Sunday, January 26, 2014

Is adaptation to climate change really feasible?

The climate change denial lobby likes to use a variant of the dog bite defense. Perhaps you'll recall the joke about the owner of a dog that bit a passerby. Defending himself in court, the owner says: "My dog doesn't bite. It wasn't my dog. And furthermore, I don't have a dog."

In similar fashion the climate denial lobby tells us: "Climate change is actually good for us. If it does cause problems, they won't be that bad and we should just adapt. And furthermore, there is no climate change."

The final argument has been increasingly difficult for the climate denial lobby to maintain, and many there have given up on it. And, the denialists have pretty much given up on the idea that climate change is good for us. So, they're down to arguing that it won't be that bad and we should just adapt.

In recent months this argument--which the denialists thought might only be tested far into the future--is taking a thumping. It's taking a thumping because climate change is moving so fast and its consequences becoming so devastating that it's hard to see how we are going to adapt to it easily and cheaply or, in some cases, even at all.

A recent harbinger of that speed is the Pine Island Glacier in the Antarctic which separated from the continent last year and which scientists recently discovered is melting "irreversibly." This one glacier will contribute up to one centimeter in sea level rise over the next 20 years. That doesn't sound like much. But it is a huge amount of water from just one source. And, of course, it is emblematic of what is happening to nearly all glaciers and ice sheets throughout the world. Given the quickening pace of melting, their combined input of water into the sea could surprise us with a higher than expected rise in sea levels soon.

In California last year was the driest on record and continues a pattern of low rainfall that has resulted in the state's governor declaring a drought emergency. The declaration will allow affected areas to receive federal aid. The dryness has also spawned wildfires and has firefighters saying that such conditions are only seen in midsummer, not in the middle of the rainy season.

Australia is, of course, in the middle of its summer and the season has been a disastrous one. Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees F have become routine. Lack of moisture has brought raging wildfires all across the affected areas.

Beyond this, volatile world food prices in the last decade have been, in part, due to extreme weather, a predicted result of global climate change. Droughts and floods have destroyed crops routinely and sent prices soaring. Whether farmers can adapt quickly enough to the new conditions they face is now a serious concern.

The climate change deniers are only right about one narrow thing: We're going to have to adapt to climate change; at least, we are going to be forced to try. But that adaptation isn't something that's going to be able to proceed at a leisurely pace if we expect agriculture to keep feeding a growing population. And, it's not clear, for example, how California farmers are going to adapt to having so little water for their crops right now--nor how populous cities will be able to supply adequate water to their inhabitants.

It's also not obvious how we can stop what will be increasingly ferocious wildfires. And, the cost of protecting low-lying cities on seacoasts from increasingly destructive storms and higher sea level will not be cheap, especially if we decide to take such protection seriously.

Now, I say "increasingly" because another 25 to 50 years of climate change is already in the pipeline even if we as a global society were not to emit another ton of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. What few people realize is that much of the heat absorbed by the planet is stored in the oceans. This heat is only gradually being released in ways that affect the surface temperature. It's what scientists call thermal inertia.

So, to use the vernacular: You ain't seen nothin' yet. If this is what climate change is bringing us now, how can we even entertain the idea that we should do nothing to stop it and simply focus on adaptation?

Still, maybe the climate change deniers can throw a few bake sales to raise the necessary money for all the adaptations we'll be having to make.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Is "the environment" now obsolete?

For millennia the presence of humans on planet Earth hardly made a dent in its ecosystems. Humans were at the mercy of their environment as much as any other creature. But with the advent of agriculture, humans began to influence the planet in major ways. Some scientists posit that the clearing of large swaths of land for planting over the past 10,000 years released enough carbon into the atmosphere to delay the next ice age.

Of course, in the past two centuries the pace of those carbon releases has grown exponentially with the industrial revolution through the burning of fossil fuels. These emissions now threaten to flip the planet into a warm state far beyond anything experienced by humans in their relatively brief time on Earth. The question we must now face is whether humans still live in "the environment" or whether they now are "the environment" by virtue of their actions.

The distinction mattered little as long as we didn't live in what economist Herman Daly calls "a full world." The introduction to his piece "Economics in a Full World" which appeared in Scientific American in 2005 states: "The global economy is now so large that society can no longer safely pretend it operates within a limitless ecosystem."

And, pretending is all we've been doing since the dawn of humans. As it turns out, the biosphere that is our home has been shaped by the very organisms that inhabit it. For example, about 2.4 billion years ago, cyanobacteria which are capable of photosynthesis appeared and began absorbing carbon dioxide from Earth's atmosphere and releasing oxygen in great quantities back into it. The period has been dubbed The Great Oxidation Event, and it wiped out most anaerobic bacteria (because, of course, they can't survive in an oxygen environment). As a result, The Great Oxidation Event is regarded as one of the largest extinction events of all time.

We see the imprint of living organisms shaping the biosphere everywhere. The carbon cycle--the very basis of life as we know it--involves plants and microorganisms both on land and in the sea. Even our human bodies are part of it as we breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. Shell-making aquatic organisms use carbon and calcium from seawater to make their shells. When these organisms die, their shells sink to the ocean floor where they become part of the vast carbonate-rich deposits of sedimentary rocks.

And there is the nitrogen cycle, a cycle critical to the survival of all living things. None of us can live without the nitrogen needed to build the proteins and the nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) we depend on for our functioning. Nitrogen in the atmosphere, however, cannot be utilized by plants. But, it turns out that soil bacteria convert this nitrogen into a form that is usable for plants and therefore usable for the animals that eat those plants. (Lightning also performs this transformation.)

So the principle is that organisms are both acted upon by their environment and act on their environment. They both adapt to their circumstances and attempt to alter those circumstances to enable them to survive and thrive. There can be no doubt that humans do this. Of course, this doesn't guarantee that all organisms will survive, at least not in their current form. And, that's how we get evolution on Earth. Organisms gradually change over time or go extinct if they cannot adapt quickly enough to changing circumstances or alter those circumstances enough to allow their survival.

All organisms are continuously acting both to adjust to surrounding circumstances and to shape those circumstances. This is a key insight. We earthbound organisms are not, as Darwin implies, mere helpless actors. Each of us has a role to play in maintaining the web of life. This conclusion is logical. How can we say that wolves are influencing the evolutionary development of sheep without saying sheep are influencing the evolutionary development of wolves?

What can we now say about "the environment" when the dominant force shaping it us? We have interfered in the carbon cycle in a profound way, vastly speeding up the introduction of carbon into the atmosphere and the oceans (ocean acidification). What can we now say about the nitrogen cycle after 1905 when Fritz Haber figured out how to convert nitrogen from the air into a form usable for plants--a discovery that led to modern-day nitrogen fertilizers that have greatly expanded the food supply and thus allowed human populations to skyrocket?

But, runoff laced with these same fertilizers is responsible for the eutrophication of bodies of water. And, it turns out that the long-term use of artificial nitrogen fertilizers actually reduces the productivity of the soil. One affectless but nevertheless ominous observation from recent research on the subject summarizes the problem: Long-term nitrogen fertilizer use "has been implicated in widespread reports of yield stagnation or even decline for grain production in Asia." (For a fuller summary, see this piece in Grist.)

To every action there is a reaction. It just may not show up right away.

In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times Erle Ellis, a biologist, embraced the idea that there is no "environment" that constrains human action. Here is the heart of his argument:

The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future. Humans are niche creators. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.

Ellis is one of the few scientists I've read who understands that what we humans are doing to the Earth is really a political issue--notice that he invokes social science. And, he has given his advocacy services over to the side that proclaims that perpetual growth in the human domain is possible. To repeat: His conclusion stems not from mere natural science, but from social science, that is, the realm of the political.

But, he makes two obvious errors in his piece when he proclaims: "There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity. We are nothing at all like bacteria in a petri dish."

He is referring, of course, to the classic illustration of the petri dish which ultimately runs out of food for the hungry, multiplying bacteria it contains, and that leads to a population crash among the bacteria. His error is in assigning agency only to humans, in assigning the ability to shape our environment only to humans. And yet, as a biologist who must know the history of planet Earth, he is being disingenuous. Remember the humble cyanobacteria and the huge destruction it wreaked on other forms of life. Ellis says in the previous excerpt: "Humans are niche creators." But, so are all other organisms on the planet, a rather glaring omission. This is, in fact, a key similarity between us and bacteria.

What Ellis imagines is that humans will always and everywhere be successful at creating new niches for themselves--that all the other organisms on the planet will somehow accommodate us enough to allow the human species to grow continuously and its extractions from the rest of the natural world to grow with it. He is right that humans have always altered the biosphere (as has every other organism). But he seems not to understand the current scale of alterations and the rapidity with which they are taking place. Scale matters. Remember Herman Daly's admonition that we live in a full world. And, that world is on course to change its climate dramatically in just a few decades. Such a time line is unprecedented in human history.

Ellis again has a scientific lapse by simply dismissing the competition and cooperation from other species as inconsequential--for example, competition for basic resources such as food and water and cooperation from such species as bees which pollinate the lion's share of the world crops. He is too dismissive of human-induced changes in the oceans, the soils and the atmosphere as something humans will always and everywhere be able to survive.

He tells us that 200,000 years ago humans started to transform the planet. What he fails to mention is that it has not been a one-way trajectory skyward. About 70,000 years ago, probably because of climate change, human numbers were likely reduced to just 2,000. The lack of genetic diversity in humans has long pointed to such an event. All of us today come from those 2,000.

But, of course, we're better equipped than those humans. And today, with our unparalleled knowledge, we wouldn't foolishly undermine the systems in our biosphere that are critical to our well-being, would we?

Ellis writes with the vast overconfidence of someone who thinks he knows the future with certainty and that humans will always figure something out no matter the scope or rapidity of the changes they face. In his opinion piece he gushes: "Who knows what will be possible with the technologies of the future?" Actually, nobody knows.

But, we humans are not "in charge" of the biosphere. We are only competing and cooperating with various parts of it in a struggle to survive and thrive. Isn't it obvious by now that the biosphere does not always do what we want it to do and only what we want it to do? It's as if the law of unintended consequences has never occurred to Ellis.

Given that we know now that all organisms try to remake the biosphere to their liking, this should make us far less confident that we can make everything turn out just fine for humans. Keep in mind that we face a bewildering and essentially incalculable array of actors with whom we are forced sometimes to fight and sometimes to cooperate. In fact, we cannot even know what all of them are and probably are only familiar with a small sliver of all that lives. Our knowledge of the biosphere and the Earth is not just imperfect, it is wildly imperfect. If we're so smart, why didn't we avoid changing the climate, devastating the fisheries, degrading the soil through rapid erosion, and lacing the air, water and soil with toxic chemicals in the first place?

Even though Ellis is right that there is no fixed human carrying capacity--because humans, their social and technological circumstances, and the world of other organisms and Earth processes are changing all the time--this is but a red herring. No bona fide scientist has said otherwise. When most scientists refer to human carrying capacity, they mean long-term carrying capacity; they mean thousands of years. And, Ellis never even contemplates the possibility that this fluctuating human carrying capacity might go down! The human story forever goes upward (except, for example, 70,000 years ago, when, due to climate change, it didn't).

So we have a semantic sleight-of-hand that ducks the long-term problem and places Ellis (whether he knows it or not) firmly on the side of interests that only think short-term, primarily the industrial and commercial interests. We are back to politics, again. With which interests should we ally ourselves? The well-being and futurity of the human race or the short-term interests of powerful elites?

William Catton Jr., author of the ecological classic Overshoot, prefigured the coming of the Anthropocene, an age of the Earth dominated by human actions--where menacing geological changes such as changes in the chemistry of the ocean and the atmosphere take place by dint of human action and within a human lifetime. Catton gave humans a new name, homo colossus, a human-tool hybrid with immense power to shape the globe. With worldwide geologic changes coming this fast, what will it mean from now on to refer to the geologic time scale?

If we are indeed already in the Anthropocene, then "the environment" cannot be "out there." And, it cannot be "preserved." The environment is us and everything else together constantly in flux. It is no longer a static scientific construction, but a political one within which we humans are firmly situated along with all the other organisms and Earth processes. We cannot be above or apart from it. We cannot "save it" as actors from beyond.

But, we can decide which values we want to defend. With apologies to some of my geologist friends who understand rightly that the human project on planet Earth will just be a blip in Earth's history--please stop identifying with the rocks! Rocks are an excellent area of study; and, we have geologists to thank for much of what we know about Earth's systems. But, the time has now come to realize that that knowledge has political implications for what we as humans will actually do from here on out.

The advent of the Anthropocene has wiped out the distinction between human history and natural history. And so, my minor temper tantrum over geology applies to all the other natural sciences. There is no distinction between us and the natural world. There is just the thin membrane of life and life processes clinging to the Earth's surface which we call the biosphere and of which humans are merely a part.

It has always been thus. But now, it is imperative that we understand this if we wish to salvage anything we call human in the century to come.

_________________________________________________________________________

P.S. The inspiration for this piece comes from Bruno Latour who gave the Gifford Lectures last year, particularly the third and fourth lectures. And, I thank my friend Jim Armstrong for some thoroughly stimulating discussions about these lectures and Latour's latest work.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Living in a world we can't understand

What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent.
                         --Friedrich Nietzsche
As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.
                         --Donald Rumsfeld, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense

We live in an age of enlightenment, in the belief that the entire universe is open to our inspection and more than this, that it is theoretically all intelligible to us. If we just apply enough science and enough rationality, nature will reveal all its secrets to us in ordered sets of data that we can then use to control the entire world around us.

That we can wrest a comfortable life from the Earth is, however, nothing special. Plants and animals do this without resorting to colleges, symposia or research laboratories. And, humans used to do it without these things as well. Ancient Greeks--if they survived childhood diseases, war and the occasional plague--regularly managed to live into their 60s and 70s among balmy Mediterranean breezes. It's not that there hasn't been any progress; it's just that we may not have made as much progress as we think.

And yet, in the age of Big Data we have become ever more enamored with the representations of the world that we gather in the form of numbers and words, believing (wrongly) that the map is the territory.

My father used to annoy his business partners by offering quick-fire solutions to problems--solutions that worked with distressing regularity. When pressed, he often could not explain why these solutions would work, only that he knew they would. His partners, suspicious of things that could not be rendered into rational discourse, eventually bought him out. How could they trust such intuitions, even if they appeared to be on target?

In his book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (from which I've drawn several ideas for this piece) author Nassim Nicholas Taleb cites the above quotation by Nietzsche and calls it "the most potent sentence in all of Nietzsche's century." We tend to dismiss things we cannot understand: "If I cannot understand it, then it must not exist." And there is the seemingly less pernicious, "If I cannot understand it, it must not be important."

The second notion is actually more pernicious. I can show convincingly that a person who does not understand a well-supported fact is merely ignorant. But it is much harder to convince someone that something which he or she doesn't understand--but doesn't deny either--is actually important enough to pay attention to. Climate change comes to mind.

This is the conundrum of the modern world. The world is so complex that it seems hopeless to try to understand how all things human and natural work together. We live in an age that calls out for explanations of nature and society that provide something genuinely revelatory to the layperson. What we mostly get, however, is hucksterism and public relations, information designed to mislead rather than clarify. Under the circumstances, we are lucky if we occasionally discover a small and perhaps fleeting truth.

We often believe that the explainers know what they are talking about because they speak with such conviction. The economists, the Wall Street analysts, the technical geniuses, the captains of industry, the billionaires, the airwave pundits, they must know something we don't or they wouldn't be that successful. But what they know isn't necessarily what they are telling us. And, what they are telling us is, in any case, almost always designed to advance their interests, not ours.

In such a world, how shall we get through the day? It is best to start from humble premises:

  1. Nature knows better than we do in most things. It's been tested for a lot longer than any human invention.

  2. No one knows the future, but we should strive to make ourselves less vulnerable to damage from extreme events which are the ones that can really hurt us.

  3. Beware of anyone who tells you he or she knows the future with certainty. Unless you are speaking with, say, a scientist calculating the orbit of a planet, such a person is a fraud.

  4. Our social relations--our loves and friendships--are more important than anything else because they are our true anchors in an uncertain world.

  5. The longer a practice or design has been around, say, a book versus an e-reader, the longer it is likely to be around. It has endured the test of time.

  6. There is wisdom in insecurity to quote Alan Watts. We actually live in an insecure and uncertain world. Those who promise to free us from our anxiety and insecurity are merely trying to manipulate us for their own gain. (I would distinguish such people from bona fide practitioners who help those with paralyzing anxiety reduce it to a manageable level.) Do not trust people or pills that promise to end your anxiety. Even if you get temporary relief, the actual uncertainty in your life and the universe will remain.

  7. Just because the world is uncertain doesn't mean it is implacably hostile. Sometimes good things come from an uncertain future if we are wise enough to be on the lookout for them.

None of these principles will deliver you from all of life's difficulties. But they can help you avoid hucksters who simply wish to exploit you by placing you in harm's way while they reap the benefits.

Only when we accept that we have a rather limited understanding of the world we live in are we able to act in ways that are prudent for ourselves and our communities and respectful of the Earth and of our fellow beings, human and otherwise.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Wonders yet to come: A sound basis for energy policy?

Last week when I laid out seven misconceptions about energy shared by the public and policymakers, the pushback I received had little to do with the actual data I used to demonstrate my point. This is probably because the data are from official public sources and available to anyone with an Internet connection to inspect and verify. Most of the pushback bore the sentiment, "Well, you are right about the data. But, just you wait. There are big things that are going to happen in the future with (fill in your favorite fossil fuel) because of (fill in your favorite technology and/or name of supposedly large fossil fuel deposit)."

This is what I refer to as the "wonders-yet-to-come argument." It's an argument that ought to be familiar (and tiresome) to most everyone. It's been used frequently since the oil price hit a long-term low of $10.72 a barrel in December 1998. Even as prices rose ten-fold and supplies advanced only at a snail's pace from 2005 onward, we were treated to frequent pronouncements about how the wonders of technology would deliver cheap, abundant oil soon. Though technology has failed to provide cheap oil, the wonders-yet-to-come argument is still being used to great effect on unsuspecting minds.

We've actually had a good test of this argument since 1998 in the oil markets. Around that time it was deepwater drilling that was going to keep the world awash in cheap oil for decades to come. Check out how many times both the International Energy Outlook 2000 produced by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the World Energy Outlook 2000 produced by the International Energy Agency (IEA) mentioned the key role deepwater oil development was expected to play in raising world production and keeping prices low.

That didn't quite work out. In the decade that followed, during which deepwater drilling was going to conquer the world and the oil markets, oil prices embarked on a sustained upward trajectory hitting an all-time record of $147 a barrel in 2008. After dipping in the face of the financial meltdown in the second half of that year, the oil price has stabilized at the highest average daily price ever over the last three years.

But, we are now supposedly in for a second wave of wonders-yet-to-come with regard to oil, that is, the use of high-volume, slickwater hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling to extract previously inaccessible oil from deep shale deposits. This wonder--currently centered in the United States--is supposed to glut the world with oil and drive down the price; and this time, the wonder-workers proclaim, it'll work.

Well, the record so far is not compelling. And, even government and international agencies that had been cheerleaders during the boom are seeing the writing on the wall. The IEA has curbed its previous enthusiasm and now says in its latest World Energy Outlook that, while fracking and deepwater exploration have been successful in extracting previously inaccessible oil deposits, "this does not mean that the world is on the cusp of a new era of oil abundance."

The EIA nows believes that U.S. crude oil production will peak in 2016 and then begin to decline after 2020. So much for America leading the charge to a new long-term era of cheap, abundant oil. As Steve Andrews recently wrote, this forecast implies negligible supply from what has until now been touted as America's largest deposit of frackable tight oil, Calfornia's Monterey Formation.

It seems that the most fracking can do for now is to keep worldwide oil production from sagging--which would have happened without the fracking boom. So, the results are palpable, but less than wondrous. This particular wonder hasn't cratered prices as foretold. And, in fact, if it did, fracking would no longer be profitable since it requires prices above $80 barrel. So, the fracking experiment is now delivering marginal increases in world supply at historically expensive prices. It's no wonder that few people find fracking wonderful on their wallets or their surrounding environment.

But, I am told that we are going to see the fracking phenomenon spread across the world and then--finally, then--we'll see the previously forecast wonders-yet-to-come actually unfold.

I wonder.

By now, if you purchase gasoline or fuel oil or any of the derivatives of oil, you should be suffering from wonder-fatigue. When is all this wonder actually going to take down the price of oil? Keep in mind that it took just five years for the oil price to fall from the mid-$30 range per barrel in 1981, the top of the last oil boom, to $10.83 per barrel in mid-1986. A comparable fall from oil's 2008 high of $147 would have oil trading around $45 today.

But now, five and one-half years after the previous absolute price peak, the world benchmark Brent Crude closed at $107 (January 3). In fact, the average daily price of Brent Crude has been over $100 for each of the last three years, remaining in record territory. Those years beat out even 2008, the year of the oil price spike when daily prices averaged $96.94. So, people are paying more for their oil on a daily basis now than they did in the year of the supposed top.

Yes, I'm wondering, but not about the magic of new technologies; rather, I'm wondering about their limits. Geology is now showing that even impressive new technologies cannot necessarily conquer high-priced oil.

"Ah," you say, "you're leaving out natural gas. The fracking boom has certainly been a real wonder in the natural gas industry."

Actually, it turns out that what we should really be wondering is how so many smart people could get sucked into an investment scheme that lost so much money. The U.S. natural gas industry overproduced badly and is still suffering today from that mistake. It is doubtful that all but the most prolific shale gas wells are making any money--even at current prices which have more than doubled since the bottom. Some will say this is an incorrect assessment; but, these people tend not to include the cost of land and lease acquisition. Exxon Mobil Corp.'s CEO Rex Tillerson, whose company has one of the largest portfolios of U.S. shale gas assets, was succinct about shale gas profitability in mid-2012: "We are losing our shirts."

Early last year another industry insider, Matt Fox, ConocoPhillips' executive vice president of exploration and production, suggested that U.S. natural gas prices would have to go much higher from here to entice drillers back into the natural gas fields in force.

We now see the results of what shale gas expert Art Berman called "an improbable business model" deployed in the shale gas fields of America. That model was one "that has no barriers to entry except access to capital, that provides a source of cheap and abundant gas, and that somehow also allows for great profit." As it turns out, the model doesn't actually produce cheap natural gas. It produces mostly expensive natural gas that must be sold at a loss. And, this is the model that the natural gas industry's wonder-workers somehow believe will succeed abroad on deposits that to date haven't proven to be that easy to tap.

(We may soon see the flip side of this model because U.S. drilling for gas has declined precipitously in the face of financial losses. The result has been essentially flat production of U.S. marketed natural gas since January 2012. As the quickly declining shale gas wells give out, expect more price action on the upside in the natural gas market.)

In the past we've been served up wonders-yet-to-come in nuclear power which turned out to be much more expensive and much more dangerous than its proponents had advertised. And, we await the wonders of fusion energy which used to be 25 years away 25 years ago, and today is 40 years away from commercial application if the website for its main testing and development facility is to be believed. Sometimes wonders don't arrive on schedule.

Despite all this, wonders-yet-to-come seem to dominate U.S. energy policy. There is talk of changing laws to allow the exporting of oil and natural gas. There is talk of American energy independence. There is talk of an American energy renaissance and the ruination of OPEC. It is all very breathless and essentially baseless.

It is an hysteria created by an industry that can no longer deliver on the promise of cheap, reliable energy--an industry that finds itself in the fight of its life, a fight against physics and geology that is increasingly unbending in the face of wonders-yet-to-come.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.