Well and Truly Fracked

The reduction of contemporary debates about the future to ritual theater, the theme of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, isn’t limited to the specific technological issues I discussed in that essay—the increasingly dubious quest for fusion power, on the one hand, and the prospects for the internet’s survival in an age of economic contraction and resource scarcity, on the other.  Across the landscape of contemporary (mis)understandings of the future, just about every issue you care to name has been turned into yet another modern morality play in which progress gets to act out one more symbolic triumph over its eternal enemies. 

To describe that habit as unhelpful is to understate the case considerably.  Modern industrial civilization faces serious challenges in the years immediately before us, as the paired jaws of resource depletion and environmental disruption clamp down ever more tightly on it, and the consequences of decades of bad decisions come home to roost. In order to deal with those challenges, hard questions need to be asked and realistic answers considered—and this isn’t furthered at all by the tendency on the part of so many people these days to lapse into cheerleading instead. It’s rather as though you were trying to have a serious discussion about educational policy with someone whose only response to anything you said was to shout, “Central High, Central High, rah, rah, rah!”

Any number of examples of this could be quoted, but the one I’d like to discuss here  is the way that fracking—hydrofracturing of oil and gas-bearing shales, to give it its more precise moniker—has been transformed, at least in the popular imagination, into the conclusive answer to those annoying little worries about the impossibility of extracting an infinite amount of petroleum from a finite planet. That’s worth discussing just now for at least two reasons.

The first of these is that the public debate over fracking is almost certainly about to become a good deal more heated than it’s already gotten, due to the publication of a lively and eminently readable little book on the subject—Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future by Richard Heinberg, which you can order from the publisher here. Those of my readers who have been following the peak oil story since its reemergence early in the last decade will recall Heinberg’s The Party’s Over; that and James Howard Kunstler’s memorably edgy The Long Emergency were the books that launched peak oil into the collective conversation of our time.

Snake Oil may just accomplish the same thing with the side of the fracking debate that’s getting no attention from the mainstream media. Heinberg makes four points in the book, each of which could usefully be put on the business end of a branding iron and applied to the tender backsides of pundits and politicians alike.  First, the loudly ballyhooed claims that fracking promises a new age of limitless cheap energy for Americans are pure malarkey, based on a patchwork of unjustifiable assumptions and outright fabrications that wildly overstate potential production and tacitly ignore all the downsides of a far from flawless technology. Second, in the usual fashion of today’s American economy, fracking piles up short term profits for a few by loading immense long term costs on local communities, natural systems, and future generations.

Third, a significant proportion of the hoopla over fracking is being orchestrated by those wonderful folks on Wall Street who brought you last decade’s housing bubble and bust, and the same kind of financial shenanigans that nearly capsized the global economy in 2008 and 2009 are being applied with gusto to a burgeoning bubble in shale leases and the like. Fourth, and most critically, the increasingly frantic cheerleading being devoted to the fracking industry these days is simply one more delay in the process of coming to grips with the real crisis of our time—the need to decouple as much as possible of industrial society from its current dependence on fossil fuels. As Heinberg points out, there aren’t enough economically recoverable fossil fuels left in the planet’s crust to keep the world chugging ahead on a business-as-usual track of economic growth for much longer, but there’s more than enough to finish the job of destabilizing the Earth’s climate and pitching us face first into a very difficult future.

None of these points will be news to regular readers of The Archdruid Report, but then regular readers of The Archdruid Report are not this book’s primary audience. (You won’t find any of my peak oil writings in the bibliography, either, and for very good reason—a book meant to influence policymakers and the general public does itself no favors by citing archdruids.)  Those of my regular readers who need facts and figures to argue against fracking-industry shills, or who want a short and highly readable book to press into the hands of the uninformed or undecided, will certainly want a copy, and those who have just stumbled across this blog and are still trying to figure out what all the fuss about peak oil means could do much worse than to get a copy of Snake Oil and read it—the absurd media blather about “limitless fossil fuels” and similar oxymorons gets a well-earned hiding at Heinberg’s capable hands.

The publication of Snake Oil, then, is one of the reasons why a discussion of fracking is particularly relevant at the moment. The other?  That comes from an even more unanswerable critique of fracking—this one written by the impersonal forces of geology and economics. This will come as no surprise to this blog’s regular readers, either; as I suggested in a post earlier this year, with the approach of autumn, the fracking juggernaut is running on fumes.

Consider this story from the financial media—tip of the archdruidical hat to Ron Patterson’s blog Peak Oil Barrel, one of the rising stars of the post-Oil Drum peak oil scene, for the link. Big oil names Shell and BHP Billiton are writing down the value of their shale assets by billions of dollars. Meanwhile the value of oil and gas-related transactions, among the top profit centers for Wall Street every year since 2005, has dropped like a rock and, unless something changes drastically, won’t even make the top five list this year.

Nor is this happening solely on Wall Street; out in shale country, too, the boom is grinding to a halt. The pace of drilling in the Fayetteville shale has dropped precipitously this year; in Texas, meanwhile, gas production from the Barnett Shale has dropped more than a billion cubic feet a day, to levels last seen in 2009; while in the Marcellus Shale country of Pennsylvania, insurance companies are starting to cancel homeowners insurance and home mortgages are becoming unavailable as the health and environmental toll of reckless shale development piles up.

Headlines of this sort are becoming increasingly common in the financial press as one month gives way to another. With utter predictability, so have articles and essays in the mainstream media crowing about the supposed end of peak oil, and financial-advice columns urging the general public to get out there and invest their life’s savings in shale oil and gas. Those who recall the way the housing bubble played out over its last year or two will recall this same phenomenon: as the fundamentals turned sour, the chorus of pundits praising the arrival of a new age of prosperity for all got louder and louder, until the crash of collapsing prices finally drowned it out.

Exactly how long it will take for the shale bubble to tip over into full-scale bust probably can’t be known except in hindsight. The same principle probably applies just as well to another question that may be even more explosive: just how much of Wall Street and the broader US financial industry depends on income skimmed off the shale bubble for its economic survival. It’s when the tide goes out, as Warren Buffet famously said, that you find out who’s been swimming naked; when the bubble bursts and companies with heavy exposure to the fracking industry can no longer cover their day to day costs by tapping into the money flows any speculative boom attracts, the consequences could fall anywhere along the spectrum from sharp regional recessions in shale country all the way to panic selling on global markets and a reprise of 2008’s economic turmoil.

I suppose it counts as belaboring the obvious to point out that these aren’t the consequences that were supposed to flow from the so-called shale revolution, according to the pundits and politicians and industry shills that filled the media with proclamations of good times to come. Still, the point needs to be made, because it’s a safe bet that the same promises of abundant energy and prosperity for all will be made in regard to any number of equally dubious revolutions and breakthroughs and great leaps forward in the years ahead., with equally unsatisfactory results.

The rhetoric that surrounded the fracking bubble from its inception, after all, was exactly the sort of ritual theater of progress I discussed in last week’s post. Read any discussion of fracking in the US mainstream media and you’ll find every one of the standard cliches present and accounted for: the imaginary barriers that are there solely to be overcome, the innovative new technology hot off the lab bench, the lucky discoveries that show up just in time for the new technology to exploit, the ceremonial debate in which the opponents of progress raise doleful cries about the timeless order of rural life that’s about to be destroyed while the protagonists proclaim the dawn of a new day of prosperity and abundance for all, and so on.

None of this has any relevance to the facts on the ground.  Outside the realm of ritual theater, the limits are real, the technology isn’t new and neither are the discoveries, the destruction announced by the opponents of fracking has turned out to be quite tangible, and the new day of prosperity and abundance has gone missing in action.  Still, you won’t hear that from the media, not until long after the boom has gone bust, the hardware has been sold to the Chinese for scrap, and the sole remaining legacy of the shale bubble consists of county-sized areas where the groundwater is too toxic to drink.

This is what happens when a culture’s traditions get fatally out of step with its circumstances. Not that long ago in America, the ritual theater of progress was adaptive, to borrow a bit of jargon from ecology: more often than not, those who extracted more resources, burnt more energy, built more infrastructure, and produced more goods and services prospered, and so did their communities.  Every disagreement about economic development, as I showed last week, was therefore forced into what amounts to a ceremonial pattern that guaranteed that the proponents of progress would win every round. When the limits to growth were still far off, when it was still possible to pretend that resources were infinite and the environment’s capacity to absorb pollutants was just as limitless, that was a successful strategy.

The problem with that strategy was that it was unable to adapt when the hard limits to resource reserves and the biosphere’s tolerance for pollution came within sight. In terms of our culture’s faith in progress and the ritual theater that unfolded from that faith, those limits could only be interpreted as another set of imaginary barriers to be overcome, and another set of doleful cries for the opponents of progress to utter in the ceremonial debate they were supposed to lose.  That’s why every response to the crisis of our time that gets favorable attention from the US media is framed as an overcoming of imaginary limits by way of some innovative new technology, and quickly gets its chorus of opponents of progress uttering doleful cries, so that the heroes of progress have the appropriate ritual setting against which the can sing their praises of the shining new day about to dawn. Those are our traditions and our rituals, handed down to us by our tribal elders, and it’s simply our bad luck that those traditions and rituals have left us hopelessly unprepared to deal with the real world.

In the real world, the most important task facing each of us right now is that of grasping that the absurd abundance of energy and resources that Americans enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century was anything but normal.  A cascade of fortuitous events handed the American people of that period a huge surplus of energy and resources, orders of magnitude greater than any comparable example in history. Of course we squandered most of it, and picked up habits of extravagance and waste that will have to be unlearnt painfully as the last of the surplus fades away.

To accept that task, though, is to abandon habits of thought and action that have pervaded American culture throughout living memory. The habits of thrift and self-discipline that our forebears learned in the school of hard necessity—“use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”—drowned in the flood of mostly unearned wealth that saturated American society during this nation’s age of empire, and every detail of contemporary American culture militates against a return to those sane but unwelcome standards. At this point, as I’ve argued more than once in the past, any response to the challenge of our time that doesn’t start with using much less energy and other resources simply isn’t serious; still, our culture being what it is, unserious responses remain the order of the day.

Still, there’s at least one good reason to think that this latter may be a distinctly temporary condition.  The fracking bubble, after all, was not the first such response to the twilight of cheap abundant petroleum. In the wake of the 1970s energy crises, it bears remembering, the same sort of rhetoric currently being deployed on behalf of fracking was much in evidence, as the reckless pumping of the North Sea and Alaskan North Slope oilfields crashed the price of oil and convinced a great many people that the great god Progress was still soundly ensconced in his temple.  Then as now, an increasingly frantic effort to scrape the barrel was treated as proof that the barrel was still full, and allowed politicians, the press, and the public at large to put off necessary changes for a little while.

Notice the difference, though:  the scrape-the-barrel efforts launched by the Reagan counterrevolution of the 1980s kept oil production propped up for more than twenty years, while the equivalent efforts this time around barely managed the thing for five. The available reserves in 1980 were large enough to crash the price of oil and pay for one last spectacular era of prosperity; the reserves tapped by fracking weren’t enough to keep the price of oil from rising up into triple digits, or give the economy more than a brief and localized boost. We really are getting near the bottom of the barrel—less metaphorically, the point at which petroleum production worldwide tips over from its current unsteady plateau into the long ragged decline that marks the twilight of every resource. 

Those necessary changes still wait to be made. What remains to be seen is how many people in America and elsewhere will rise to the challenge and make them, and how many will cling to the failed beliefs of a bygone era until the night closes in.