What If We Never Run Out of Oil? – Charles C. Mann – The Atlantic


The recent article by Charles C. Mann in the Atlantic Monthly describing the changes in the worldwide petroleum supply was quite interesting. The article discusses how fracking and new oil extraction techniques have vastly increased the amount of oil that can be extracted from the earth, very much changing people’s estimates of the reserves in the ground. They have also shifted the current energy balance so that it is anticipated that within less than a decade the United States will be energy independent from the Middle East. This of course has profound geopolitical implications. Overall, the article explains a bit about why the US economy has been changing of late so as not to need as much energy conservation products, insulation and solar panels.

TECHNOLOGY. The article goes over a little bit about the actual technology of this transformation, explaining how fracking works by introducing small cracks in rock by injecting high pressure liquid and then allowing the gas to come out of the well. The article also goes into some other types of next generation fuels: (1) from extracting from tar sand such as in Canada and (2) perhaps more promising methane methane hydrate that could be released from deposits under the sea where it is trapped in ice. Methane hydrate is not as relevant for the United States because of its large amount of “frackable” reserves but it is extremely important for other countries such as Japan and China.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPLICATIONS. The article also discusses the
environmental implications of fracking. One on hand this would be good for global warming since natural gas will displace coal and it results only about half of the amount of carbon for a given amount of energy as coal does. However in the long run it will potentially make it even harder to wean the world from fossil fuels. One interesting statistic, now that coal is becoming relatively so uncompetitive for the United States and the fact that it is difficult to export the fracked natural gas the upshot is that the United States is now using more natural gas and exporting more of its coal, which is, ironically, going to the most green of places such as Germany. Another important environmental aspect of fracking is that the burned fuel is
potentially less polluting but unburnt methane or natural gas is an even more serious greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

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