Tara Lohan: How did this book project come about? I know it started out as a book about tar sands, but then it evolved into so much more.
Richard Heinberg: The economy is all about energy. Almost all of our environmental issues relate to energy in one way or another. Certainly, climate change does. War and peace, it’s all about energy. Upping the energy literacy of the American people and thought leaders is a pretty high priority.
TL: Explain a little bit more what you mean by energy literacy, because I know you talk about that in the book as well.
RH: Well, surprisingly few people have really looked at or thought about or studied what energy is. It’s in all of our lives. We all depend on it for everything we do, but energy is pretty allusive. You can’t hold a jar of pure energy in your hands. Useful energy comes to us in various forms. All of these different forms of energy, whether it’s coal, oil, natural gas, wind, hydropower, nuclear, each has its own characteristics. Environmental characteristics. Economic characteristics. It takes a while to sort of wrap your head around all of that, and there are some basic concepts like the laws of thermodynamics. The ideas of energy density and return on energy investment that are absolutely fundamental to evaluating different forms and sources of energy.
Again, not too many people have really studied or given much thought to these. Well, over the course of the next few years, we’re going to be making absolutely critical decisions about our energy future, our environmental future and our economic future. Unless we have these basic elements of energy literacy, unless more of us understand the criteria by which to evaluate these different sources of energy, we’re going to get a lot of things wrong. We think energy literacy is really important.
TL: Right, it’s not as easy as just replacing all the coal and oil with solar and wind, because they differ in terms of the energy returned on energy invested.
RH: There’s actually a good article on that in the current issue of Scientific American that has some neat infographics. This becomes a real issue in energy sources that have very low returns like biofuels and also unconventional fossil fuels like tar sands and shale gas and tight oil. These sources of energy can be profitable in certain situations, especially if there are government subsidies or if Wall Street gets interested and attracts a lot of investment capital, but these are energy sources that are not going to be able to support an industrial society absent other sources of energy that have a higher return on investment.
If all we had to power society were tar sands, biofuels, shale gas and tight oil, society would basically come apart at the seams because we’d be having to put so much of our effort into producing energy that we wouldn’t have much energy left over at the end of the day to do all the things we need energy for like education, healthcare, transportation, trade. All of those things use energy. They don’t produce energy. We need a very substantial energy surplus from the energy that we do invest in getting more energy. These sources just aren’t up to the job.
TL: It seems like there’s an increasing industrialization in order to get there, too. I’m thinking about what the footprint looks like for a conventional natural gas well as opposed to a well that’s being fracked.
RH: Right. It’s a lower quality resource. The shale gas is produced from rocks with very low porosity. The gas just doesn’t want to migrate to the wellbore. That’s why they have to apply technologies like hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling. That increases the contact between the wellbore and the resource, but at the end of the day, we may have changed technology, but we haven’t changed the rocks themselves. What we get are very high decline rates. If you drill a shale gas well on January 1st, by December 31st of the same year, the rate of production of that well may already have fallen by 70 percent or 80 percent.
That means we have to drill and drill and drill in order to keep overall production rates flat or increasing. That means thousands, tens of thousands, even ultimately perhaps hundreds of thousands of wells. This is costly, of course, but it’s also extremely environmentally risky. If we were only drilling a few wells, there would only be a few water tables to put at risk of pollution and probably only a few accidents. But if, let’s say, 6 percent or 7 percent of well casings end up being faulty, which is according to research, a pretty fair estimate, we’re talking about thousands of wells that are going to be leaking methane and other chemicals and toxics into water and air.
Unless this is understood, people really don’t have a basis for making good decisions.
To read the full interview, please click here: http://www.alternet.org/environment/coming-crash-our-addiction-endless-growth-finite-planet-photo-slideshow?paging=off#image-1
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