Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Crude Crisis: My appearance on RT television's Crosstalk

This week I appeared on the cable news television show Crosstalk. The topic was the cause of high oil prices. I managed to provide a succinct explanation near the beginning. I didn't use the words "peak oil" because the panel discussion format of the show would have prevented me from providing sufficient explanation and context. The show which lasts a little over 25 minutes can be found here.

Here is the YouTube version:

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Fossil Fuels vs. Renewables: The Key Argument that Environmentalists are Missing

In lieu of my regular weekly post, I am posting this piece which has appeared elsewhere previously. I encourage you to disseminate it through any listserv, website, newsletter or other publication with which you are involved.  And, I’m hoping you’ll forward it widely to friends and colleagues who share your concerns and suggest that they get the piece reprinted and reposted wherever possible. If you'd like a PDF version of this piece, you can download it here.

I am targeting especially environmentalists focused on fracking, coal, and climate change and who may be unfamiliar with the peak fossil fuel thesis. I want to persuade them that including the peak argument will strengthen their case for a fast transition to renewable energy. I'll be greatly appreciative if, when you disseminate this piece, you include my brief bio at the end and the information about Sierra Atlantic and permissions. Thank you.

Which of the following can we count on to act as a “bridge fuel” to a renewable energy economy?

  1. Oil
  2. Natural Gas
  3. Coal
  4. None of the above

The correct answer is: D. None of the above.

Mark Twain is reported to have said: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." What most environmentalists think they know for sure is that oil, coal and natural gas are all abundant—so abundant, in fact, that many environmentalists believe they are forced to make a Hobson's choice of natural gas as a so-called "bridge fuel" to a renewable energy future.

Though natural gas produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy than coal or oil when it is burned, it still contributes mightily to climate change. In fact, according to research by a Cornell University team, natural gas from shale, which will make up an increasing share of U.S. gas supplies, is worse than conventionally produced gas which is now declining. Because shale gas wells are drilled in a way that releases considerable volumes of unburned methane into the atmosphere, shale gas is probably also worse than coal.

Methane is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and it leaks into the environment over the lifecycle of natural gas from drilling through delivery. In addition, hydraulic fracturing or fracking in the country's vast shale formations pollutes the air and surface waters surrounding drill sites and threatens the groundwater because the process uses toxic chemicals.

It turns out, however, that what most environmentalists know about the future supply of natural gas and other fossil fuels is based more on industry hype than on actual data. And, that means that they are missing a key argument in their discussions about renewable energy, one that could be used to persuade those less concerned about pollution and climate change and more concerned about energy security: There is increasing evidence that no fossil fuel will continue to see its rate of production climb significantly in the decades ahead and so none of them is a viable "bridge fuel," not natural gas, not oil, not coal. This means that global society must leap over fossil fuels and move directly to renewables as quickly as possible. In advanced economies this leap must be combined with a program of radical reductions in energy use, reductions which are achievable using known technologies and practices.

Okay, perhaps you are wondering about the data. Let's discuss each fossil fuel separately:


The first thing you should know about oil is that worldwide production has been on a plateau since 2005. This is despite record high prices and furious exploration and drilling efforts. There have been well-publicized finds here and there that may seem large. However, at the current worldwide rate of consumption, one billion barrels of oil lasts only 12 days. Thus, the multi-billion barrel finds announced in the last decade or so will have little impact on the longevity of world supplies.

Another key issue is one that oil companies do not want to emphasize: depletion. The worldwide average for production declines in existing oilfields has been estimated to be about 4 percent per year. That means that each year just to stay even, the industry must develop new oil production capacity equivalent to the current capacity of the North Sea, one of the world's largest fields. To grow production, it must, of course, exceed this amount, and that hasn't been happening.

When you mention these hard facts in polite company, you will undoubtedly be met with skepticism. But the data are available to the public from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) website. The agency is the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy and is widely considered the gold standard of energy information in the world.

Now, don't be deceived by shifting definitions of oil. When the petroleum glut long predicted by the optimists failed to appear, they started lumping in ethanol, biodiesel and natural gas liquids with petroleum and calling them all "oil." These other products are useful, but they are not as energy-rich, versatile or easily transported as oil. Our current infrastructure is heavily dependent on oil inputs with no real substitutes available in the quantities required.

You will also likely be met with protestations that we still have lots of oil: tar sands in Canada, heavy oil in Venezuela and even oil shale in the American West, primarily Colorado. Well, this represents the difficult-to-get oil. We extracted the easy stuff in the first 150 years of the oil age. And, while it is true that these resources and others like them represent an immense store of hydrocarbons, what matters is the rate at which we can produce them.

Because of the high-cost, capital-intensive nature of such production, the rate of production will be slow to ramp up and difficult to maintain. The hydrocarbons locked in the tar sands and the Orinoco oil belt in Venezuela aren't what we call oil and must be heavily processed at high cost using enormous amounts of energy. As for the oil shale in the America West, the amount of commercially produced oil we are currently getting from that oil shale is zero. No one has figured out how to extract it profitably. Partly this is because oil shale contains no oil. Instead, it contains a hydrocarbon-rich waxy substance called kerogen which must be heavily processed to turn it into oil.

An analogy might be useful: If you inherit a million dollars with the stipulation that you can only take out $500 a month, you may be a millionaire, but you will never live like one. Increasingly, this is the situation we will find ourselves in when it comes to oil. The key issue is the rate of production, not the size of the resource. The hard-to-get oil resources are large, but they take a long time to develop and require strenuous, expensive and energy-intensive methods to extract. All this, when combined with the relentless depletion of existing fields, spells little or no growth in the worldwide rate of oil production in the coming years.

Natural Gas

By now you've been told so many times in television ads and news articles that we have a 100-year supply of natural gas in the United States that you assume it must be true. While the claim itself is suspect, even if we accept it, there is a very serious omission. The claim in its entirety reads: a 100-year supply of natural gas at current rates of consumption. If natural gas is to be used as a so-called "bridge fuel"—a fuel that will power society with the least environmental cost while we deploy nonpolluting, renewable energy—then its rate of production will have to grow considerably if we expect it to displace coal and oil.

Simple spreadsheet calculations will tell you what happens to such long-term supply claims under the pressure of a little exponential growth. At just 2 percent per year growth, the 100-year U.S. domestic natural gas supply is exhausted in 56 years. If we assume that production peaks when about 50 percent of the resource is exhausted, this puts the peak within 35 years. Think about it. Even if the optimists are correct, with a production growth rate of just 2 percent per year, the country reaches a peak within 35 years! What will we do after that?

The picture gets acutely worse as the rate of production growth rises. A 3 percent growth rate implies exhaustion in 47 years and peak in 31 years. A 5 percent growth rate means exhaustion in 37 years and a peak in just 26 years.

As it turns out, the EIA projects a growth rate of just 0.4 percent per year in U.S. natural gas supplies through 2035 with production jumping from about 24 trillion cubic feet (tcf) in 2010 to about 26.5 tcf in 2035, hardly a bonanza.

Beyond this consider that the vast resources of natural gas from deep shale layers, commonly called shale gas, may not be so vast. A U.S. Geological Survey assessment pared the EIA's original estimate of "technically recoverable" natural gas in the largest of the shale deposits, the Marcellus Shale, from 410 tcf to just 84 tcf, an 80 percent reduction. And, this says nothing about whether the gas will be economically recoverable.

The 100-year figure was based on inflated estimates of recoverable natural gas and on ignoring the fact that the rate of natural gas consumption would have to rise exponentially to displace other fossil fuels. These two facts suggest that natural gas will not be the bridge fuel environmentalists are looking for.


Among the environmental community, the big fear is that coal will displace clean natural gas and even become a source for liquid fuels as oil supplies wane. That fear is founded on industry claims of vast coal supplies in the United States and elsewhere. But four studies suggest that coal may not be nearly as abundant as once believed.

A 2007 National Academy of Sciences report concluded that claims of 250 years of coal reserves in the United States at current rates of consumption could not be supported. The number was more likely to be 100 years. However, it said that a comprehensive survey was necessary to determine a more accurate figure.

But if coal consumption were to grow beyond the current rate, then the 100 years of supply would quickly shrink as in the case of natural gas. And, data from EIA shows that the total heat content of coal mined in the United States has been declining since 1998 despite roughly level production. This means that coal grades are dropping and that the actual energy the United States gets from domestic coal peaked in that year.

A second study by David Rutledge at the California Institute of Technology concluded that worldwide reserves are probably half of those currently stated. Rutledge noted that unlike oil reserves, coal reserve estimates have been steadily dropping over time as unwarranted assumptions were stripped away and the focus was put on what is actually minable.

A third study in 2007 by an independent group of analysts in Germany, the Energy Watch Group, suggests a worldwide peak in the rate of coal production as early as 2025. The authors noted that poor quality data hampered their efforts. One of the troubling gaps was China, a country thought to have some of the largest coal resources in the world. Chinese coal data, however, have not been updated since 1992, and 20 percent of China's reserves have supposedly been mined since that date.

A fourth study published in the international journal Energy last year came to the shocking conclusion that the rate of worldwide coal production from existing fields would peak in 2011. The authors did acknowledge that vast coal fields in Alaska and Siberia remained to be developed, but doubted that these difficult-to-extract and therefore expensive reserves would be developed in time to forestall a decline. They also wrote that production from existing mines is expected to fall by 50 percent over the next 40 years.

The researchers explained that this has serious policy implications. One such implication was that money currently being spent on carbon capture and sequestration technology—a technology that assumes vast additional supplies of coal—would be better spent on outfitting existing coal-fired power stations with supercritical steam turbines, lifting efficiency from 35 percent to 50 percent. This would reduce the rate of greenhouse gas emissions while stretching out the available coal supplies so as to aid an energy transition.


No one knows the future. But making public policy based on industry hype could turn out to be disastrous. Keep in mind that it is the job of fossil fuel industry executives to make sure they can sell their in-ground inventories. And, of course, it's not their job to make good public policy. Our current energy policy, which I refer to as the Good-To-The-Last-Drop Policy, has already meant a huge windfall for oil producers and to a certain extent coal producers. And yet, both regale us with tales of plenty even as constrained supplies send prices skyward.

It is certainly possible that yet-to-be-invented technologies will extend the life of fossil fuel supplies. The question is whether such technologies can be deployed before overall rates of production for oil, natural gas and coal begin to decline. Modern industrial society depends for its proper functioning on the continuous input of high-grade energy resources. If those inputs start to decline or even fail to grow, the system will falter. Some believe we are already seeing the effects of constrained oil supplies on the economy as record high prices suppress economic activity and pressure an already fragile financial system.

It seems doubtful at this time that future technologies for exploiting fossil fuels will be able to do much beyond softening the inevitable declines. And, given the known trends and data, it seems foolish to wait for these yet-to-be-invented technologies to appear. That means that leapfrogging now past fossil fuels to renewable energy is not just desirable but probably inescapable. The only question is whether we as a society will do it with a focused plan for a rapid transition or whether the transition will be chaotic and marked by violent swings in the economy as the world lurches from one energy-induced crisis to another.

Kurt Cobb is a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen and author of the peak-oil-themed thriller Prelude. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

From Sierra Atlantic, a publication of the Atlantic chapter of the Sierra Club serving New York state. Permission is hereby granted to reprint this piece with attribution. A PDF version of this piece is available here.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

How you can tell that the peak oil debate is (almost) over

Protestations in the mainstream media that we need not worry about a peak in the rate of world oil production anytime soon are suddenly coming fast and furious. As a result, I was reminded both of Shakespeare and Gandhi.

"The media doth protest too much," I thought (with apologies to Queen Gertrude in Hamlet). As for Gandhi, a quote commonly attributed to him may shed light on where we are in the peak oil debate: "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win."

So, it appears that we are now in stage three of a four-stage process. This may not be so farfetched as it seems. I can remember when I first began writing regularly about peak oil in 2004. The main problem was that the media was simply ignoring the issue. It just didn't fit any category which the vast majority of reporters recognized.

That was followed by a period of ridicule from oil industry representatives, economists, and a few writers in the trade press, but almost no one in the mainstream media. "Pshaw, pshaw," they seemed to say in chorus, "no sensible person would take the idea of a near-term peak in world oil production seriously." (Never mind that these people mostly misunderstood the problem of peak oil as being one related to the size of the remaining resource rather than the rate of extraction.)

Now we have come to the point where there are open attacks in the mainstream media. Yes, there have been attacks before, mostly in the trade press and on specialized sites and blogs on the Internet. It was more internecine conflict within the industry, narrow professional circles, and the activist community. But that doesn't really count as a public brawl when your true audience is the mass of nonspecialists. Now, we have the equivalent of that with the publication of a major piece in Nature, a respected scientific journal, but one that mere mortals are able to read. The piece in question has the reactionary forces in full attack mode.

An op-ed in The National, an English-language publication in Abu Dhabi, set the bar very low when it comes to facts and logic. Bloomberg Businessweek emitted a piece entitled "Everything You Know About Peak Oil Is Wrong" on the same day the Nature piece appeared--almost as if the writer knew it was coming. The Bloomberg piece trots out mostly tired, irrelevant arguments and a few that are relevant but factually wrong. Gail Tverberg does a good job of critiquing this very sloppy piece. Chris Nelder at Smartplanet takes on the Bloomberg piece as well as a number of poorly argued responses to the Nature article.

But the latest counterattack actually began last fall with Daniel Yergin, the smooth-talking and smooth-writing oil optimist that peak oil activists love to hate. Yergin felt compelled to push back in The Wall Street Journal at peak oil ideas in the course of promoting his new book. Thanks, Mr. Yergin, for bringing up the subject.

Many readers will no doubt be acquainted with the saying: "There is no such thing as bad publicity." This corresponds perfectly with Gandhi's phase three of a struggle. The opposition is now forced by obvious circumstances--i.e., no increase in oil supplies despite years of record prices--to explain away something that peak oil theory explains perfectly.

It may be disheartening to see so much disinformation in the media spewed by people who ought to know better. But it is ever so delicious to contemplate the desperation hiding behind their fretful posturing and incantation. I can almost hear them say, "It can't be so, it can't be simply mustn't!" They seem to believe that if they say "Bakken, Brazil, offshore, tar sands, technology" enough times in a row, it will make $100-a-barrel oil go away. But that incantation will not make the data go away, and so we must keep pointing out that the trend remains flat despite all of those things.

Perhaps the surest sign that the peak oil message is now in fighting form is that the former president of Shell Oil, John Hofmeister, agreed to a debate last week with one of the foremost scientific voices in the peak oil camp. It may be that Hofmeister is just a good, fair-minded citizen who thinks the issue should be aired. But the fact that he chose to give his imprimatur to the notion that peak oil needs to be debated speaks volumes.

Rock-star investors such as T. Boone Pickens and Richard Rainwater have long since put their imprimatur on peak oil. Major banks such as Australia's Macquarie Bank and Germany's Deutsche Bank (PDF) are also embracing the near-term peak thesis. And, embarrassing government leaks like this recent one in Australia and this one from the British government last year demonstrate that behind the scenes government planners and politicians are gravely concerned.

Does that mean that peak oil activists have reached their goal of informing the public and policymakers about the risks and opportunities posed by peak oil? Of course not. This is where the hard work begins because the debate has now been elevated to the national and international stage. And, that means we can look forward to a continuous clash that is increasingly in the public eye.

Now is also the opportune time for a well-financed, coordinated communications strategy (which I proposed here in 2008) that can take advantage of a new media environment more open to the idea of resource constraints.

Far from being discouraged by the rash of peak oil denunciations in the media lately, I am invigorated by it. Remember: we're now on offense; they're on defense. The opposition has to explain why oil production has been flat since 2005 despite high prices. And, the twisted logic and demonstrably false assertions they offer will provide ever better opportunities to trump them again and again.

I have always maintained that when you are in a public dogfight in the media, if you are explaining, you are losing. The peak oil movement now needs to focus on planting doubt about the official cornucopian story. And, the best way to do that is continuously to poke holes in the arguments of the optimists, arguments that can be shown to be ridiculous by combining simple logic with the data that is publicly available.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Let George Clooney explain American foreign policy to you


In the film "Three Kings" George Clooney stars as Major Archie Gates, a special forces officer. We join him in Iraq right after the cease-fire in the first Gulf War in 1991. You'll recall that the United States deliberately decided NOT to proceed to Baghdad and depose the government of Saddam Hussein.

Gates stumbles onto a meeting of other servicemen who've recovered a map to a bunker containing stolen Kuwaiti gold taken by the Iraqis during the occupation. (Where exactly the men found the map I leave to you to find out by watching the film.)

Gates and the others hatch a plan to take the gold for themselves, a plan that is based on the premise that Iraqi soldiers won't touch Americans inside Iraqi lines because of the cease-fire. This turns out to be the case. And, it looks like the crew will make a clean getaway with the gold even as Iraqi soldiers look on. But then these American warriors witness some sickening brutality carried out against Iraqis who have participated in the uprising in southern Iraq which followed the cease-fire. Unable to stand by, the American soldiers move to defend these dissident Iraqis, and that's when the Americans' plan for enriching themselves goes awry. Exactly how it goes awry is the subject of much drama as well as intense comedy for the duration of the film.

When I first saw the film years ago, it occurred to me that it was one of the clearest explanations of American foreign policy I had ever seen. I am certain, however, that this was not the intention of the filmmaker. But let's see how the story illuminates our foreign policy.

During the time the film depicts America and its allies had just liberated Kuwait, driven into Iraq and stopped. President George H. W. Bush encouraged the Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Many Shi'ites, angry at decades of rule by Saddam and his minority Sunni supporters, did rise up expecting help from the Americans. None came. Instead, for a time the Iraqi army used helicopter gunships to massacre the dissidents until the so-called "No Fly Zone" was established by Coalition forces.

Not surprisingly, Americans had intervened in the conflict between Iraq and Kuwait with mixed motives. The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq was destabilizing and threatened to place even more oil under the rule of a volatile dictator who might not serve America's interests. Furthermore, it was not certain whether Iraq would stop its advance with Kuwait or continue into Saudi Arabia to capture even more oilfields.

The U.S. response had both humanitarian and realpolitik aspects. We wanted the flow of cheap oil to be unimpeded. But, when Saddam threatened to extend his control over not just Kuwait, but possibly Saudi Arabia, we acted in our own interests to make sure the oil flowed freely. In the bargain we gave Kuwait back to the Kuwaitis when we were done.

Americans and our political leaders are torn between the ideals we cherish--self-determination, individual liberty, and humanitarian concern for others seeking to achieve these--and the practical requirements of running a rich and populous consumer society now dependent on other countries for many of its critical resources. I would contend that it is this tension which underpins America's increasing ineffectiveness at achieving its foreign policy goals.

If one's objective is simply to get the goods one needs from others by subterfuge or violence, then the method is clear. Either a straightforward heist is what is needed or an arrangement of plunder aided by local elites sometimes referred to as a trade agreement. But if you are conflicted about these methods, then in the long run you will succeed well neither at the heist and plunder nor at spreading individual liberty and self-determination.

Perhaps the best example of this is the American role in the recent Arab Spring. On the one hand, U.S. foreign policy consisted of support for authoritarian regimes in order to maintain stability in the Middle East and therefore keep oil supplies flowing. On the other hand, we funded pro-democracy groups which helped prepare Arab peoples for the Arab Spring to come. Many will be surprised to find out that these groups received added support under the second President Bush.

We want stability in the Middle East to protect oil supplies. At the same time we worry that the autocratic regimes there won't be able to deliver that stability and that their oppression of their own peoples runs counter to our values. We want to help, but like George Clooney in "Three Kings" we always have one eye on the gold (or, in this case, the oil). Divided attention makes us less effective than we could be.

It has always been thus. Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase "Empire of Liberty" in the midst of the American Revolution. His idea was that an American Empire would dedicate itself to advancing freedom both at home and abroad. What he meant was that a new American nation would block British expansion on the continent and in doing so invite others to participate in the American experiment with liberty.

Though Jefferson's words have been used to justify military intervention in the name of spreading democracy, nothing would have horrified him more. The brutal, centralized apparatus of an imperial power exemplified by the Great Britain of his day was exactly what Jefferson sought to avoid. And, Jefferson would shudder to gaze upon the centralized power of the current federal government and its vast military apparatus which now sprawls the Earth with hundreds of foreign bases.

In 1898 America struggled with its newfound strength when it defeated Spain and occupied Cuba. Americans debated whether Cuba should be annexed or allowed to become independent. American forces had intervened to aid the Cuban independence movement. America would lose its moral standing if it turned out that we were only seeking territorial expansion. Opposing factions fought in the U.S. Congress over annexation. Of course, Cuba was granted independence. But the two strains in American foreign policy were clear to see.

The American interventions in World War I and World War II generally demonstrate American ideals at work in foreign policy though it is important to point out that the United States had substantial commercial interests at stake before and after the war.

Our recent withdrawal from Iraq and our continuing difficulties in Afghanistan show that our confused foreign policy is making us largely ineffective at achieving our aims, and this impotence is on display for all the world to see which only compounds our weakness.

Currently, the only presidential candidate claiming the mantle of Jefferson in foreign policy is Ron Paul. Whatever you may think of him, Paul is avowedly non-interventionist and thinks the American military should be recalled to American soil. He's fine with propagating American ideals abroad. However, this should only be done by peaceful means, both commercial and cultural. America has a right to defend itself. But any intercourse between nations should be between consenting adults, not at the point of a gun.

The British knew how to run an empire. Take the natives by surprise using superior firepower. Enlist local elites to help you subdue and run the place. And, above all, send a significant crew of Brits to live and work in the conquered territory. Learn the local languages and customs and endeavor to understand thoroughly those whom you've conquered.

The British adventure in Asia and Africa is the stuff of novels and films, romantic and exotic. But, Americans never truly went in for living among the natives and staying for the long term. The American way has almost always been to look for quick money and then move on.

That's why the British were so very good at building and running an empire. And, that's why Americans will never be very good at it. We are a restless people, constantly agitating to find better surroundings; impatient with foreigners and their ways; and naively devoted to ideals that we practice only half-heartedly at home.

We could focus merely on commercial ties with other countries, leaving their internal politics alone. But our restlessness makes us want to intervene for conflicted reasons of gain and the propagation of our presumed ideals. It's why a Hollywood filmmaker could create a film like "Three Kings" with George Clooney wandering the Iraqi desert looking for gold while at the same time feeling he ought to do something for the wretched, frightened people he finds along the way. And, it is why so many of us watch to see what he does, measuring ourselves against the shifting standard his character Archie Gates represents.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Copyright 1999

Sunday, February 05, 2012

That falling feeling: Shale gas estimates continue downward

Estimates for recoverable shale gas just keep falling. Last year, the Potential Gas Committee, an industry consortium that focuses on long-term projections, estimated that recoverable natural gas from shale deposits in the United States would amount to 687 trillion cubic feet (tcf). (This optimistic appraisal laid the groundwork for the oft-repeated notion that the United States has 100 years of natural gas supply at current rates of consumption. The estimate was also based on so-called "speculative resources" of another 615 tcf.)

But, in its early release of the Annual Energy Outlook for 2012, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) cut its estimate of technically recoverable resources of U.S. shale gas from 827 tcf to 482 tcf. (That says little about whether all those resources will be economically recoverable.) Much of the decline in the EIA estimate comes from a downgrading of the Marcellus Shale, by far the largest of the U.S. shale gas deposits spanning vast areas of New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia as well as sections of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. The downgrade resulted from extensive drilling results now available as the rush to extract gas from the Marcellus Shale accelerates. The EIA cut its estimated technically recoverable resources from 410 tcf to 141 tcf. This estimate remains well in excess of last year's estimate from the U.S. Geological Survey which put those resources at 84 tcf.

Despite the revisions, the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and gas industry's trade lobby, finds the 100-year figure so irresistibly round that API resists reducing it to match the official estimates in its recent ad campaign (see "One Million Jobs"). Why let the facts get in the way of good ad copy?

What ought to be acutely troubling is that the history of revisions to oil and gas resources has heretofore been one of increases. For the first time, we are now seeing not just downward revisions in estimated natural gas resources, but drastic downward revisions. That should tell us that the era of unlimited horizons for fossil fuels has come to a close. All the advanced technology that was supposed to bring unending plenty in the form of fossil fuels is now giving us better estimates of what will be available, namely, not nearly so much as we thought.

Meanwhile, in other areas of the world the hype surrounding shale gas is also being deflated. Exxon Mobil Corp. recently announced that two exploratory wells that it drilled in Poland--a country thought to be rich in shale gas--were duds. The company had already abandoned a $75 million investment in Hungary in 2009 after drilling in so-called tight sands yielded more water than gas.

Shale gas drilling in Europe is now revealing what was earlier revealed in the United States. The industry's so-called "manufacturing model"--the idea that one could sink a well virtually anywhere in a shale gas deposit and get economically viable flows--is being discredited all over again. Former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once said, "All politics is local." It turns out that all shale gas drilling is local as well. Shale gas fields have sweet spots worth exploiting, but also contain vast areas that will likely never be economical to produce.

As the news about future supply becomes more downbeat, the hype from industry-friendly media only seems to increase. Take climate change denier Patrick J. Michaels of the Cato Institute who recently wrote in The Washington Times: "The discovery of hundreds of years of natural gas in worldwide shale deposits guarantees that solar and wind will never produce much of the world’s power."

As new wells in the world's shale gas fields continue to disappoint, prepare for even more outrageous claims about future natural gas supplies--measured perhaps not in centuries, but millennia--and designed to obscure the failure of shale gas exploration results to match the industry's persistently optimistic forecasts.