What's that hissing sound?

Worried about oil running out? Don't look now, but natural gas is next on the endangered hydrocarbons list.

By Jeff Nachtigal
August 10, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)
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Oil prices hit an all-time high Monday, topping out at $44.97 a barrel. There are a bundle of immediate reasons -- sabotage and war in Iraq, the showdown between the Yukos Oil Co. and the Kremlin in Russia, political instability in Venezuela -- but there are also fundamental long-term forces pushing prices ever upward. Demand, particularly in countries such as India and China, is growing fast, but the supply is finite.

Still, among consumers in the United States, there appears to be little panic. The coming "oil peak" -- that moment when worldwide production of oil reaches its high point -- is in the news, but Detroit keeps turning out SUVs, freeways are perpetually jammed, and prices at the pump -- so far -- have not inspired many of us to cut back.


Our devil-may-care attitude about energy is fueled in large part by an economic principle of "substitutability," in which we depend on new sources of energy to take the place of the old. But when the oil spigots finally run dry -- whether in a few years or a few decades -- the next hydrocarbon on the list (and possibly the last, depending on how you count coal) will be natural gas. But if we blow through natural gas in the same reckless manner as we have oil, we're in for a serious shock, argues Julian Darley in his new book, "High Noon for Natural Gas."

Darley is a self-described "environmental philosopher" who specializes in researching "non-market and non-technology-based responses to global environmental degradation." The primary thrust of "High Noon for Natural Gas" is that, unless we unplug as much as we can from our energy-dependent ways, we're headed off a cliff, and the crash at the bottom won't be pretty.

As with oil, gauging the peak of natural gas production is an inexact science. The best estimates suggest that oil production will hit its all-time high sometime between 2008 and 2035. But already, in 2002, the world discovered fewer reserves of untapped natural gas than it consumed that year -- a clear portent of eventual production declines.


Still relatively plentiful, natural gas will for some time fill the gap left by dwindling oil reserves. But if we move merrily on to the next readily available energy source without dramatically changing our gluttonous energy consumption habits, we will only be prolonging the inevitable, Darley says, and will end up throwing ourselves into the "carbon chasm."

Darley blames the uncontrollable growth of economies and global overpopulation as the two biggest drivers of energy consumption. His solution is to simply stop using nonrenewable energy -- to essentially opt out of the current energy infrastructure. He understands that his suggestions for dealing with the coming energy crisis will not be popular with the vast majority of Western society, nor for those living in fast-growing developing nations. But those who are aware of the problem, he argues, must start the long process of building a new, low-energy infrastructure to replace the current high-energy one we have now.

"The majority seems to act only when the avalanche is upon the roof; it is quite likely that no prediction, however accurate it is, will be sufficient to shift mainstream policy making or opinion," Darley writes. "Thus it is only those who think that we have already gone too far who will be willing to act, make the kinds of big changes required, and more than anything start building a new infrastructure while we can."


There are other problems with natural gas aside from its likely future scarcity. For example, the path from underground gas deposit to kitchen range is growing more complex, and expensive, as demand increases.

In the United States, nearly 70 percent of new buildings are heated with gas. Canada and Britain have similar numbers, and most of world is following suit and converting to natural gas heat. But most gas in the future will be used to produce electricity.


Because electricity is so intrinsic to our cities and life itself, Darley says, "anything that threatens the electricity supply is a direct threat to the lives of billions and billions of humans. So although natural gas may seem unrelated to the electricity user, problems with it are not."

Electricity is generated by coal, nuclear power, hydropower or natural gas. Natural gas currently powers about 20 percent of the United States' electricity plants, but that rate is sharply rising because low cost has made gas the fuel of choice. In 2003, more than 300 new gas-fired power stations were built, and 90 percent of new electricity plants are powered by gas.

Does it all make economic sense?


"In great part, the colossal rash of power station building has cost the United States precious time in trying to adjust to a landscape that will be seriously short of natural gas," Darley writes.

Adding to the problems is the greater difficulty of transporting natural gas than moving oil. Once gas is pumped out of the ground it travels by pipeline. But to move gas across oceans to U.S. markets requires freezing it into liquefied natural gas. LNG can then be transported by ocean tanker, but it requires expensive terminals in which to regasify the frozen liquid. The United States has 280,000 miles of gas pipeline, but it lacks adequate LNG terminals, the construction of which is now often contested by environmentally conscious communities.

It costs hundreds of millions to build one LNG terminal, and in combination with related piping infrastructure the cost can run over $1 billion. Building dozens of the required terminals will take care of U.S. demand for the short term, but it's a high price to pay if a gas peak lurks in the near future. LNG terminals also provide an easy target for terrorists, or in California's case, earthquakes. Opponents of a California-based terminal plan said that its vast stores of gas could turn into a mile-high fireball.


Even worse, "expansion in LNG (with its main production sources in politically anti-American states) threatens an even greater likelihood of endless war, covert disruption and forced regime change. For all these reasons all citizens of the U.S. should think very carefully before spending hundreds of billions of dollars and entering the global LNG market, one which may only last two or three decades anyway," Darley writes.

Darley touches briefly on alternative sources of energy, such as hydrogen, solar and wind, but discounts them as full-scale replacements for oil and gas because their implementation is too expensive.

So what can be done? Darley offers some small-scale steps for ordinary people to take, including turning off appliances, insulating homes, using cloth instead of plastic grocery shopping bags, wearing sweaters instead of cranking the heat up, and eating less meat (which requires far more energy to produce than plants).

But he's not a fan of moving to more "efficient" higher-technology appliances. "Efficiency," to Darley, is a distraction -- little more than a "code word for business-as-usual-lite." Saving energy through techno-fixes stokes economic growth and encourages increased energy use. Using significantly less energy by cutting energy out of our diet is the best way to scale back our overall energy dependence.


A few of Darley's suggestions border on the extreme and risk pushing the reader beyond the edge of present-day practicality. His recommendations include dismantling the industrial food system; limiting family size to one child; and "disconnecting from much of what has been built by industrialization and build a new infrastructure."

But other ideas seem within reach for many of us, such as buying food and goods from local producers and traveling by foot instead of car to bring about local "fuel to foot economies."

Darley says that North Americans, with their energy consumption, can make an enormous difference by just doing something. He also recognizes that self-sufficiency will come slowly and may never be entirely possible at a local level.

"It is, however, a good aim," he writes, "just as the goal of not using any hydrocarbons is the one that should guide us, even if we don't reach it very often, especially in the earlier stages."

Jeff Nachtigal

Jeff Nachtigal is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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