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Saturday, March 12, 2005

High Noon for Natural Gas

Excerpt from the book

by Julian Darley, (February 06 2005)

Why "High Noon"?

For those who haven't seen the film High Noon, Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a man unwilling to run away from a nasty set of problems - the worst of whom, Frankie Miller, is due to arrive in town on the noon train. Kane's problems are also the problems of the people in his town, but they refuse to confront the facts, hide in the comfort of their homes, and won't help him deal with reality. They hope that everything will be all right if they leave well enough alone. In the end, one person does help Will, namely, his wife. The cowardice of the townspeople is chilling, as is their willingness to leave to others what they should really do themselves. Unfortunately, being a cowboy film, albeit one of the best, homicide and violence are the methods chosen to settle matters.

In North America, particularly the United States and Canada, there are some energy problems coming to town that are every bit as menacing as Miller's gang. So far, the United States has dealt with the oil problem by using corporate and military force - most dreadfully, with the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. As so often happens with violent solutions, however, things didn't go quite according to plan, and by early 2004, though oil production has risen from immediate post-war levels, operations are still plagued by sabotage and technical problems. Canada's response to US oil supply difficulties was to pump its own easy oil flat out and sell more than half to the United States. But with the easy oil in decline, Canada and the United States believe that the Albertan tar sands will be their savior. That belief may not be well founded, but the reasons why go far beyond the cold Canadian tar sands and will soon touch the whole world.

The US energy story is complex and not very edifying in places, but it is full of wild and unexpected twists. The strangest is that the worst immediate problem confronting the United States (and Canada) is not oil, but natural gas. It is a natural gas shortage that could seriously interrupt the US economy, though there are several other impressive candidates, including a dollar crash and global oil peak.

("Peak" refers to a peak in extraction, followed by inexorable decline. Peak production can apply to the extraction of any naturally occurring fluid or gas deposit.)

The information to support the case being made here is largely in the public domain, but few have noticed. In September 2003, the National Petroleum Council (NPC), a group of oil and gas industry advisers, released their eighteen-month-long study of the state of North American gas supply and demand. It should have been at the top of the best-seller list. As it was, just a handful of energy analysts reviewed it, and they are calling out loud and clear that the Titanic is about to hit the iceberg, but, if you will pardon the mixture of metaphors, mission control is not listening.

The coming shortage of natural gas in the United States and Canada, compounded by global oil peak and decline, will try the energy and economic systems of both countries to their limits. It will plunge first the United States, then Canada, into a carbon chasm, a hydrocarbon hole, from which they will be hard put to emerge unscathed.

A Great Triumph

The United States appeared to make it through the 1970s oil shocks not only unshaken but immensely strengthened. Later, its great theoretical enemy, the Soviet Union, lay vanquished after the collapse of Communism. The United States had won, and the twenty-first century would now certainly be America's for the taking. However, despite appearances, and\\^triumphalist rhetoric to the contrary, the United States was in reality grievously wounded by the oil shocks.

Even so, after 1980, and further oil price increases following the 1979 Iranian revolution, instead of instituting a program of even more vigorous energy constraints, the United States embarked on a tide of unparalleled waste and consumption, so that twenty-five years later, it now imports more oil than at any time in its history. But at least it can import that oil easily. Natural gas cannot be imported on demand; it requires planning long in advance, especially if it comes over the ocean as liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Having ignored all the warnings and squandered two decades of planning time, the United States is left with gas from across the oceans as the only possible business-as-usual option. But it is too late.

Two well-respected energy experts, the world's foremost private energy banker, Matt Simmons, and energy analyst, Andrew Weissman, have been warning with great conviction and evidence that the system is heading for disaster. They have both said that North American gas supply numbers show that economic growth in America is under severe threat. Simmons went further to say that, compounded by the global peak in oil production, the world economy will be badly constrained, and once the full force of oil decline begins to set in, growth as we know it will be over. These men are certainly not anticapitalist radicals, indeed one of them has been an adviser to President George W Bush. Although the petroleum industry has a history of creating scares to drive up the price of oil and gas, such tactics are unwise when the supply is constrained by geology.

For the United States, and by extension for Canada and Mexico, high noon has indeed arrived for natural gas. Why should the rest of the world care? The United States, at least, is not a popular nation in the world community at present. Its seemingly unstoppable violence is visited on friend and foe alike, as the British, Canadians, Hungarians, Afghanis, Iraqis, and countless others have witnessed. All this violence for what? Once there were ideological overlays, however specious, but now it is becoming clear that American aggression is in great part about energy, once mainly oil, but increasingly natural gas as well. Even if the world doesn't want to care much about all the human suffering caused by the global war for energy, individual nations should worry that they may be the next target if they have oil and gas, and if not, that they will be competing with the United States for the limited supply of fossil hydrocarbons, the stuff that makes the modern industrial world work.

For North America, now racing full bore into the carbon chasm (a huge gap between high energy demand and falling supply), the question boils down to whether or not to agree to build dozens of new liquefied natural gas importing terminals. This will force the United States to become ever more dependent on foreign and mainly hostile nations for an energy source that supplies a quarter of its needs. Canada and Mexico will be faced with similar dilemmas, though less open to hostility.

Clear Warning?

The rest of the world is not far behind. There is still a degree of choice left for some about whether to make the same mistake as North America (and Britain) and switch en masse to the last great hydrocarbon, natural gas. If this is the chosen path, it will lead inexorably, as global natural gas peaks and declines, to a future dominated by nuclear power and coal, which will even more surely condemn our planet to global warming and grim battles for the remaining oil and gas that could all too easily trigger global warfare. Or else we could choose, at last, to try to live within our daily ration of energy supplied by the sun, however ludicrous this may sound. We could choose to end the cycle of violence that has characterized much of recorded human history and that has reached an astonishing crescendo of destruction in the last one hundred years.

These energy questions are some of the starkest and most historic ever placed before the human race. However we choose to answer the energy question, the problem of human overpopulation, so long a taboo subject for almost everyone, will resurface because of the coming shortages of natural gas and oil. This time we will not be able to smother the issue with fossil-fueled food.

The supply constraint of natural gas is so serious and coming so soon in North America that whichever way the LNG situation is resolved, Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans will be faced with using less natural gas. This is not a rerun of the 1973 energy shortages; it is much more serious and permanent. If by a miracle of heroism and fortitude, Americans decide not to go for acquiring massive new supplies of LNG, not to "globalize gas" as market proponents describe it, then other grave questions will have to be faced.

In fact, they will have to be faced anyway, but this will be the last time, because after natural gas, there are no more easy energy bonanzas left in our planet's crust, and now the first indisputable warnings about the limits to global natural gas reserves have appeared. In both 2001 and 2002, for the first time ever, more natural gas was used than found. Exactly twenty years ago, the same thing happened with oil: more was used than found. It wasn't a blip, it was a permanent trend. The present century has seen very little oil discovered, and 2003 was the worst year for vital, large discoveries in many decades. Now the same thing is happening to natural gas. It is the dread hand of depletion writing on the wall; we can ignore it for sure, but it will not ignore us.

A Global Problem

There are many other questions raised by natural gas, this invisible fuel and feedstock. Some of them are quite bizarre, many are curious and surprising. But none of them are nice surprises. Although each country will face a different set of questions, there is nowhere on Earth that will not be affected in some way by the issues raised here. Like it or not, personal and policy decisions will have to be made everywhere in regard to natural gas. Although it is late, now would be a good time to learn something about natural gas, to understand why we should all start caring about an energy source too long taken for granted.

Much of this book concerns the nature of natural gas, its disposition, its supply, and why we demand so much of it. But though the book is about natural gas, it is also not about natural gas. Rather, it is about energy and the future of humanity. It is about life itself, and some of the limits to the systems that support our industrial way of life. The final chapter will explore why economic growth, one of the strongest drivers of increased gas consumption, is forced upon us. I shall also discuss how the public - given that our institutions have mostly failed us - can meet the extraordinary challenge of using both less natural gas and less energy in general. Many people do accept that we live in a limited world and want to learn to live in it without damaging it any further, but we shall have to rebuild those broken institutions and infrastructures first. Some, indeed, may have to be invented for the first time.

This will be a journey, at times complex but also intriguing and strange. It will be necessary to pick a way through a jungle of confusing terms and numbers, so that we can begin to understand what the global petroleum corporations, and many of their client governments, do not want to us to understand or ask any awkward questions about.

Above all, the fate of Gary Cooper in High Noon should be avoided. He couldn't persuade the public to help him, and he had to resort to lone violence. In the end, in his view, he had no choice. All too often, if we leave a situation until too late, the best options may be closed.

Energy Literacy

Because energy is personal and political, awkward and unpleasant questions quickly arise. Energy is also technical and dangerous, essential both to life and to large-scale, mechanized violence. The discovery of abundant and easy energy in the forms of oil and natural gas has allowed us to disconnect from reality, from realizing that there is only a certain amount of useable energy delivered to the planet every day. We can cheat and run up environmental debts and eat into Earth's fossil energy store as we become ever more addicted to the big energy fix, but as with any debt, any deception, any addiction, there are high costs involved, and these costs are now undeniable.

The situation now arising requires a very deep level of rethinking. One of the requirements is energy literacy, a form of critical thinking and structural rethinking. Energy literacy will require us to notice how much and what type of energy a process of life requires, and where that energy comes from. In the industrial world, we are not used to thinking like this. We have endless tools for thinking superficially about economic goods, but few in policy or practice, for understanding the role of energy, or how it underpins the structures of industrial, automated life. Most importantly, it is not markets, but the mechanisms of our infrastructure that must be understood, and this understanding will be our key critical thinking tool.

Some of the observations and interpretations offered here will make uncomfortable reading, but unfortunately, there is so little structural or critical thinking at any level of society, business, or governance, that neither the tools nor the language for it are well developed or widely practiced. In fact, the opposite is generally true: Critical thinking is actively discouraged by deflection, diversion, and distraction.

Natural Gas Dependency

Perhaps because natural gas is not something that most people have to pump themselves, unlike gasoline, it may seem as magical as electricity. It's always there when you switch it on. However, natural gas is a substance like oil that must be extracted from the earth. Whatever our perceptions of natural gas, it is already the second most important energy source after oil in North America, and will soon be in the rest of the world. If we carry on with the present course, and if the peak and decline of global oil follows some of the more pessimistic predictions, then gas consumption will overtake oil - briefly - until it too declines.

In the United States, natural gas is used to make about twenty percent of all electricity. In many places, such as Britain, the percentage is much higher. In the future, the US government, and governments the world over, expect gas usage to rise dramatically. During the last four years, almost 95 percent of the new electricity-generating plants built in the United States have been fueled by natural gas, which means that either gas usage will rise to meet the demand or many operators will go bankrupt when the supply becomes too costly. Canada, as the world's largest producer of hydroelectricity, is not as dependent on natural gas as the United States, but some provinces, especially Ontario, the engine room of the Canadian economy, have less hydroelectric capacity and are therefore more reliant on gas to produce elctricity.

While natural gas is becoming ever more important for electrical power production, it is absolutely indispensable across the world for the production of industrial fertilizer. The explosive and highly problematic growth of the human population throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first is due in great part to the use of industrial fertilizer. One of the most vital, and presently irreplaceable, feedstocks of that fertilizer is natural gas, which makes natural gas possibly the single most critical ingredient in the diet of many human beings. For a few more years - no one can be sure how long - global natural gas production can increase, but in North America, where gas production has peaked and is declining, food production is already being affected, because of higher fertilizer prices; global oil peak will soon add to the problem. At the same time, water and soil problems are having a negative impact on global food production, especially in China.

There is very little evidence that we can feed six billion or more people without petrochemicals. If water, soil, and climate problems haven't already begun to limit maximum global food production, which does now appear to be the case, once global oil then natural gas supplies become constrained, there will no longer be any way of hiding from our disastrous population explosion. World population before the onslaught of industrial agriculture was around one and a half billion people. We may not even be able to support that number now, without oil and gas, because the very use of the chemicals derived from them has had so many damaging effects on the natural productive capacity of the soil and its related systems.

In the industrial world, natural gas is also critical for heating the places where we live and work. More than half of the United States heats with gas, as does three-quarters of Canada. The percentages in many places in Europe are similar or higher.

Natural gas has numerous other important uses. It is used to make many plastics, fabric for clothing, the injection moldings used everywhere, a huge amount of packaging, and even humble plastic bags. It supplies the heat for many processes from cement production to grain drying and is currently indispensable for making synthetic oil from the Canadian tar sands. Much of the propane and butane used to heat buildings across the world comes from natural gas. Propane is also used for industrial vehicles and smaller trucks, and many cities are now switching their bus fleets to run on natural gas, considering this a wise decision to help reduce global warming. Methanol, useful as a chemical feedstock and for hydrogen fuel cells, is made from natural gas. Almost all hydrogen is made directly from natural gas. A large amount of natural gas is used in oil refining.

The example of methanol highlights the complexity and strangeness of the world of energy and natural gas. What has methanol to do with hydrogen fuel cells, and if hydrogen can be made directly from natural gas, why not do just that? Methanol and hydrogen can be made in ways other than from natural gas (but they are much more expensive). Surely science and economics have taught us that there are always substitutes, including for natural gas? The answer is a resounding yes and no.

Natural gas has become crucial to our continued well-being and will become more so with each passing year. The major oil companies have just begun to say publicly that they are switching away from oil to natural gas as the new primary fossil fuel. It isn't because they want to; they are driven by another ominous factor: the switch to gas is an admission of global oil peak.


To find that we are so dependent on something that we were hardly aware of is surely troubling. If concern moves beyond passive wondering, the question will arise: How did this happen? It has already been pointed out that although natural gas is extremely useful, we do not normally have to handle it ourselves. It is quite literally invisible. Once purified, natural gas has no smell or taste. "Natural" gas seems to be just that, natural, and perhaps endless, like nature itself was once thought to be.

Whatever the rationale, most people in the industrialized world now take natural gas for granted, just as we do electricity, running water, the simple "disappearance" of our human wastes down a white porcelain bowl, and the collection of our garbage and rubbish. This is all natural, we assume, and as things should be. However, these things are not natural, and we are starting to notice that in fact they take a lot of effort, organizing, and energy to achieve. Unfortunately, about the only indicator the public has of problems, or anything else, is price. As we shall see later, price is not a very good indicator for many things, especially natural gas, which is now becoming an endangered species in North America, though not yet in the rest of the world.

Because natural gas is just that, a gas, it is difficult to transport. This is why we need such a complex system of pipelines in North America to deliver it. Until the advent of liquefied natural gas (LNG), it was considered a regional resource and could not be traded over oceans. Natural gas pipelines also crisscross Europe and every country that uses gas in quantity.


Until very recently, North American natural gas producers have steadfastly refused to admit that they have a problem with supply. Suddenly, in the middle of 2003, amid turmoil in the fertilizer industry and alarm in the chemical and power industries, the producers changed their message and said that indeed supply is in decline. But there is a reason for this public admission, and it is part of the strategy for getting access to what remaining public land and waters are not already being drilled.

The speed and suddenness with which the natural gas crisis appears to have arrived in North America is due in large part to the silence of the extraction industry, but it is also abetted by the myth of inexhaustibility and substitutability of resources. This myth is not confined to America. For instance, many Chinese believe that the vastness of their country, similar in size to the United States or Canada, means endless resources. In the case of oil and gas, this is no longer true for any of these large countries.

In the United States, the boundless-resource myth is part of the religion of progress, the pioneer spirit, and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. The United States began with some of the largest and easiest to access oil and natural gas reserves in the world, and it still has the largest coal reserves on the planet. In the simplest terms, Manifest Destiny means that America is fated to expand forever and has a right to do so, just as the "tree [has a right] to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth". When earlier Americans reached the western limits at the Pacific Ocean, they were still able to buy Alaska. Following the British example in the early nineteenth century, America used the power of capitalism to expand its borders by the proxy of trading and creating markets in other countries, and eventually most of the world. Thus for a long time there did indeed appear to be no limit to resources, or anything else, since most commodities can easily be carried by ship or aircraft, which allows the illusion to continue. Except that gases don't follow the normal shipping rules.

Carbon Chasm

Helped by good fortune, false beliefs, and gruesome myths of justification, most North Americans, whether in positions of power or not, have no idea that there is a serious energy problem at their door. Britain and Ireland are not far behind, and neither is China or New Zealand. Sooner rather than later, all the world's most industrialized and fastest industrializing countries will enter the carbon chasm, a gap that will grow, between increasing fossil energy demand and reducing supply. Although oil will decline globally before gas, because of the transport difficulties, it will be natural gas shortages that hit North America first and hardest.

Yet it was not supposed to be this way. The plan of industry and even many green groups has been to move away from coal and oil to natural gas. Gas is said to be "clean" burning and less harmful for global warming than oil or coal. Natural gas is certainly the last great hydrocarbon on Earth occurring in huge, industrial-scale quantities, accessible with known technology at reasonable cost. Now, both Europeans and Americans are starting to invest huge sums in shipping and constructing pipelines for natural gas, yet few have closely examined whether there is enough gas to justify that investment, let alone whether it is really such a good idea.

The United States and Canada are entering a natural gas crisis, which is becoming evident in 2004 as prices remain high and supply declines. Mexico will be less affected because it is less prone to very cold winters. The United States has been close to a natural gas crisis several times already. Early in 2003, thanks to low levels of natural gas storage, the United States came within days of blackouts and home heating shutdowns. North American supply is simply no longer able to meet desired consumption. Though in Canada there is no outward sign that the problem has been noticed at the ministerial level, the White House has become worried that natural gas will affect the 2004 presidential elections. Some US economists are also worried, and some of US industry is worried, but few North American environmentalists in 2003 were aware that their favored fuel may be in trouble.

If the weather in the United States hadn't been relatively mild in 2002 and 2003, then a full-scale natural gas crisis would have already happened. The fortuitous mild weather allowed the US government some time to stave off such a politically devastating occurrence, relaxing air pollution restrictions in the summer and fall of 2003, so coal could supplant natural gas in electricity generation, by some estimates saving more than five percent of gas consumption. The US Energy Bill, HR 6, which may be passed in some form in 2004, is most likely to allow even more air and water pollution by power companies. Such measures have helped avoid a major crisis in the winter of 2003-04. However, another worrying sign that energy supplies are tight is that North America saw three massive power blackouts in the summer of 2003, the first and largest of which, on August 14, was officially blamed on mistakes made by one power station. Pinning the blame on an individual - corporation or person - helps avoid asking serious questions about the whole system and its overall direction.

The state of natural gas supply is a looming menace, which helps make the whole power grid run increasingly close to the edge. The United States is now turning to more extreme methods to obtain natural gas, including pushing for drilling into more environmentally sensitive areas with more damaging techniques, such as coal bed methane. There are also US plans to build more than two dozen new liquefied natural gas terminals to import gas from the rest of the world, whose gas supply may still be increasing. Both of these actions have enormous and unfortunate ramifications. They also mirror what happened after 1970, when US oil production peaked. Shortly after that came the first great oil shock in 1973, when Persian Gulf oil exporters interrupted supply to the United States and other nations helping Israel fight against Egypt and Syria. It is much easier to disrupt gas supply than oil, a fact that will not be lost on America's foreign enemies.

For North Americans, the reasons for concern about natural gas are becoming ever clearer. For the rest of the world, there are at least four serious reasons to share that concern. First, whatever America does usually has profound effects around the world. Second, transporting natural gas across oceans entails very expensive decisions with many implications, including military ones, for the producing countries, as well as the consuming nations. Third, both the industrial and less-industrialized nations are starting to convert many major systems to natural gas, especially electrical power stations. This is a mistake of historic proportions, since global gas supply will suffer the same fate as oil. Well before that happens, many other countries will experience the same kinds of natural gas shortages as North America. Citizens will likely find their governments similarly unprepared, even as the gas exploration industry knows that we are already using more gas than we find.

Preparing for High Noon

Now that it is high noon for natural gas, and gas depletion is beginning to bite in the world's largest economy, this book will try to prepare the engaged citizen and the policy maker for what is to come - not just in the United States and Canada, but anywhere in the world.

High Noon for Natural Gas, The New Energy Crisis, was written by Julian Darley and published by Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, Vermont in July of 2004.

You will find a copy at , or by calling Chelsea green on 800 639 4099. Julian is the Executive Director of Global Public Media, and a founder of Meta Foundation.

Bill Totten


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