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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.







When Markets Fail:

leaps off the gas cliff without a parachute

Julian Darley*
August 13, 2003r



Reason for Worry
A tale of two Bushes
Alice’s Gas Wonderland
ANWR? Alaska?

A Dangerous Charade

Writing on the Wall



Vancouver, 13th August 2003

Since the June 2003 US Dept of Energy (DOE) Natural Gas (crisis) Summit, there have been record injections into the US natural gas storage system. Those who prayed for a mild summer, have for the most part so far had their prayers answered. The predicted bad hurricane season has as yet also not really materialized in the Gulf of Mexico. By the end of October, when storage refilling ends, it will be possible to get a better idea of whether the US will see price spikes and even shortages, or whether it may scrape through, yet again. In many ways the picture above ground looks superficially reassuring. Below ground, however, conventional natural gas production is not going well, with falls in Canada and the US being recorded ranging from 3% to 8%.

Thus, unconventional gas will have to shoulder an ever increasing part of the burden, and there is great excitement in Canada, where coal-bed methane (CBM) is the next big thing. In the US, coal-bed methane is already well established, and so are the problems. There are efforts to try to reduce the effects of the waste water normally produced as a by-product of CBM operations. Even so, since CBM is inherently slower to produce than conventional gas, the US is inevitably going to rely more and more heavily on gas imported from outside North America, by LNG tanker, as Alan Greenspan has noted. To underline this, the next DOE Natural Gas summit will focus on LNG and there are plans to build more than a dozen LNG receiving terminals in the US. For those who want Business As Usual to continue, the question must be how quickly these new and very expensive terminals and associated tankers and export terminals can be built. For those who are acknowledge that there limits to life on Earth, this represents an historic opportunity to start on a new and much lower energy path.


Washington, 10th July 2003 (with updates 13th August 2003)

In the aptly chosen Mayflower Hotel grand ballroom, the atmosphere was coldly surreal. Outside, late June Washington was climbing towards a hundred degrees, the hottest day of a damp and dismal year so far. Inside, the air conditioning held the gathered guests a comfortable thirty degrees cooler. A perfect and profligate example of the absurd charade about to unfold. This particular piece of theater, was produced in a hurry by US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, hosted by the National Petroleum Council, and scripted by global corporations, like Dow Chemical and billed as a Natural Gas (crisis) Summit.

The outcome was both farcical and grim: Americans should be worried, because their corporate masters with their political pawns, still have not grasped that this is not a temporary hiccup, with a happy end, but a gruesome farce written by greed, but now being firmly dictated by geology, not by ‘invincible’ markets.

The idea, according to Abraham’s opening speech, was that the scores of invited industry guests would furnish the short-term solutions to get America out of what could be its worst energy crisis since the 1970s. The public were allowed to attend, but not given any opportunity to speak. Most notably, as the Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out, no-one from the renewable energy industry was represented amongst the panelists or the invitees. [1] No surprise there, but still the date of June 26th, 2003 should be one for the history books, as it marks a turning point in the history of petroleum. The US, having peaked in oil production more than three decades ago, has realised that the same is now true for natural gas. US oil peak has clearly been disastrous for the planet and all its life-forms as the US finds itself needing ever more of the planet’s oil production. This article will lay out some context for future judgments on whether gas will follow suit, and lead to even more militarization of US energy policy and more misery for the people that have the misfortune to live in gas- and oil-rich countries.

Since natural gas is a complicated and strange business, it is worth sketching some of the back-story of the energy crisis sequel America now finds itself in (the first ‘show’ was the oil crisis in the 70s). This will also help us understand why the industry solutions presented will only work with a great deal of luck, and why at best they will only stave off the inevitable finale for a while. Though a while may be just long enough for Bush to arrange a second term (assuming the mainstream media remains compliant in asking no really awkward questions regarding 9/11, the real reasons for war(s), and the real state of the American economy and its monetary system).

Though regular natural gas watchers will already know much of the background to the present natural gas situation, some may not. The broad facts are simple enough, though the detail is as confusing as it is vital.

Overall, the US consumes about 23 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas a year, [2] roughly 75 thousand cubic feet (Mcf) per person, about 1 Tcf every 15 days, 50 to 60 billion cubic feet (Bcf) per day. If you think that’s a mess of numbers, just wait till you throw in metric production from Canada (litres, cubic metres, metric tonnes), other US pricing in BTUs and quads, and what gases can actually be in natural gas. For those more familiar with the crisper world of oil, the US uses gas equivalent of about 11 million barrels a day, or 4 billion barrels a year, which is similar to America’s entire oil imports, and more energy than is consumed by all US transportation combined. Demand is colossal and rising. However, domestic production is now less than 20 Tcf per year and falling fast. Every year, the US must find more than 3 Tcf, or close to 20% of its consumption, from outside its borders.

Because of failing supply, there was a huge drawdown this winter from the underground gas storage system, which came dangerously close to its working minimum (the vital but complex business of natural gas storage will covered fully in my forthcoming book about the natural gas crisis). Refilling the gas storage system ahead of this winter has been painfully slow (though see preface above), despite a record injection conveniently announced on the day of the crisis summit. The following week’s injection was nowhere near this amount, and could lead a cynical observer to the impression that some misleading window dressing was in play (since then injections have mostly been high – but significant questions remain as to how this has been achieved). By the administration’s own calculations, the storage is likely to be about 400 Bcf short by the time winter heating season starts in October. That is easily enough to disrupt the whole system.

Of course, those in power proclaim that the answer to all this is to let global free markets do their magic. Why not just import more gas to make up the difference? The US would dearly like to, but physics and lack of planning have closed this escape route in the short term. Gas is hard to move except by pipeline. That means getting it from Canada, since Mexico is now a net gas importer (and likely to remain so till 2019, according to the DOE). The trouble is that Canadian production is also declining. That leaves only the hard way: shipping LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) mainly, from Trinidad at them moment, and soon from Africa and beyond, which is a costly and complex operation, for which the US presently has woefully insufficient infrastructure. What is more, these distant sources are subject to depletion too, and not a few political instabilities.

In the murky world of gas, the details are convoluted, and the big picture is rarely revealed, but it is now becoming apparent even to the terminally optimistic energy industry that something is going seriously wrong – but they daren’t say it too clearly, in case Wall Street and the investing public finally starts to understand. Almost every aspect of natural gas is reaching a limit situation, and the same is true of global oil. Since renewable energy at industrial scale is way over the horizon, there is nowhere to turn in the short run.

Even Gwyn Morgan, who was not present at the summit, though he is head of the largest gas producer in the North America, has said that North American production has peaked, and that to maintain reserves the industry must find new gas every day that is more than the amount being imported from Canada. [3] With the noose tightening, America is now discovering what John Muir once said: "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, one finds it attached to the rest of the world." The skeins of nature are now drawn very tight, and are may be near to snapping.

However, nature is bountiful, and the friends of Secretary Abraham all agree that they want to tug at supply, though there is some disagreement about other matters. First the harmony. All the panelists from industry to government (isn’t it now the same thing?) repeated the incantation over and over again that the US natural gas crisis was not Market Failure, but as usual government regulation was the culprit.

In a speech supposed to offer some analysis and set the stage, Daniel Yergin, fresh from his  assertions that Canadian (natural-gas fuelled) tar sands operations would save the world from further oil woes, explained that though the US was in a tight corner, there was an answer: the Market. He didn’t mention that rampant and uncontrolled deregulation and free markets had helped gas demand to explode, while extraordinarily inflated estimates of reserves from the both US and Canadian Geological Surveys, had helped to foster the illusion of endless supply, bound only by technology and human imagination. Nor did he mention that corporate corruption, as in California 2001, had masked a worsening real underlying supply problem, nor that only the surprise find of the ‘huge’ Ladyfern gas field in British Columbia [4] and the kindness of El Niño had helped the US avert disaster in the last twelve months. But this year there have been no giant gas finds, and El Niño’s moderating effect has passed. At last the US government has realized that something desperate must done, or there could be blackouts soon, or worse – economic growth will be curtailed, and the dissatisfaction of jobless, cold voters will rise as elections approach. Not exactly what Karl Rove [5] wants to see.

However, far from giving the White House a break, industry users bluntly told Abraham and other government representatives that they want more gas and they want it now, and they don’t care how they get it. From chemical giants, through fertilizer makers, to electricity producers, they are all calling on the White House to lift the moratorium on drilling off Florida, remove drilling restrictions in the Rocky Mountains gas plays, relax widespread and popular clean air rules, and connect Alaska to the gas grid with a huge and expensive pipeline. And no doubt Mr. Abraham and the rest of the green-bashing neoconservatives would love to do just that.

There are a few tedious impediments in the way of course, such as the laws of physics and perhaps even the voters of the US. Even so, relaxing the clean air rules is the only measure that would make much difference this year. Even that is questionable. One of the government’s most astute energy advisers has suggested that only fervent prayer is going to get them through.

Reason for Worry

Why are the short-term non-divine fixes unlikely to work? Take the clean air rules. All of the existing legislation, from Nixon’s original Clean Air Act of 1970, through various interim amendments reacting to non-compliance, and Bush senior’s 1990 Amendment which added ozone limits and more, all in effect principally target coal-fired electric power stations, though motor vehicles were another important factor. The Clear Skies Act being promoted now by Bush junior, will hit coal even harder, because it will aim for big reductions in mercury emissions, which only really affects coal, as well as limiting SOx (oxides of sulphur) and NOx (oxides of nitrogen), which also hits coal, though oil is also a culprit. As a side note, global warming watchers are furious that the Clear Skies Act says absolutely nothing about carbon dioxide emissions.[6] Nonetheless, even with this egregious omission, all the legislation encourages consumption of natural gas, both for electrical power generation and for home and office heating, often called space heating.

In fact, relaxing clean air regulations (to allow more coal to be burnt, thus saving natural gas), even temporarily, would mean reversing the momentum of more than a quarter century. It is likely to prove unpopular with many voters, even non-Democrats. The call for allowing more polluted air comes most loudly from the electrical power producers who want to burn more coal or switch to oil where possible, but without permit waivers they often cannot do it. There are likely to be many fights over this, and court-bound delays. But that isn’t all. Just as the Muir metaphor suggests, there are many other strange plays in the fuel-switching game, which given the central importance of electricity in industrial life, should be understood by all Americans.

To be able to switch to another fuel, a power station must be built or retrofitted for the task, and there must be sufficient alternative fuel to burn.

In fact, many of the hundreds of new power stations coming on stream now are all gas and not dual-fueled, even though they were supposed to be. While this may be partly because single fuel plants are cheaper, some are also more efficient than dual-fueled plants. Furthermore, many of the plants which can fuel switch are older and often only half as efficient. Their number is dwindling as new single-fuel stations replace them. Thus, the absolute capacity to switch is further limited.

This situation harkens back to the earliest days of boom and bust oil in Pennsylvania: extraction and price cycles of fluid, non-renewable natural resources tend to ‘resonate’ exactly out of sync, so that when the price is up, there is a stampede to produce more, which then (a few months later) floods the market, reduces price, ruins operators, and production capacity falls like a stone. The ensuing shortage starts the whole cycle off again. This has been happening disastrously with North American natural gas supply for the last few years. It is now too late for North America to manage its gas production sensibly, but some countries who are just beginning to be major producers of gas would do well to look at, and avoid, what has happened in America, and also in Britain, which is about to suffer the same fate as the US, and become a net importer of gas. The free market is functionally incapable of dealing with this kind of non-renewable resource. It does much better with clothes pegs and Playdough.

Then there is the problem of the fuel itself. Stocks of distillates (diesel and fuel oils) like heating oil, which is a primary alternative fuel, are now quite low in the US, partly because of historically low crude oil stocks, and the knock-on effect of refining distillates into gasoline to improve low stocks of that fuel. It is as if a bear with octopus tentacles is gripping America ever tighter. This means that other important, but lesser users of heating oil users like schools and smaller hospitals, who may not be able switch fuels easily, and don’t have long term contracts, can see their fuel bills rocket literally overnight if local electricity producers switch to oil en masse. Public sector operations are already near financial breaking point in many places. However, so are many of the private enterprises with new gas-fired plants, like NRG Power Marketing, bankrupted by the 700% rise in gas prices over three years, and unable to pay its loans and trying to void its contract to supply Connecticut.[7] Companies with new gas power will do what they can to survive, and when they judge fuel-switching to be in their best interests, they are even more unlikely to worry about the public good.

Having said that, there is yet another twist that may slow the switch from gas. Although the calorific equivalence of gas to oil means that $5 per Mcf (thousand cubic feet) roughly matches oil at $25 bbl (barrel), Raymond James & Associates is now suggesting that the gas price would need to be more like $8 before switching will take place, meaning a three to one factor, rather than five or six. The reasons are those given above: low distillate inventories and the much higher efficiency of new gas power stations (that makes gas more attractive than just its straight energy value).[8] In fact, as I write this (13th August 2003), oil is still over $31, so that according to Raymond James, gas would actually then need to be at least $10 for fuel switching (in fact it is still just over $5). If they are right, then the industry and government calls for fuel switching will fall on very deaf ears, and we shall have one more factor pushing gas prices upwards.

The foregoing shows that fuel switching, which is industry’s (and probably the White House’s) best short-term hope for avoiding more gas price hikes, if not outright shortages, is going to be a bumpy ride.

Next in the time frame is more drilling. More drilling failed to raise supply after the price spikes of two years ago,[9] but the industry will say that is because they were using old prospects. They say that the only good and easy new prospects are in Federal lands and seas, meaning the Rocky Mountain territories of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico, off the Florida coast.

It is almost a physical impossibility to get from permit to pipeline in less than six months, and even a year is tight, so extra drilling cannot be seriously regarded as a short-term fix. Nonetheless, the gas companies will use this situation to argue, lever and lobby for a great increase in permits to drill. No doubt the White House would like to back them all the way, indeed Cheney’s National Energy Plan is quite explicit about it, but it may not be so simple. One of the defining factors of this situation, as with most petroleum peak events, is that it is the conventional, easy and cheap reserves that generally get taken first. There are usually reasons why the unconventional reserves are so called. They might as well be called “awkward”. So it is with most of the gas that is off limits.

In the Intermountain West, which means mainly Wyoming, New Mexico, & Colorado, much of the new gas will be coal-bed methane (CBM). This is gas associated with coal deposits, usually not economically interesting in themselves. The gas is extracted by pumping off some of the water above the coal deposit, and fracturing the coal seams hydraulically or with nitrogen. The pumped water, however, contains many contaminants that increase its salinity and sodium[10] to abnormal levels.[11] When this water reaches ordinary soil, it will usually kill the existing vegetation while encouraging noxious species. It has a toxic effect on crop and range lands, especially when used as irrigation water. As so often with regulations, despite the banning of ‘direct stream discharge’ for new wells, many CBM producers are still allowed to discharge straight into stream channels under “grandfathering” schemes. Wells in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming can produce anywhere from 7,000 to 28,000 gallons of contaminated water a day, and there may be as many as three wells per 80 acres.[12] For an 80 acre system that can be over 50,000 gallons a day.

Ranchers and residents are beginning to tire of having their lands and watercourses ruined, and even those in favour of conventional gas production, such as Tom Leach, a former oil and gas worker from Colorado, are opposed to coal-bed methane. Last year, in what may be a landmark case, Delta County, Colorado (usually pro-mining) opposed a federal permit to allow CBM drilling.[13] If this pattern of local county opposition to federal permitting expands, it will make it much harder and slower to increase CBM production in the Rockies, where the NPC estimates there is 137 Tcf of gas off limits. Wyoming, home state of Dick Cheney, and the Green River and Powder River Basins, is becoming a hotbed of CBM resistance and organizing. There is evidence of the Bush administration’s corruption in packing the Bureau of Land Management with ex-industry people,[14] but this can have the opposite effect intended, in helping to galvanize hostility and making it easier to mount legal opposition to permits.

Rising popular resistance to CBM may be tempered by the realization that this is not simply a nationwide re-run of the California phenomenon,[15] but a real shortage --not just short-term market distortions and corporate greed. Despite the local political difficulties, there is no doubt that the US will have to become increasingly reliant on coal-bed methane, or face higher likelihood of actual shortages.

A tale of two Bushes

The other major area of contentious gas supply is offshore. All the US coasts are targeted, but the supply prospects look most promising in the already prolific Gulf of Mexico. The problem for the Bush administration is that most of the Gulf area that is presently off limits is in the jurisdiction of Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, and arch neo-conservative. But Jeb knows that three quarters of Floridians are opposed to drilling offshore and George W. knows that Florida is vital to another term in Pennsylvania Avenue. And yet America is desperate for the energy that may be off Florida, so there is a multilayer battle going on.

No-one at the industry-dominated gas summit referred to this tricky conundrum directly, of course. They just made calls to open up restricted federal areas. But in a private press briefing, a Fox News reporter aggressively asked Secretary Abraham why he didn’t just open up Destin Dome, off the Florida coast. Was it politically unacceptable?

In perhaps the most revealing remark of the day (albeit not made directly to the ears of his corporate supporters), Abraham said “That decision [to block offshore drilling access] was made after taking into account a lot of different perspectives.” These words would not have pleased those with deep pockets but shortening tempers who were drinking coffee suitably out of earshot. Just before this, Abraham said “I think that those policies are not ones we are looking at right now. What we’re trying to look at is other ways to address this short term. The broader policy issues are certainly open to Congress as it continues work on an energy bill.”

It looks as if for now the Gulf of Mexico will see further developments mainly in already permitted areas. This means more deep water drilling, which finds less gas and more oil, and new very deep wells in the old and once highly prolific shallow areas.[16] But Jeb Bush should not relax too quickly, because in June the Senate moved to allow a new inventory of oil and natural gas resources along US coastlines, which some say is a prelude to lifting bans on offshore drilling on all three coasts.[17] This is no doubt what Abraham meant by “broader policy issues”.

One of the puzzles in this ‘supply push’ scenario is the actual amount of gas being fought over. To hear industry talk one might imagine that the US was withholding reserves the size of Iran or Qatar. But in fact the numbers relative to US consumption are almost derisory, even though they might supply a less greedy and gas-addicted country for decades. Destin Dome, off Pensacola, for instance is reputed to have three trillion cubic feet of gas – a month and half of US demand. Petroleum geologists are not even sure of that, some even referring to it as Dusty Dome. Furthermore, these are not the giant easy shallow plays of the Gulf forty five years ago, but entail drilling to 20,000 feet,[18] with high-powered rigs costing up to $50,000 a day. With natural gas at $5 per thousand cubic feet (Mcf), operations are still economically profitable, but the ‘energy profit’ (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) is sinking rapidly.

To underline this, in signs which should send shivers through Washington, both BP and Shell have recently sold off Gulf of Mexico holdings to Apache, a company known for operating mature – in other words declining - fields.[19]

Alice’s Gas Wonderland

If the US is going to go down the path of draining every last gasp of domestic gas, then surely it would be a good idea to have some sound advice from petroleum geologists. But on June 26th 2003, not one such expert was called on to evaluate the claims of industry that the only real way forward was much more drilling.

In fact I personally asked Energy Secretary Abraham why there were no petroleum geologists in the line-up, and he asked, with evident impatience, how that would help the short-term situation. The unwelcome answer would be that more drilling, allied with free market deregulation and greed, will get America still further into a black hole, from which it looks decreasingly likely that it can escape. A stark assessment of US gas reserves may help the American, and indeed Canadian, public to understand that both the long and short term solutions involve using less energy all round, with the focus being on using less natural gas and oil.

Meanwhile, before that unlikely day occurs voluntarily, the other offshore sites on the industry’s shopping list are the two main oceanic coasts. The problem in both cases is once again geological lack of large proven reserves. At the June 26th Gas Summit, some US companies spoke of wanting to emulate Canada on its eastern seaboard, with its Hibernia and Sable Island gas production. But the geology on the US coasts further south is not the same. On the west coast, little oil or gas has been found anywhere, except some oil off California. There are no other proven petroleum deposits until you reach Alaska (the Cook Inlet), which aside from potential North Slope natural gas production, is in swift decline.[20]


And what of the Arctic gas of Alaska and the Mackenzie Delta? It was discovered in the 1970s, and is regarded as having about 35 and 9 Tcf (trillion cubic feet) respectively. If this were all agreeably located in Texas (say near a certain ranch in Crawford?), then it would be quite a useful deposit, albeit not even two years of US consumption. On the other hand it would probably all be gone by now. The only realistic way of getting the untapped Arctic gas is via very expensive pipelines. The pipeline to the Mackenzie Delta in Canada’s Northwest Territories has finally been set in process, but there are many regulatory procedures which may slow its completion somewhere between 2008 and 2010.[21] When or if it is finished, it is scheduled to provide somewhere between 800 million cubic feet and 1.2 Bcf per day to Alberta. Given that the tar sands are projected to require an extra 1.5 Bcf, that seems to offer little relief to American consumers.[22]

Some believe that efforts to get a gas pipeline to Alaska appear to be complicated by the Mackenzie agreement,[23] but not all of the potential pipeline builders agree. What is not in dispute is the fact that the pipeline is not here now, will likely cost at least $15bn, and probably much more if recent Athabasca tar-sands project over-runs are anything to go by, and will not be ready much before 2012, even if everything goes to plan and the US government offers huge subsidies.[24]


The final thing that industry agrees on, within the realm of ‘supply push’, is the necessity to ‘globalize the gas market’, by which they simply mean increase LNG imports. At present, the US imports about 1% of its gas consumption through three LNG terminals. A fourth terminal, built in 1974 at Cove Point at the southern end of Chesapeake Bay, will be online before the end of the year, and will add 1Bcf per day. More than a dozen new LNG terminals have been proposed, and that can only be a small beginning if the US is to import 10% by decade end.[25] There was already local resistance to the Cove Point reopening, but it was overridden by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – just one month after 9/11.[26] Whether it will be so easy to run rough-shod over widespread and well-organized local objections for new LNG plants remains to be seen. There will have to be an enormous parallel effort in LNG tanker building as well, otherwise the new terminals may find themselves full of no more than thin air.

Not surprisingly, the June 26th Gas Summit saw strong representation from the LNG industry, which rightly senses that a long period in the American wilderness must surely be coming to end. They did not highlight the likelihood of local resistance to new terminals, nor the fact that a whole LNG supply train, including liquefaction system, tanker fleet, regasification plant and associated pipelines costs between $2bn and $5bn, nor that the US will have to commission the expensive new vessels from the Far East, further increasing the trade deficit. In an oddly jarring note, Johnnie Burton, head of the Mineral Management Service (MMS) which administers the Gulf of Mexico Outer Continental Shelf petroleum reserves, said that she considered LNG to be a short-term price stabilizer and not part of the long-term picture. This was not the news the LNG industry wanted to hear.

However, they needn’t be too disappointed, because on July 8th US Energy Secretary Abraham  announced that “later this year” there would be a second natural gas Summit, to “discuss increasing LNG supplies” to the US. The invitees will include energy ministers from gas exporting countries and industry. The new summit will “take a fresh look at the world’s LNG resources and markets” and “explore global natural gas resources, proposed LNG supply projects, and export and import terminal facilities”.[27]

A Dangerous Charade

Having looked at fuel-switching and hopes for new supplies, industry consensus ends. It must be stressed that fuel-switching is a risk, more than a little dependent on the weather being kind, and all of the other options are not short term.

Considering that Spencer Abraham either personally knows most of the people he invited, not least because some of them give him campaign money, and they have made written pronouncements beforehand, why did he assemble a bunch of industry cronies who were bound to tell him to increase supply immediately, which is impossible, and reduce permitting, which unless done covertly will be politically costly, and won’t help in time for an election anyway? Abraham’s job may well be on the line over this, and indeed so might the President’s re-election chances.

Is the Bush regime so myopic and corrupt (colluding with the corporate kleptocracy from which they spring), that they cannot see what is staring them, and the American public, in the face?

The reality is that North America is a mature gas province, and that it has most certainly now peaked in production, just as with oil some thirty years ago, and any increases in continental gas consumption will have to come from LNG imports. Aside from the 1 Bcf from the reopened Cove Point terminal, there is no possibility of any more quick LNG, yet Secretary Abraham has just announced a follow-up gas summit, this time entirely focusing on LNG, which will include energy ministers from gas exporting nations.[28]

That leaves one other option: demand reduction. To judge from Abraham’s opening remarks, and the tenor of the DOE (Department of Energy) website, that may have been what he had really come to hear. If so, then Mr. Abraham’s previous bad record on green issues[29]  has come back to haunt him. With  none of his normal environment foes present (except the NRDC who bizarrely backed the Alaskan pipeline), the only words of demand reduction came from the unlikely source of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), who have said that “business as usual will not work this summer”.[30] They have called for “a massive public education campaign to convince Americans to use less electricity this summer”.[31] Furthermore, they have appealed to government to cut electricity and gas consumption in its 500 federal buildings. This at least seems possible. However, the ACC goes on to call for states to follow suit. The Democrats may decide to pretend to comply, but in reality do the opposite, or do nothing at all. It would be easy to do: gas numbers are notoriously easy to fudge, often revised, and are confusing at the best of times (which these are not).

Needless to say, the ACC call for reduced electrical consumption was entirely self-serving, since natural gas is a vital, and now painfully expensive, feedstock for everything from plastics to pharmaceuticals. Revealingly, for the ACC, at least publicly, the crisis is about “the runaway price of natural gas”,[32] not about depletion. Meanwhile the electrical power producers are unlikely to have much time for demand reduction since they have spent more than $100bn in the last few years on new gas-fired power generators,[33] and much of it is now just coming online and hungrily looking for a return on that investment.

That leaves more ‘demand destruction’. Fertilizer industry representatives noted that their industry had borne the brunt of the three years of demand destruction, and that drastic refilling of the gas storage system was being done mainly at their expense. Half of their industry was now lying idle, and 20% has shut down permanently.[34] How much more ‘demand destruction’ can American industry provide? And how permanent is it? And of course the underlying demand for products like fertilizer and plastic doesn’t really go away, manufacture just gets sent abroad, and the US then has to import it, with further unpleasant consequences for jobs and trade imbalances.

Writing on the Wall

As the day wore on, one could almost see Jimmy Carter’s famous cardigan being lowered over Abraham’s neck, like Damocles’ sword. Behind the cardigan, the writing is on the wall. Sooner or later, and possibly in the next few months, the unthinkable is going to happen: America is going to be forced to use less natural gas, just as it was forced to use less oil after 1973 – but this time it won’t be geopolitics but geology in the driving seat.

But unlike oil in the 70s, it will, as noted, be much harder and more expensive for America to increase gas imports. Greatly reducing absolute consumption of energy by not being so wasteful, and radically increasing renewables, are not real options, since the “American way” is not up for negotiation. Not voluntarily anyway. America lost its last traces of parsimony after World War II. The renewables business is decades behind where it would need to be to make much difference.

The morals of this story are as momentous as they are various, but strangely, as of this writing, more than two weeks after the Summit, the DOE is apparently not putting out its own report on the event’s findings. This article may help to fill that void. This gas crisis should send a shockwave through energy-addicted countries like Britain, that are about to lose their energy independence, and send a message to all over-consuming countries, that rely upon a staggering and totally unsustainable intake of energy to fuel the vehicle of industrial consumer capitalism. It should be telling us that there are, after all, ‘limits to growth’, that sustainable development (which really means sustainable growth) is an oxymoronic nonsense.

It should make clear that oil wars will soon be joined by gas wars, unless the present path is averted.

To the world’s mainly poor ‘producers’ of non-renewable, depleting petroleum resources, it should send a last warning to start limiting production now, and charging much, much more. For example, to take one of the few rich producers, why should Canada subsidise US economic imperialism and its continuing military attacks with cheap gas and oil and refined products? Some of that petroleum may even have gone into the planes that killed four Canadians in Afghanistan, and many innocent Afghanis besides, not to mention Iraqis, Colombians, and soon no doubt Nigerians, Algerians, Angolans, and perhaps Iranians.

Most of all, it should also be a call to those millions of good-hearted, generous Americans who genuinely loathe what is being done in their names, who would like to get off the petroleum addiction, but who realize that the system and the infrastructure, of which we are nearly all a part, make that largely impossible.

The call for a “massive public education campaign” is a good idea, but it must go far beyond the very limited aim of telling people to use less electricity this summer. Somehow it must tell, and convince, enough Americans about what is really going on.

The US is not looking at an isolated rerun of the 1970s, nor even a scaled-up version of the California phenomenon. This is the big one. Since the new millennium, America has only escaped a catastrophic gas crisis because of Ladyfern and lady luck. Ladyfern has all but run out, and maybe luck is about to as well.


[1] Administration Blackout on Renewable Energy Continues at natural gas Summit: One-sided “Discussion” Ignores Wind, Other Clean Power Solutions to Crisis’, June 26, 2003. Union of Concerned Scientists. < http://www.ucsusa.org/news.cfm?newsID=350 >.
http://www.eia.doe.gov/ >.
‘Tight gas markets to last years: Morgan’ by Claudia Cattaneo, Calgary Bureau Chief  Financial Post June 24, 2003 < http://www.nationalpost.com/search/site/story.asp?id=F876990E-8BC2-4993-A3D5-995E106F4486 >.
‘Northern greed: BC's Ladyfern was touted as one of the biggest gas finds in Canadian history. Instead it was a bust. What went wrong?’ by Andrew Nikiforuk, 12th May 2003 < http://www.canadianbusiness.com/features/article.jsp?content=20030512_53695_53695 >.
Chief strategist to George W. Bush. Called “America’s Joseph Goebbels”, by Wayne Madsen < http://www.counterpunch.org/madsen1101.html >.
‘Clear skies, cloudy climate: Bush's plan to reduce greenhouse gases leaves out the worst pollutant, carbon dioxide. Senator Carper has a better alternative’ - by Roger Ballentine and Jan Mazurek < http://www.ndol.org/blueprint/2002_nov_dec/21_climate.html >.
‘Feds tell supplier to keep the juice flowing,’ (Hartford-AP July 10, 2003 < http://www.wtnh.com/Global/story.asp?S=1355087&nav=3YeXGpIu >. ‘NRG again ordered to keep electricity flowing to CL&P’   Associated Press. Published July 11, 2003 < http://www.startribune.com/stories/535/3982021.html >.
natural gas Trends Railroad Commission of Texas, May 12, 2003. < http://www.rrc.state.tx.us/divisions/gs/rap/ngtrends/ntrends030512.pdf >.
‘Half Full? Or  Half Empty?’ by Matthew R. Simmons. ASPO Workshop, IFP Conference Center, Paris, France  May 26, 2003. < http://www.simmonsco-intl.com/files/ASPO.pdf >.
Explanation of salinity and sodium hazard in ‘Why are people concerned about CBM product water?’
 < http://waterquality.montana.edu/docs/methane/cbmfaq.shtml#Why%20are%20people%20concerned%20about%20CBM%20product%20water? >.
[11] Coal Bed Methane Frequently Asked Questions < http://waterquality.montana.edu/docs/methane/cbmfaq.shtml#How%20is%20coal%20bed%20methane%20extracted%20from%20the%20coal%20seam >.
[12] ‘Why are people concerned about CBM product water?’ < http://waterquality.montana.edu/docs/methane/cbmfaq.shtml#Why%20are%20people%20concerned%20about%20CBM%20product%20water? >.
‘Gas well applications rejected - Commissioners cite dangers to watershed in denying 4 of 5 requests’, by Ellen Miller - Rocky Mountain News - July 23, 2002 < http://www.grandmesacitizensalliance.org/news/rckymtnnewswellsreject.html >.
‘BLM officials address conflict-of-interest charges’ - June 10, 2002. < http://www.nrdc.org/bushrecord/2002_06.asp >.
[15] ‘El Paso Corp. withheld gas during crisis, judge rules’ by Joe Cantlupe  Copley News Service  September 24, 2002. < http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/reports/power/20020924-9999_1n24elpaso.html >.
“The Gulf of Mexico down to about 500m is already deeply depleted of both oil and gas. It is not primarily a permitting problem. They have already taken most of what is there. The Atlantic margin is singularly unprospective – the industry hasn’t much interest in going there anyway in reality, although the image makers like to explain their predicament this way”. Dr Colin Campbell, personal correspondence, 7th July 2003.
‘Working on drilling - Despite president's promise, threat to Florida's coastline grows’. June 27. 2003. <
http://www.heraldtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20030627/NEWS/306270565/1030 >. ‘US Senate OKs study of Florida, Calif energy reserves’, Reuters, 06.12.03, by Chris Baltimore. Washington (Reuters). <  http://www.forbes.com/markets/newswire/2003/06/12/rtr998413.html >.
‘Will Jurassic Shed 'Dusty' Sobriquet? Destin Dome Has New Objectives’, by Louis S. Durham, Explorer Correspondent. < http://www.aapg.org/explorer/2001/10oct/destindome.html >.
‘Apache Acquires GOM Shallow Water Acreage from Shell’, 2003-07-03. < http://www.rigzone.com/news/article.asp?a_id=7232 >. ‘Apache Closes Purchase of Gulf of Mexico Assets From BP’, March 18, 2003. < http://www.rigzone.com/news/article.asp?a_id=5964 >. ‘Apache selling 32 west Gulf of Mexico blocks’. New York, June 2 (Reuters). < http://uk.biz.yahoo.com/030602/80/e1dkk.html >.
‘North Slope, Cook Inlet production hit skids’ by Rose Ragsdale Alaska Oil & Gas Reporter May 15, 2002. < http://www.oilandgasreporter.com/stories/051502/pro_production_skids.shtml >.
‘South from Canada ... and Alaska: Mackenzie and North Slope gas vital to North America’s long-term supply’ by Gary Park. Petroleum News Calgary Correspondent.  Vol. 8, No. 26  Week of June 29, 2003. <
http://www.petroleumnews.com/pnarch/030629-03.html >.
‘Mackenzie pipeline would carry only Canadian gas’  by Alaska Oil & Gas Reporter Staff, July 1, 2003. <
http://www.oilandgasreporter.com/stories/070103/ind_20030701004.shtml >.
‘North Slope gas producers stand by pipeline cost conclusion’ by Ian McKinnon for the Alaska Oil & Gas Reporter, March 6, 2002. < http://www.oilandgasreporter.com/stories/030602/can_producers_cost.shtml >.
U.S. looks to LNG to tap world's natgas supplies’ by Spencer Swartz  San Francisco. Reuters, June 17 2003. < http://biz.yahoo.com/rc/030617/energy_lng_us_1.html >.
‘Dominion Prepares For Tanker Deliveries: Gas Shipment Set for Cove Point in July’ by Raymond McCaffrey  Washington Post Staff Writer. June 8, 2003. < http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A26574-2003Jun6&notFound=true >.
‘Energy Secretary Abraham Announces Second natural gas Summit of the Year - Energy Ministers and Industry to Discuss Increasing Liquefied natural gas Supplies in the US’, July 8, 2003. < http://www.energy.gov/engine/content.do?PUBLIC_ID=13702&BT_CODE=PR_PRESSRELEASES&TT_CODE=PRESSRELEASE >.
Bush admin plans meeting to discuss LNG imports’, Reuters: Washington, July 8,  2003. < http://pro.energycentral.com/professional/news/gas/news_article.cfm?id=3974678 >.
Spencer Abraham on Environment (pro-business/anti-conservation voting record). < http://www.issues2000.org/Senate2000/Spencer_Abraham_Environment.htm >. ‘From Senator "Lunkhead" to Energy Czar: A Year in the Life of Spencer Abraham’, by Jeffrey St. Clair. April 17, 2002. < http://www.counterpunch.org/stclair0418.html >. ‘Yucca Mountain Recommendation Tainted by Undue Influence of Nuclear Industry Lobbyists: Science Smothered Under a Mountain of Lobbyists, Report Says’. April 1, 2002. < http://www.citizen.org/pressroom/release.cfm?ID=1069 >.
Page 1, Letter to NPC Summit from Gregori Lebedev, President & Chief Executive Officer, American Chemistry Council, 25th June 2003. < http://accnewsmedia.com/docs/1300/1234.pdf >.
Page 2, idem.
[32] <
http://accnewsmedia.com/site/page.asp?TRACKID=&VID=1&CID=253&DID=974#SKIP >.
[33] <
http://news.ft.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=FT.com/StoryFT/FullStory&c=StoryFT&cid=1054966085010 >.
Page 1, Letter to NPC Summit from Kraig R. Naasz, President of The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) June 24, 2003.
< http://www.tfi.org/letter%20to%20doe%20sec%20abraham%20on%20summit%20terra%20_final_%20-%20june%202%85.pdf >.

Additional Information

  • Julian Darley’s June 17th 2003 CSIS presentation on the natural gas crisis “When Crunch Becomes Crisis” is available in several formats from the Post Carbon Institute < www.postcarbon.org >.
  • Post Carbon Institute is working to find serious and practical ways of living without hydrocarbons.
  • Julian Darley is working on a book about the North American natural gas crisis (along with global oil peak) and its implications and possible responses.
  • Video and audio interviews with world authorities on oil and natural gas peak can be found at GlobalPublicMedia < www.globalpublicmedia.com >.
  • Julian Darley’s biography can be found at < www.juliandarley.com >.

* Courtesy of the
Post Carbon Institute < www.postcarbon.org >.
Article published July 10, 2003; preface added August 13, 2003.

Originally appeared in From The Wilderness
From The Wilderness Publications, Michael C. Ruppert. < www.copvcia.com >
P.O. Box 6061-350, Sherman Oaks, CA, 91413

See original at < http://www.postcarbon.org/pubs.php?doc=US.NG.When_markets_fail.v1-3.JD.2003-08-13.php&PHPSESSID=d76fc31d68f1e770aa8b7cf0ddd8206d >.


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