder: the “liquids” produced here are long-chain fuels such as gasoline, diesel, paraffin, kerosene, airline fuel and lubricants, not the short-chain ‘natural gas liquids’ (NGLs), which are much less versatile, bulkier and harder to transport and store.E173

It could turn out to be a massive source of gas, and it would be additional to the development of shale gas discussed earlier in this entry. The subject is still rich with uncertainty but UCG could, in principle, make it possible to generate all the electricity we need, supplemented by liquid fuel for road transport (see “Liquid Energy” sidebar). The toxicity of the carbon monoxide it contains would be a significant hazard, probably requiring further processing to deliver a flow of reasonably pure hydrogen. And the process of converting town gas to liquid petroleum uses up about half of the energy contained in the gas; but that may not be thought to matter if there is enough gas—and on the evidence now becoming available, UCG is potentially such an effective means of putting the planet’s coal resources to use that there would indeed be enough.E169

And the snags? First there is the problem of fire. The normal means of controlling the underground fire is the supply of oxygen: if it is shut off, the fire goes out. If that doesn’t work, try water: the presumption is that UCG would only be carried out at depths below the water table, so to extinguish the fire you would only need to let the water flow back in. But heat rises, and if the fire spread above the water table that fail-safe device would not work. Nor would it work if the flow was not fast enough to extinguish the fire: some deep geological deposits are dry. There are many underground fires burning in the world. Those in China have already reduced its mineable resource by almost a fifth; in the United States, the Centralia mine fire in Pennsylvania, started accidentally in 1962, is one of dozens still burning out of control in the state. And underground peat fires in Indonesia have been pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a variable rate ranging around a billion tonnes a year.E174

It is unlikely that UCG could be developed on a large scale without starting a new generation of fires, with corresponding releases of carbon into the atmosphere. Indeed, the very efficiency of UCG—relative to the avoided cost of mining and the construction of industrial-scale gasifiers—would encourage it. Labour productivity may be some four times greater than in the case of mining; no long-distance coal transport is needed; there are no slag heaps; and you don’t need to build complex, capital-intensive gas plants above ground (a capital saving of some 60 percent has been estimated). The essential requirements are boreholes and pipes. Enterprises could develop UCG projects with modest backing and relaxed procedures. There could be a black market in coal gas whose sources and methods its buyers prefer not to know about.E175

Secondly, there are the emissions of carbon dioxide both from the process of underground gasification itself, and from the eventual combustion of the gas in centralised facilities such as power stations. The natural response to this would be carbon capture and storage (see below), if it existed on a scale adequate for the task, but it doesn’t, and it is unlikely to do so.

It’s time for a look at the quantities we are dealing with here. For context, in 2010, approximately 6.5 billion tonnes of coal was mined from a global reserve of approximately 900 billion mineable tonnes. Estimates of the quantity of coal available using UCG vary widely: the World Energy Council stated in 2007 that around 600 billion tonnes of otherwise unusable coal may be suitable for underground gasification; a 2010 study by Dermot Roddy and Paul Younger suggested that the total potential resource could be as high as 4,000 billion tonnes.E176

Let’s stay with the latter estimate. If this resource were used, the carbon dioxide releases into the atmosphere might amount to some 12,000 billion tonnes. This would be enough (other things being equal) to raise carbon dioxide concentrations by 6,000 parts per million, which in turn would notionally raise the global temperature by 18 degrees.E177



“It’s obvious that the whole idea of peak oil—or peak fossil fuels—is blown completely out of the water.” That observation, following a conversation in a summertime wood in Buckinghamshire about shale gas, methane hydrates and underground coal gasification, seems at first hard to fault. If we want to get hold of fossil fuels in large quantities in the future, we will probably be able to do so.

But to what extent does this indeed destroy the peak oil argument? “Peak oil” is widely and understandably used as shorthand to refer not just to oil itself, but to the idea that energy scarcities of various kinds will in the near future damage the market economy to the point of destruction, or at least to the point of change beyond recognition. Well, there are a few things to point out.

To start with, specific fuels are required for specific purposes. Oil (in its various liquid derivatives) is by far the best fuel for transport; petrol and diesel have a higher energy-density (by volume, not weight) than compressed natural gas, which contains only around a quarter of the energy for the same volume of fuel. The proposed solution to this is to convert the natural gas to petroleum—a process which, though slightly more efficient than the conversion of town gas, still comes at the cost of losing some 40 percent of the energy contained in the gas itself—and large installations for this purpose are coming on line in Qatar, Indonesia, Yemen and Peru. Meanwhile, a new floating LNG technology has the potential to make use of the many gas reserves around the world which were formerly too small to develop.E178

And yet, general statements about the existence of fuel in quantities sufficient to meet the world’s energy needs can be misleading. For what our civilisation needs to fuel the continuity of its present progress along the path of economic growth is not just “energy” in general terms but:

1. Specific forms of fuel and energy in the right place: Fuels must be constantly available to satisfy all the market economy’s needs, including transport, heating and power generation.

2. Time: Any transformations in energy infrastructure, such as for the conversion of gas to liquids, have to be available in time to make up for the shortfall in the supply of transport fuels due to peak oil.

3. A protected ecology: (1) and (2) have to be delivered without destroying the planet’s ecosystems. It cannot be said that peak oil has gone away unless the additional threats presented by the candidates to replace oil are emphatically removed.

It appears unlikely, therefore, that peak oil will be avoided. Or, as the oil analyst Chris Skrebowski puts it, seemingly inviting his readers to read between the lines:

Whether the development of unconventional gas supplies is fast enough to have an impact on the oil crunch remains to be seen. . . . It should be remembered, however, that fuel supply changeovers take time and investment.E179

Regular oil—the light, sweet crude that keeps us all moving—has benign qualities, along with its problems. It is already a liquid with a high energy-density; it does not leak methane; it does not give rise to underground fires; it is easily transportable; it can be used for all purposes; its mishaps are not catastrophic. It is a hard act to follow. Yet the probability is that deepening oil scarcities will begin in the decade 2015–2024.

In fact, far from peak oil being blown out of the water by the new discoveries, its impact is intensified by another difficulty. At a time of energy deficit, there will be an incentive to develop those new sources of gas. There will also be a need to prevent the carbon emissions that this would produce.

Until now, green critics’ task of drawing attention to a turning point ahead has been comparatively easy and uncontroversial: peak oil was on its way; it was no one’s fault, the product of no one’s choice or policy. The other message, “we must reduce carbon emissions to deal with climate change”, though vigorously argued, could take second place in terms of imposing a profound and immediate transformation on our civilisation, not because it was less important, but because peak oil—the immediate problem, and probably the first to strike with radical consequences—would happen whatever anyone did.

But now it is necessary to base the argument on an intentional commitment to prevent the explosive release of carbon dioxide and methane emissions from the new gas resources, in a market that is already in deep trouble owing to oil shortages. All this new energy potential can be seen as coming to the rescue of our civilisation in its hour of need. Anyone who wants to stop that happening risks being entangled in accusations of destroying the economy our civilisation depends on. What is blown out of the water is not peak oil, but the beautiful “not my fault, guv” simplicity of the story so far—the friendly warning that energy scarcity is not something we need to enforce, but something we need to prepare for and respond to.E180

And these considerations are sharpened by the nature of the technology involved. We are in the era of methods of last resort, involving risks which would not be contemplated unless all other options had closed. It is not just that they present extreme difficulties—the development of deep-sea oil wells, for example, is at least as difficult as the exploration of space, and nuclear energy generates radioactive waste that must be actively managed for decades. The key problem is that when things go wrong with technologies built on this massive scale, the consequences tend to be catastrophic. The Gulf of Mexico dies; whole watersheds become unusable; unquenchable underground fires burn; carbon and methane emissions erupt out of control. Regular technologies have their accidents, but, beyond the reach of the local trouble, life carries on. Once the boundary of last resort has been crossed, taking technologies from the regular to the extreme, some accidents will have global consequences. You don’t need many of those.E181



Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the proposal that the carbon dioxide produced by the combustion of fossil fuels can be permanently stored away in places where it cannot harm the atmosphere. The intense incentive to develop it as a solution is clear, since there is no other way of combining the use of fossil fuels with anything remotely corresponding to the emissions reduction needed to protect the climate.

It is suggested that the CO2 could be stored in disused oil and gas fields; in unmineable or exhausted coal seams; in saline or basalt formations (porous rock saturated with brine); or in deep oceans, where liquid carbon dioxide would form a dense lake on the seafloor. CCS is widely cited as a mitigation or even a solution to the problem of carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power stations: it is what allows shale gas, underground coal gasification, and even methane hydrates to be presented as sensible options.E182

Various ways of capturing carbon dioxide have been developed. One method is to extract as much carbon as possible from the exhaust flue after combustion of the fuel. In the case of coal, there is the option of partially-oxidising the coal to produce town gas (see “Underground Coal Gasification” above), and transforming the carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide which can then be quite easily captured. A third alternative is to burn the coal in oxygen, mix the flue gas with water vapour, and then extract the water vapour to leave a stream of carbon dioxide.E183

Dramatic advance in Carbon Capture and Storage

Mikel: I quite like the idea for digging up every 12 tons of coal, burning it, and putting the 44 tons of carbon dioxide back in the hole.

Daxr: I’m wondering how much cheaper it would be instead to just bury coal itself? If we used the holes and shafts that coal mining leaves in the ground, we’d save lots of costs there too.

Greenish: I think you’re on to something. In theory, it would even work if we pushed it one more step back. Just leave it in the ground. We could call it “in situ non-gasification” or something.

~ Exchange by commenters on The Oil Drum.E185

Demonstration and pilot plants for carbon capture have been constructed by Imperial College (London), by Total at Lacq (southwestern France), by Scottish Power in Longannet (Scotland), by Doosan Babcock in Renfrew (Scotland), and many other organisations. It is not yet settled whether CCS can deliver as promised, but there are problems associated with it:

1. Scale. At present about 30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide are released from all industrial, transport and domestic uses of fossil fuels each year.E184 If, by some means, this quantity of carbon dioxide could be condensed into a liquid (compressed and cooled to zero degrees) and injected into underground spaces, it would occupy approximately 10 cubic kilometres. This is more than twice the total volume of coal mined each year.E186 Nonetheless, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) technical report on carbon capture and storage estimates geological potential for at least 2,000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide storage worldwide.E187

The idea that carbon dioxide could in fact be contained at low temperature and high pressure in underground spaces, either natural or man-made, is, however, open to debate. It is disputed by, for instance, Michael Economides, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Houston, but the objection has been strongly rebuffed by other specialists in the field and by the Carbon Capture and Storage Association. Indeed, the matter is complicated because, in the right conditions, the carbon dioxide doesn’t just sit there as a gas, waiting to leak; it combines with minerals in the rock to form a stable carbonate.E188

In summary, the balance of the argument appears to support the view that large-scale storage is feasible in principle, but the key question—”can it work on a large enough scale to make a difference?”—is not settled, for implementation on a scale approaching the need is still at least twenty years away. Even then, CCS is only relevant to flue gas emissions, and can do nothing about emissions from (for instance) domestic heating, petrol- and diesel-driven transport and equipment, nor about emissions of carbon dioxide and methane from the mines, wells and transport systems of the fuel providers themselves.

2. Other practical consequences. The reliability of the various forms of storage being considered is uncertain. The concern that some underground storage sites could leak is not laid to rest by the belief that others probably wouldn’t. There is also concern that, if deposited on deep ocean floors, CO2 would contribute to the acidification of the oceans, which already threatens to be a catastrophic consequence of climate change. On the other hand, the authors of another IPCC report conclude that appropriately selected geological reservoirs are likely to retain 99 percent of the carbon stored in them for 1,000 years, and that the release of carbon from ocean storage would be gradual over hundreds of years.E189

Yet that does not settle the matter. The IPCC’s emphasis on the careful choice of sites is a reminder of the possibility that this young technology too requires judgment and trade-offs, and would experience its accidents. It may also be relevant that seabed storage would kill off marine life in the area where it lies; we may wonder whether this is any more acceptable than a policy which, in the interests of saving the planet, destroyed all living organisms in large areas of rainforest. Moreover, there are uncertainties as to whether the spaces vacated by the new sources of gas—shale gas and underground coal gasification—will provide the gas-tight underground structures suitable for storage. Methane hydrates in any case do not generally vacate any underground space at all.

3. The cost. First, there is the energy-cost. The IPCC estimates that a coal-fired power station whose carbon dioxide emissions were sequestered would need about twice as much coal to produce the same amount of power. As for money costs, the IPCC’s estimates depend on the type of fuel being used. For an efficient gas plant the cost increase could be between 25% and 40%; for a coal plant it could be between 50% and 100%. The energy analyst Richard Heinberg settles for an increase of around 80%.E190

CCS’ biggest problem is that the scale of the task counts against it. Two influential reports published in 2010 argued that it is not enough to demonstrate that it can work in principle; it needs to be shown that it can work on a large enough scale to capture most of the carbon produced by the combustion of coal and gas worldwide.E191 The evidence on this is decades away. Yet in the meantime, the option of carbon capture and storage is typically proposed as a solution to the dangers of the new generation of gas projects. As the science writer Fred Pearce points out:

The trouble with CCS right now is that it is being sold as an imminent fix when it is very far from that.E192

CCS is the technology that makes the case for unconventional gas as a realistic option. But CCS is itself a method of last resort, and arguably the largest-scale industrial project ever. It requires everything to be in working order: the prospecting of suitable repositories, the capture, the transport, the injection, the leak-proofing of the entire system and the monitoring, the law, the banks, international agreements and confidence that there is still some point in trying to save the climate; that it is not already too late. All this will be required at a time when energy supplies are becoming ever tighter, and when the wealth and energy available for such large projects are already depleted. CCS is not a means of providing energy—that could be done at far lower short-term financial cost without it. It will, rather, be a dead weight on an already poor political economy, keen to use every scrap of energy it can get, just to keep going. It may well be seen as a way of making a bad situation worse, at a time when people will be in no mood to make present sacrifices for an extremely uncertain future.

There is undoubtedly a case for CCS to be developed. And yet this is a moment for sympathetic scepticism. An energy-poor, money-poor, climate-stressed global economy may not be able to both develop giant-scale, last resort fuel supplies and connect them up with an equally-large-scale system designed to prevent the damage which they cause. Here is the debtor’s downfall: he knows he can borrow now; he does so in the hope that he will be able to pay it back later; failing that, he can at least promise to do so, loud and often. CCS, the Climate-Credit Sting, allows us to carry on borrowing. For a time.

If CCS’ chief significance is its role in removing doubts as to whether it is a good idea to open up a massive new flow of global warming gases, that is not an argument against developing it. Rather, it is an argument against developing shale gas, underground coal gasification and methane hydrates on the assumption that CCS will shortly be ready—with massive geological sites selected and surveyed, with legal titles arranged and the agreement of locals, with pipes linking them to the sources, with pumps and (in some cases) refrigeration all in place, with technical challenges overcome and reliability assured—for final disposal of the carbon.



And then there are the very large-scale projects and proposals based on renewable sources of energy. There is desert solar: the building—already started in several of the world’s deserts—of arrays of solar concentrators, producing electricity to be transported by cable around the world. And there is the proposal for large-scale offshore wind, which would supply much of Europe with energy generated from fixed and floating turbines in (for instance) the North Sea and North Atlantic.E193

Whether such projects are developed in practice on the needed scale depends primarily on factors beyond the reach of the technologies themselves—notably money, materials (especially copper) and time. If there were no prospect of an energy crunch in the near future, then the construction of such massive-scale proposals could be feasible. But they need to be based on an economy which is thriving and competent, able to sustain its capital, its ability to plan, and a transport system which reliably gets people into work. It also needs to have a power grid in full working order and large infrastructures for construction and maintenance.

The expectation that the energy crunch will come before such projects are able to make a serious and useful contribution is not really an argument against making the attempt. But large-scale visions—including nuclear energy—cannot be seen as reasons to be diverted from a radically different energy strategy. We must frankly recognise that the large energy sources on which our society depends face the same collective risk of failure as the other conditions for sustained global industrial growth. Large-scale connectedness is intrinsically and critically vulnerable.

No dismissal of desert solar is implied in the observation that the climacteric—itself partly the product of the converging failure of the large energy establishments—will shortly be upon us, and will demand a profound rethink with regard to resilient energy supply. The alternative to these large-scale technologies is to choose, instead—starting now—to make something quite different happen: deep planned reductions in the energy we use, along with brilliance about how to respond to the challenge of doing so. That is, to think lean.



“Into each life some rain must fall”, as P.G. Wodehouse observed in connection with the troubles of Otis Pilkington. Well, this entry has pointed out some of the problems bearing down on the energy sources on which we rely at present, so it would seem that the next thing to do is to describe the rich diversity of renewable energy sources available now, in a state of constant improvement, and suited to the small-scale, local, Lean Economy.

However, this is the road not taken. Three reasons. First, it is a large subject and there is no space for it. Secondly, energy solutions are being developed and improved all the time, and the best sources are the latest books and internet sources. Thirdly, lean thinking is a philosophy about working things out for ourselves.E194

So, a last word: reclaim the streets; they are your streets. Don’t believe the impossible—like the claim that large-scale, oil-dependent biofuels are an abundant net source of clean energy. Some logical possibilities (such as the use of algae as a third generation biofuel) can emerge usefully from things that seemed once to be technical dead ends, and they are especially useful if they can be done on an informal and local scale. But how to use these options is your choice, based on your inventiveness and on applications of renewables which are only at the early stages of being thought of.E195

The energy prospects for the global market economy, then, are poor. We face an energy shock. The large-scale, last resort solutions will stall under the weight of unintended consequences. Local energy solutions will be as good as the resources and intelligence of the people who are there. Some starting points are outlined in the below entries:


Related entries:

Entropy, Energy Descent Action Plan, Lean Energy, TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas), Depletion Protocol.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

3 Responses to “Energy Prospects

  • The information on energy, oil and gas, NEEDS TO BE UPDATED to 2022. Easy for me to say, quite a long task for someone to do. 🙂

    • Heh, yes indeed MDD, quite a task! In fact that’s partly why the book was only published posthumously, because David was constantly trying to update everything and so never considered it finished.

      The above entry was written by David, so it would feel inappropriate to update it – books are in part a record of their time, after all – but if you check the notes (e.g. here and here) you’ll find that I did ask his expert erstwhile colleagues to provide updates. Anything in the notes not written by David before his death in 2010 is marked with “Editor’s note”.

      For the very latest, I highly recommend

  • I wanted to comment here on the subject of energy generation from biomass. Currently there is heated (pardon the pun) debate going on around clear-cutting forests in the South Eastern USA, processing the trees into wood-pellets and shipping them off over to Europe. There is no doubt, in my mind, that this is a deeply destructive and polluting endeavour. There are more details on this, here…

    However, we feel that there is a place for biomass in energy creation and it is a keystone concept of our “Permaculture Village” project. The purpose of this project is to propose lower-cost alternatives to re-localize much of that we have either centralized or globalized. One of our concepts here is to use solar, wind and water as the major sources of electrical energy generation supported by locally grown biomass powering combined heat and power (CHP) generators, using gassified biomass to drive the generator itself; thereby replacing natural-gas based “peaker-plants”. This is one of the companies we are looking at Where possible, coppiced-harvestable-renewable willow will be used as the primary biomass input, grown locally adjacent to the CHP generator, however this system we link to has various input fuels and when that is wood, it produces bio-char as an output resource.

    The main goals here being to localize energy creation via truly renewable methods and have a very beneficial output; biochar.

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