Yes, Unconventional Fossil Fuels Are That Big of a Deal

And the evidence is solid that they are well on their way to changing the world's energy choices.

Bakken shale (Reuters).

I was surprised by Chris Nelder's comments about my article. Much of what he writes mischaracterizes my argument and some of it makes no sense at all.

He begins by observing, correctly, that the ultimate use of methane hydrate, like any natural resource, will depend on whether it can be produced at a reasonable price--something my article points out more than once. He then goes on to say:

If Mann's data on methane hydrates is correct, then Japan's experiment so far has taken 10 years and $700 million to produce 4 million cubic feet of gas, which is worth about $16,000 at today's U.S. gas prices, or about $50,000 at today's prices for imported LNG in Japan. At this point, it is an enormously expensive experimental pilot project, and nothing more.

Nelder is correct: the Japanese methane hydrate project is an "enormously expensive experimental pilot project." Indeed, I described it as such in my article. When engineers develop a new technology, they spend lots of money at the beginning and for a while get very little in the way of commercial return. To object that Japan has only produced 4 million cubic feet of gas for $700 million is like arguing halfway through Edison's development of the electric light that he was getting very little illumination for the millions he had spent on research. The statement is true, but not his implication.

A debate on the future of energy Read more

Nelder then goes on to cite many projections that renewables will come down in cost. One of them is a recent Citigroup report. Unfortunately, Nelder links only to news coverage of the report, not the report. The report itself compares only the cost of "producing a unit of electricity" with gas and home solar (p. 42, my italics). Unfortunately, the home-solar figure does not include the cost of storing electricity for night and cloudy days, which engineers regard as a necessary part of the transition to renewables. (This is a cost with which I have personal experience. When my family built a new house last year, we installed a large and, for us, expensive photovoltaic array. But we could not go off the grid, as we had hoped, because we could not afford the costly batteries needed to store the power we generated during the day for use at night.)

Similarly, the Stanford researchers Nelder cites also compare "the generating cost of power from solar PV ... to the retail electricity prices that commercial users pay" (my italics). Again, this calculation, useful as it is, does not include storage costs. Equally important, the Stanford researchers note upfront that their conclusions about the economic viability of solar installations assume that each installation is in "an ideal geographic location." Not a single place on the Eastern Seaboard constitutes such an ideal location. As Nelder must know, in our current electrical grid there is no way for power from places like the southwest, with plenty of sun, to flow to places like the northeast, which lack sun, because the grid is, for historical reasons, divided into three independent fiefdoms that are unable to send power to each other. The grid can and should be reconfigured, but this, too, is part of the cost of the transition to renewables. (Those who are curious about this sort of thing can learn a lot from Maggie Koerth-Baker's Before the Lights Go Out, a fine primer about why one should take glib statements about the grid with a grain of salt.)

Nelder's third source, about solar costs in Asia, refers to an off-hand claim in a blog post rather than an actual study with carefully collected data. But again, the blog post refers only to the cost of power generation--an important factor, but not the only one.

Next Nelder points to EIA statistics about domestic production of "tight oil", the kind of oil from fracking, and argues that "one cannot easily make a case for incipient U.S. 'energy independence' on the basis of 1 mb/d of new tight oil production."

Happily, nobody is doing this. The basic argument is that although domestic oil production will rise, the more important phenomenon is the increase in domestic natural gas production, and that much of the petroleum imported today can be substituted for by domestic natural gas. This last is already happening, as I describe in my article. Not only are utilities switching from coal and oil to gas, but also trucking, schoolbuses, garbage trucks and even taxi fleets. In the northeast, the last bastion of the heating-oil industry, homeowners are converting their furnaces to gas. The incentives are strong: in terms of gasoline, natural gas now costs the equivalent of $2.10/gallon. (Michael Levi's just-published book, Power Surge, further discusses this switch, and how to accelerate it.)

In contrasting fracking (by which I mean the combination of horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing) with the technology for extracting methane hydrate, Nelder claims that the methods of the former are "not new technologies," whereas the latter are novel and unproven. This is ridiculous. First, until recently fracking was considered novel and unproven. Even in the late 1990s, as oil analyst Daniel Yergin pointed out in The Quest, the oil and gas in the Barnett Shale, the nation's most important shale deposit, "was so much off the radar screen that when people did forecasts of future natural gas supplies, the Barnett did not even show up" (p. 329). True, as Nelder says, bits and pieces of fracking technology trace back to the 1940s. But it took decades of slow, piecemeal research by government and industry to make fracking commercially viable. The first commercially successful hydraulic fracturing/horizontal drilling did not occur until 2003 and 2004.

Contrary to Nelder's assertion, methane hydrate technology is being developed in much the same way. The earliest, experimental efforts to mine methane hydrate date back to the late 1970s. Since the 1990s the United States has been running a series of methodical tests near the Arctic Circle. Japan has been working in the Nankai Trough for 15 years. Part of the technology involves horizontal drilling, which Nelder seems to approve of; the U.S. and Japan are trying to build on it. Whether their efforts will be as successful as fracking cannot be known in advance, but as USGS researchers themselves say, they are hoping to replicate its success--my point in the article.

Nelder then goes on to mischaracterize my discussion of peak oil. He criticizes my shorthand references to "Hubbertians" and "McKelveyans," apparently preferring to describe the former as people who "recognize the importance of fossil fuels while being deeply concerned about their future." But when I described the people who "recognize the importance of fossil fuels while being deeply concerned about their future," I was not trying to "refute their data," as Nelder claims. Indeed, I pointed out that the people who "recognize the importance of fossil fuels while being deeply concerned about their future" have apparently been proven correct. "Production of conventional oil has indeed plateaued, as Hubbertians warned," I wrote. "OPEC's output has remained roughly flat since 2005."

But I also noted that the great majority of the research by people who "recognize the importance of fossil fuels while being deeply concerned about their future" is about conventional oil, not the unconventional gas and oil that are the focus of my article.

Consider the experts touted by Nelder. His first example is Jeremy Leggett, founder of the solar-power company SolarCentury and a climate-change activist. Leggett's blog, The Triple Crunch Log, is admirable. But be serious: Leggett has published no "serious and highly transparent research" on petroleum of the sort Nelder describes since his 2008 study, "The Oil Crunch," which describes shale oil as too expensive to produce (p. 9). (Evidently Leggett, too, was unaware that fracking was a long-standing, proven technology.) Similarly, "The Oil Crunch" describes oil from tar sands as impossible to produce (p. 21), a claim which has also been demonstrated to be incorrect. The study does not mention shale gas at all, although its general view of the potential for unconventional petroleum is far more optimistic than Nelder seems to think.

According to Bloomberg News, Olivier Rech--Nelder's second source--is now a co-founder, with a former Bear Stears executive, of an investment fund, LFP EFA Vision Petrole, that "buy[s] assets they believe will increase in value as oil prices rise." As a rule, one should be careful of relying for information on people who run Wall Street-type funds. In any case, Rech, too, has published (so far as I can discover) no "serious and highly transparent research" on shale gas or oil since leaving IEA, although he has given press interviews and written blog posts. Kjell Aleklett, who did not respond to several requests from me for interviews and information, published Peeking at Peak Oil in 2012. Although it is a "serious and highly transparent" volume, Peeking concentrates almost exclusively on conventional oil, which means that it contains next to no discussion of natural gas (the book mentions shale gas just twice, in asides). Finally, the latest available research from Chris Skrebowski's website is the same "Oil Crunch" report discussed above.

There are serious worries about unconventional gas and oil, especially those concerning the environment. But the people cited by Nelder have not researched them, with the sole exception of J. David Hughes of the Post-Carbon Institute, whose "Drill, Baby, Drill" report Nelder says, incorrectly, that I "deride." On the contrary, Hughes's report is a serious piece of work which raises what I believe to be legitimate questions, many of them about the shaky finances of the shale-oil and -gas industry.

I did not treat Hughes's report at length because fracking was only a secondary topic in my article. In my view, for what it's worth, the problems caused by the helter-skelter finances of the shale-gas industry are likely to be washed out by the sheer volume of accessible shale gas and oil. On April 30, after my article came out, the U.S. Geological Survey issued new estimates of the "technically recoverable" gas and oil in the Bakken and Three Forks Formations in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. Roughly speaking, the government now estimates there is twice as much oil and three times as much gas as previously thought--hardly an argument for scarcity.

I have criticized Nelder at such length not only because I think the evidence is against him, but also because in my view the belief that the world will soon run out of oil is harmful to the effort of mitigating climate change--an effort I presume Nelder supports. Reassured by people like Nelder, too many well-meaning people believe the world soon will be forced away from petroleum and into renewables. The lesson of both the recent emergence of fracking and the potential development of methane hydrate is that affordable petroleum will be available for a long time to come.

Presented by

Charles C. Mann, an Atlantic contributing editor, has been writing for the magazine since 1984. His recent books include 1491, based on his March 2002 cover story, and 1493.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin


Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.


How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.


A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple


What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

More in Technology

Just In